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How to get your child to eat vegetables without forcing, bribing or tricking

The bottom line: A child's health is not singularly defined by how many servings of veggies they eat.

How to get your child to eat vegetables without forcing, bribing or tricking

It seems like age-old wisdom saying "Eat your vegetables," but what do you when your child really doesn't like eating vegetables? If veggies feel like a source of conflict at the dinner table or you're worried about your child's health, you're not alone, mama.

Most importantly, you are not failing as a mama if your child isn't eating their vegetables.

Kids and vegetables can be a tricky combination. As mothers, we inherently believe that our children will be better off and healthier if we can just get them to eat their veggies. However, they can be really difficult for kids to eat and enjoy.

Why vegetables can be hard for kids to eat

Many kids may be reluctant to eat vegetables, no matter how they are probed, pushed or bribed. Eating veggies can feel like a chore for your child, and getting your kid to try "just one bite" of any veggies on their plate can feel like a nightmare for you.

It may be helpful to know that we are born with preferences for sweeter tastes. If you think about it, a baby's first food is breast milk, which has naturally occurring sugars, including lactose.

Vegetables can be more difficult for children to get accustomed to, as they tend to have more bitter, sour and complex flavors. Children are learning to eat different foods and getting familiar with eating vegetables is no different than developing a new skill, like riding a bike. It takes practice in a low-pressure environment, patience and nurturing.

Do kids really need veggies to be healthy?

So what is the big deal with vegetables anyway? Why the overemphasis on getting a child to eat vegetables? This is something that is commonly lectured by healthcare professionals to well-meaning family members, but the truth is your child can get the nutrition they need to grow and thrive without hyper-focusing on vegetables alone.

Vegetables and fruits have similar nutrient profiles so your child is more likely to get the nutrition they need by having access to a variety of different foods.

The bottom line: A child's health is not singularly defined by how many servings of veggies they eat.

There are many other components that influence their health status, including:

  • Access to a variety of foods
  • Adequate healthcare
  • Regular time to play
  • Emotional nurturing, and more

While vegetables can provide important nutrients to a growing child, stressing about whether your child's food intake is adequate or not will only make eating harder for you both.

The good news is that you can you help your child actually enjoy them. (And It doesn't involve any forcing, bribing, tricking or figuring out how to sneak in veggies into your child's food).

7 tips for helping kids enjoy veggies

1. Make them taste delicious

Vegetables don't have to be boring or flavorless. If your child is struggling with eating them, take a different approach to how you serve and prepare them.

Don't be afraid to add seasonings, herbs and spices. Sautee with real butter or cook them with bacon or pancetta.

Make a yummy salad with some added toppings, like dried fruit and nuts. Serve your child something that tastes good to you and that you would also enjoy.

2. Pair with familiar foods

Serving veggies alongside foods that your child is familiar and comfortable with will make them more likely to try them. Having too many foods that are new or unfamiliar can be intimidating for a child.

When planning out meals for your family, keep this in mind: a neutral food component along with something that might be a little harder to eat, like a vegetable, can make it easier for your child.

3. Keep the pressure low

The more a child is pushed to do something, the less likely they will want to do it. This is where you have full permission to stop bribing, coercing or negotiating with your child when it comes to eating.

Remember: Parents provide, child decides. It's your job to determine what food is served. It's your child's job to decide whether or not they want to eat what you have served and how much.

If eating vegetables is a non-issue, your child will feel more relaxed to try different foods that are served. Pressuring a child to eat certain foods can actually cause them to dislike those foods.

4. Don’t give positive or negative reinforcement

Many parents feel obligated to reward or punish a child based on their vegetable intake, but this can be counterproductive. For example, telling a child:

  • "You won't get any dessert tonight if you don't take a least one bite of your broccoli." (Negative reinforcement)
  • "Good job eating all your vegetables! Now you can have dessert." (Positive reinforcement)

These feeding strategies can actually teach a child that they cannot trust their own bodies to guide their food decisions or that certain foods have to be earned. This makes food more chaotic for a child and sets the stage for problematic eating behaviors down the road.

5. Keep trying and reintroducing

We've all heard the saying, "If at first, you don't succeed, try, try, try again." This absolutely applies to kids and vegetables. As parents, it's easy to give up all hopes of our child trying and liking a certain food when we see them reject it time and time again. So we give up and we stop trying. However, it may take a child repeated exposure to that food to promote food acceptance.

Research has shown that a child needs as many as 8-15 exposures to a particular food before they might gain acceptance of that food, but many parents are likely to give up trying at the earliest signs of rejection.

Bottom line: Keep trying to introduce new foods, like vegetables, in a low-pressure environment to help increase acceptance and consumption.

6. Involve your kids in the kitchen

Research has also found that hands-on approaches, such as cooking and gardening, may encourage greater vegetable consumption in children. When a child is allowed to be part of the planning and the preparation and can see how a food is grown and/or prepared, this may positively support their own eating behaviors. Give your child the opportunity to help prepare veggies and let them play a part in the kitchen.

7. Lead by example

Ultimately, children learn by example, and in order to raise a child to eat well, you may have to work on your own eating habits. In a compassionate and gentle way, take an honest look at how you eat and your own relationship with food.

Do you enjoy a variety of foods? Do you trust yourself when it comes to your own health and your body? If you're feeling stuck with your own approach to food and health, it is critical to get the help you need for yourself first.

Don't let vegetables become a battleground. If you need help raising a healthy eater, connect with the support you need. You've got this mama, and you don't have to do this alone.

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You will always be their safe space, mama

You are their haven. Their harbor. Their sanctuary, their peace. You are comfort. Deep breaths. Hugs and back rubs. You're a resting place, a nightmare chaser, a healer. You are the calm within their storm. You are their mother.

To your child, you are safety. You are security. You are where (out of anyone or any place), they can come undone. Where they can let it all out, let it all go. Where they meltdown, break down, scream, cry, push.

Where they can say—"I AM NOT OKAY!"

Where they can totally lose it. Without judgment or fear or shame.

Because they know you'll listen. They know you'll hear them. That you will help piece the mess back together.

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Tips parents need to know about poor air quality and caring for kids with asthma

There are steps parents can take to keep their children as healthy as possible.

When wildfires struck the West Coast in September 2020, there was a lot for parents to worry about. For parents of children with asthma, though, the danger could be even greater. "There are more than 400 toxins that are present in wildfire smoke. That can activate the immune system in ways that aren't helpful by both causing an inflammatory response and distracting the immune system from fighting infection," says Amy Oro, MD, a pediatrician at Stanford Children's Health. "When smoke enters into the lungs, it causes irritation and muscle spasms of the smooth muscle that is around the small breathing tubes in the lungs. This can lead to difficulty with breathing and wheezing. It's really difficult on the lungs."

With the added concern of COVID-19 and the effect it can have on breathing, many parents feel unsure about how to keep their children protected. The good news is that there are steps parents can take to keep their children as healthy as possible.

Here are tips parents need to know about how to deal with poor air quality when your child has asthma.

Minimize smoke exposure.

Especially when the air quality index reaches dangerous levels, it's best to stay indoors as much as possible. You can find out your area's AQI at AirNow.gov. An under 50 rating is the safest, but between 100-150 is considered unhealthy for sensitive groups, such as children with asthma. "If you're being told to stay indoors, listen. If you can, keep the windows and doors closed," Oro says.

Do your best to filter the air.

According to Oro, a HEPA filter is your best bet to effectively clean pollutants from the air. Many homes are equipped with a built-in HEPA filter in their air conditioning systems, but you can also get a canister filter. Oro says her family (her husband and children all suffer from asthma) also made use of a hack from the New York Times and built their own filter by duct taping a HEPA furnace filter to the front of a box fan. "It was pretty disgusting what we accumulated in the first 20 hours in our fan," she says.

Avoid letting your child play outside or overly exert themselves in open air.

"Unfortunately, cloth masks don't do very much [to protect you from the smoke pollution]," Oro says. "You really need an N95 mask, and most of those have been allocated toward essential workers." To keep at-risk children safer, Oro recommends avoiding brisk exercise outdoors. Instead, set up an indoor obstacle course or challenge your family to jumping jacks periodically to keep everyone moving safely.

Know the difference between smoke exposure and COVID-19.

"COVID-19 can have a lot of the same symptoms—dry cough, sore throat, shortness of breath and chest pain could overlap. But what COVID and other viruses generally cause are fever, chills, vomiting, diarrhea and body aches. Those would tell you it's not just smoke exposure," Oro says. When a child has been exposed to smoke, they often complain of a "scrape" in their throat, burning eyes, cough, shortness of breath, chest pain or wheezing. If the child has asthma, parents should watch for a flare of symptoms, such as coughing, wheezing or a tight sensation in their chest.

Unfortunately, not much is known about long-term exposure to wildfire smoke on a healthy or compromised immune system, but elevated levels of air pollution have been associated with increased COVID-19 rates. That's because whenever there's an issue with your immune system, it distracts your immune system from fighting infections and you have a harder time fighting off viruses. Limiting your exposure to wildfire smoke is your best bet to keep immune systems strong.

Have a plan in place if you think your child is suffering from smoke exposure.

Whatever type of medication your child takes for asthma, make sure you have it on-hand and that your child is keeping up with regular doses. Contact your child's pediatrician, especially if your area has a hazardous air quality—they may want to adjust your child's medication schedule or dosage to prevent an attack. Oro also recommends that, if your child has asthma, it might be helpful to have a stethoscope or even a pulse oximeter at home to help diagnose issues with your pediatrician through telehealth.

Most importantly, don't panic.

In some cases, social distancing and distance learning due to COVID may be helping to keep sensitive groups like children with asthma safer. Oro says wildfires in past years have generally resulted in more ER visits for children, but the most recent fires haven't seen the same results. "A lot of what we've seen is that the smoke really adversely affects adults, especially older adults over 65," Oro says. "Children tend to be really resilient."

This article was sponsored by Stanford Children's Health. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Motherly and mamas.

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