Fair Or Not, Getting Kids To Eat Their Vegetables

Pediatric nutritionist Dr. Deb Kennedy, author of The Picky Eating Solution, talks with NPR's Eric Westervelt about catering to kids who put up fights at the dinner table.

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ERIC WESTERVELT, HOST:

Here at ALL THINGS CONSIDERED we've created a place to talk kids and everything to do with being a parent. Pull up a chair, let's sit at the kid's table.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN)

WESTERVELT: Today we're going to talk about what ends up on a kid's plate and what happens when a child refuses to eat it. Dr. Deb Kennedy is a pediatric nutritionist and author of "The Picky Eating Solution." Deb, welcome to the program.

DR. DEB KENNEDY: Thank you for having me.

WESTERVELT: So I got to start by playing a little bit of a conversation I had the other day with my daughter Olivia about vegetables. She's 4 years old.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONVERSATION WITH CHILD)

WESTERVELT: Why don't you like vegetables? Can you tell me why?

OLIVIA WESTERVELT: Because it's just not fair to have vegetables. I will never have them again.

WESTERVELT: It's not fair.

WESTERVELT: OK. Goodbye. Hello, goodbye.

WESTERVELT: Yeah, so in case you missed that, Dr. Kennedy, it's a matter of fairness with vegetables. And I try to get her to eat vegetables but unless it's got a lot of cheddar cheese on it, it's a battle.

KENNEDY: All right. Olivia, is it fair? It's not fair. And neither is when you're going to have to go to school and do your homework or go to bed on time. But it's your dad's job to make sure you grow up big and healthy. So fair or not you have to eat your vegetables.

WESTERVELT: She might listen to you. I'm going to try it. So Dr. Deb, one school of thought says parents should take a big of a hands-off approach, that it's the parent's responsibility to decide, you know, what's served and where. But it's the child's responsibility to decide whether to eat and how much. But you take a very different approach.

KENNEDY: I do. And I have to say that that theory has been around since the 1980s and it really worked back in the day when most of our options were healthy options. But once our kids understand the really tasty world where there's processed foods and gummy bears and all that, that no longer works. If you give them the choice they will always run down junk food alley as fast as they can go. And it's hard to catch up to them.

They have to learn to like new food. Kids don't come in necessarily liking broccoli. I guarantee you Olivia will learn to like her broccoli over time.

WESTERVELT: So you have two boys, yes?

KENNEDY: Yes, I do, a 5-year-old and a 12-year-old.

WESTERVELT: I mean, do you use some of your techniques at your own dinner table?

KENNEDY: Oh, absolutely. You become a coach. So that means you're not too strict, but you're not too lenient. And what I encourage parents to do is to do what you already know works for your kids. They don't leave their personalities when they come down to sit at the table. So for my two kids, the older one, I can be very lenient with him because he does what I say.

Now the 5-year-old's a different story. That's why I have my gray hair. He is a struggle at the table and he's one where if I don't say, you need to eat this in order to get that, he would never eat a vegetable in his entire life. But they need to learn, just like any other behavior over time. So it's like balance and you know how to do it because you get your kids to bed on time, you get them to go to school. I'm just saying, you have permission to do it at the kitchen table too.

WESTERVELT: So I often try the you-need-to-just-try-it-if-you-want-to-get-dessert approach. Wrong approach, you think?

KENNEDY: No, absolutely right approach. You know, it takes 12 exposures for some and for others if you have a child that doesn't like new things, he might take up to 15, 20 tries to learn to like a new food.

WESTERVELT: So 12 tries, I mean, that takes a lot of patience and a lot of work. Some parents, including myself, might be, OK, time to move on. She just doesn't like broccoli rabe.

KENNEDY: You know, I tell parents and kids that on a scale of zero to 10, zero, the foods that, you know, you kind of gag, you know, when you try it. You leave those foods alone and you go towards the ones that are in the middle where you can learn to like a new food. So you do need to stick with it, like you do with every other behavior that you teach your child.

I call it stranger danger, right. So you're not going to expect your child to go up to someone new and just jump into the car and go off with them. The same happens with broccoli. When you see it for the first time, it's pretty scary. It looks like this mini tree. So I let kids play with it, you know, smell it, touch it.

WESTERVELT: Play with your food, that's hard for me as a parent sometimes to let my daughter do. I want to snip that in the bud, but you're saying, let her go for it.

KENNEDY: She's learning to know that food. And it's more than just taste.

WESTERVELT: Broccoli rabe, eggplant, Dr. Deb Kennedy is a pediatric nutritionist and author of "The Picky Eating Solution." Thanks for joining us.

KENNEDY: Thank you.

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