Confession time: my wife and I are ridiculous parents who gave our two year old a ‘cake’ of steamed broccoli for her 2nd birthday (Pictured). We even lit candles in it!Whew! That feels good to admit and put it out in the open. Anyways, yes, we gave our daughter a birthday cake of broccoli and the following story is why. While this is a topic I tend to shy away from on my blog, I get countless requests to share my secrets when friends, family, and strangers watch my two-year old start pounding vegetables like some kind of mutant and insatiable rabbit. Eliza guzzles raw peppers, brussel sprouts, asparagus, zucchini, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, onions, peas, sweet potatoes, and green beans all with gusto (among several other veggies). Some people want to know how it’s done and others just want to laugh at me. Both options are acceptable, but I’m going to move forward with this post as if you’re one of the ones interested in how it’s possible for a toddler to love vegetables.
I mentioned that I don’t love sharing about our daughter’s diet via the blog; people on the internet tend to get a little crazy about diets, so I generally shy away from sharing about Eliza because she does eat quite bizarrely. I do my best to avoid being one of the preachy healthy meme parents on the internet, so proceed with the knowledge that I am not recommending this approach for everyone and I will gladly bless however you choose to feed your child (as long as you actually feed your child 🙂 ). So here are the six strategies my wife and I employ that have turned Eliza into a veggie-munching maniac.
STRATEGY 1 – There is no such thing as kid’s food in our house.
This isn’t necessarily a direct action to take, but it is the foundation for how we approach feeding Eliza. While she did go through a soft foods phase during weaning, we transitioned her quickly into traditional adult foods. By the time she reached 18 months, she was sitting at the dinner table eating the exact same foods my wife and I were eating. Here’s a dirty little secret for you: there is no such thing as kid’s food. An entire industry was launched and marketed with no basis in reality. 100 years ago kids were either breast-feeding or eating real food. Now Gerber and Kellogg and whoever else has foods for 6 months, 9 months, 12 months, 24 months, etc. Eliza doesn’t need mashed vegetable paste if she has teeth and the ability to chew. So our household motto is that if it’s good enough for daddy to eat, it’s good enough for the toddler.
STRATEGY 2 – We don’t do sugar. At all. Like ever.
This is quite the hot button topic in the health world right now, but my wife and I made a conscious decision before Eliza was born that we wouldn’t do any added sugars. She is now at 2.5 years and has yet to eat added sugar. We are, however, realistic about this and understand that we can only keep sweets from her for so long (classmates, parties, etc.) but we’ve found it worth it to put off those moments for as long as possible. Let me quickly define what I mean when I say sugar, for context: I realize this sounds extreme but Eliza has never had sweets (cake, candy, ice cream, cookies, etc.), she’s never had bread or grain products (added sugars and maltose), no chips/crackers/snacks with added sugars, no milk or dairy (galactose), and we even keep her fruit somewhat limited (1 serving per day, usually blueberries). I warned you we were strange, right?
Anyway, my non-scientific working theory is that the lack of sugar and sweets in her diet means that blander items (hellooooo vegetables) are much more palatable. I imagine it would be much more difficult to feed her broccoli if she knows what an Oreo tastes like and that there’s a bag of them 6 feet away. Anecdotally, I also find that a lack of sugar keeps her energy levels consistent throughout the day. She’s still an ornery monster immersed in her terrible two’s, but her mood and energy stays incredibly level without the sweet stuff.
STRATEGY 3 – Snacks are overrated
I know this is heresy when it comes to raising children, but we actually do not encourage much snacking in our household. Does she ever snack? Absolutely. Are there hectic days of errands with multiple snacks? You bet. Have I ever used a snack to bribe her into good behavior in public? Guilty as charged. However, we do tend to avoid snacks on a regimented basis. When Eliza went to her first daycare, this was her eating schedule: Breakfast 7:00 am, Second Breakfast 8:30 am, Lunch 11:00 am, Snack 3:00 pm, Dinner 5:30 pm, Snack 7:30 pm. That is 6 meals and also completely insane. It affected her appetite and her moods, so we eventually dialed it back.
Snacking is not like sugar where it is always a black and white decision. Some days she snacks while most days she only snacks once or not at all. Removing the constant calorie surges means she’s not distracted by impending food all day and leaves her a great appetite for meal times. And, just to clarify, we never prevent her from eating as much as she wants during meals. Even if dinner is all done, she can continue eating as long as she feels hunger.
STRATEGY 4 – Don’t force it.
This one is very difficult for parents, myself included, to embrace. Every time my daughter refuses to eat something I prepared, I want to go full toddler and kick and scream all over the floor. When I say don’t force it, it means that we do not battle Eliza when she refuses a food. We might give her an extra prod or two or let it sit on her plate for a few extra minutes, but we never punish her for refusing food. When we keep things consistent with her diet, we just have to trust that she’ll come around. Eliza inhaled steamed broccoli like a zombie on brains for a good 4-5 months and then, all of the sudden, refused to look at broccoli. After 3 months without a single bite of broccoli, she jumped back on the wagon and is currently eating oven-roasted broccoli 3-4 times per week. Kids need a gentle push here and there, but it’s rarely a good option to hold a battle of wills over a lima bean.
STRATEGY 5 – Prepare good food.
None of what we do is magic folks; at the end of the day, I do still have to prepare the vegetables she loves in an appetizing manner. I’m not exaggerating when I say she eats 5-7 servings daily of all sorts of vegetables, but it’s also not like I can just roll a lump of raw cauliflower out on the floor like filling up the trough for a hungry piglet. My wife and I cannot cook worth a darn, so the recipes we use are incredibly simple (usually nothing more than a little olive oil and salt) but the vegetables do end up tasting good. If you want your toddler to tolerate vegetables, raw celery just won’t cut it. Take some time, experiment with several different recipes, and figure out what works for your child.
STRATEGY 6 – WE WALK THE WALK
Ultimately, your efforts with the little ones can only go as far as you’re willing to go yourself. The number one success tool we use to keep our toddler friendly with her greens is that we eat them right alongside her. Healthy eating is part of our family’s fabric and we are more than happy to eat the same foods and celebrate our weirdness together. If you’re ever looking to add foods or make changes to your child’s diet, make sure the changes are compatible with your own lifestyle as well!
If you’re looking to redefine how your child eats, I hope this helped a little bit. Feel free to message or email me with any questions or threatening profanity tirades. My daughter LOVES food and trying all sorts of different things; she isn’t deprived and, given the choice, we’d make the same choices again for her toddler years.
And–guilty confession after writing this–how fun will it be to give her a first bite of chocolate someday???