How to Avoid Teaching Your Kids to Hate Vegetables

I am reposting this here after it went viral on a website I contribute to. I cannot claim credit for this method; it stems from a parenting book by T. Berry Brazelton, but I can tell you it works–and what my parents did didn’t, though it veered at times into authoritarian abuse.

Here is what I did, from the time my children started on solid food:

  • Present to the child a meal of roughly two child-sized bites of each item on today’s menu. Two bites of each item, no more, no less. No special treatment for traditional “entrees,” sides, or desserts. Do not serve with an adult sized glass of whole milk (as my mother did) because that’s an entire meal to a child.
  • Make and enforce a rule that each child can get seconds of any item once they have eaten what was was initially served. Use the phrase “try what you have,” not “clean your plate.”
  • Do not under any circumstance try to force a child to eat either manually or by forcing them to sit in front of a plate till it’s been cleaned. The goal is not to domineer, but to instill a healthy relationship with food. They will not starve, trust me, and trying to force them to eat something they don’t want to eat will A) fail, B) likely teach them contempt for your authoritarianism, and C) possibly devolve into an assault they will remember with simmering hatred long after you are gone, just sayin’. Don’t go there.
  • If they don’t comply, they don’t get seconds. Sorry, that’s the rule. We can’t be wasting food.
  • If they don’t comply, whatever they didn’t eat just becomes part of the next meal, at least as long as it’ll keep in the refrigerator. Sorry, that’s the rule. We can’t be wasting food. Also it will soon be back on the menu.
  • Under no circumstance is any specific food offered as a reward. In particular—and this bears special emphasis because it’s where most families go horribly wrong—under no circumstance is any sweet or dessert offered as an inducement. If you are serving dessert, serve two bites of it alongside everything else. It’s part of the meal.
  • Children are allowed to request uncooked vegetables or small amounts of ranch dressing to make vegetables more appealing, but they are not allowed to pick them out or demand a special menu. We all eat together.
  • Parents must follow the rules too, and under no circumstance should any adult be allowed to share their negative opinion of any food. If you don’t like broccoli either, keep it to yourself. If Uncle Buck makes nasty faces while eating green beans, either learn to cook them properly or stop having Uncle Buck to dinner, as appropriate.
  • Children will very quickly realize that under this system, the smart thing to do is eat whatever they like the least first, then they can eat what they like most, and have as much of it as they want. Those are the rules. This outlook will come in handy for the rest of their time on Earth.
  • When you follow this system, your children will grow up listening to their bodies’ nutritional needs without the varnish of your own terrible food preferences and habits. You will at some point have to say, “Yes, you can have more green beans, dear, just as soon as you eat the other bite of pie.” Be prepared. It is acceptable to flee the room in suppressed laughter.
  • When introducing new foods and seeing them scorned, just keep on introducing them. If that new side didn’t get a good reception on the first four attempts, it might on the next four, or the next after that. Children often have to try a new food a dozen times or more before giving it a fair shake. That’s normal.
  • Young children are initially served only a total of two bites. As they get older, this eventually grows to four, six, and eight, but never more than two bites of each item.
  • Be firm, but don’t be a hard ass. We used a “cotton ball jar” to record any notable episodes of good behavior or achievements, with the reward that whenever the jar was filled, the kids could choose a family activity (from a list of things we wanted to do anyhow). Occasionally, once the feeding system was well-entrenched, we would drop the “two bites first” rule to “just try one bite” or offer a cotton ball for that try. Do not squash the cotton balls—ever.

It works, believe me, and it teaches a ton of skills every child needs to be a successful adult, and it doesn’t teach kids to crave sweets—which I know this will come as a surprise to most of my fellow Americans, but that is not something they are born with, it’s something we were wrongly taught.

We used exactly this system, adapted from the recommendations of T. Berry Brazelton, with smashing results. I did in fact have to flee the room to stop from laughing when my eldest wanted green beans instead of pie. By the time my youngest was in middle school, she was asking for sushi and they were both eating Thai and Indian and Turkish and Greek on a regular basis, and competing to see who could choose the most balanced meal from the buffet.

Today, both my daughters are in college and are athletic and healthy. My youngest is a vegan who prefers fruit tarts instead of birthday cake. My eldest loves Thai curries and Korean bulgogi, but I make her keep the Oreos in her room where they’ll last for two weeks instead of in the kitchen where I’d go through them in a couple of days.

The unhealthy relationships so many Americans have with food, we were taught. We don’t have to pass them on.