Tips and tricks for getting a toddler to eat vegetables, part 4

This one is not so much about vegetables, but anything new. Chickpea has gone through phases where she’s very averse to trying anything new, and phases where she’s less hesitant. I haven’t been able to completely eliminate the neuphobia, but I do have a number of small tips and tricks regarding how to work around it.

These ideas also sometimes work for foods she’s tried before, but that she’s “decided” she doesn’t like. Sometimes she really doesn’t like them, and then nothing works but time, but sometimes it’s just in her head. (For example, she stopped eating something she does like because her best friend said she didn’t like it.) Some of these tips are also useful for encouraging consumption of foods that aren’t disliked per se, but that are less preferred than other foods in the meal.

First of all, the big picture stuff:

  1. Maintain trust. I tell her that she never has to eat something she doesn’t want to eat. And I mean it. I also remind her that if she doesn’t like something she’s welcome to spit it out. And I mean that too. And I try to give her plenty of new things that she does like. (See #5.)
  2. Make novelty fun! I got this idea from my friend Jessica. She told me to protect and encourage the kid’s ability/willingness to try new things. Don’t make it so new foods are challenging foods. Kids should also get rewarded for trying something new. So when we saw a new variety of dates at our local Turkish store, we bought them. Something new, hurrah! Sometimes I offer a new flavor of chocolate. Mint-flavored chocolate, yum. Or chocolate-covered ginger. Spicy but good. When Chickpea saw yellow and purple carrots at the grocery store, she wanted to buy them. And I did, even though they cost three times as much as the orange carrots, and tasted exactly the same in my opinion. Still, it was something new she was excited about, and I wanted to respect that. When she wanted to buy the lentil pasta because it was orange and she’d never had orange pasta, I said sure, let’s try it. If I’m going to buy cookies (which I don’t do often, but every once in a while), I usually buy a different kind than I’ve gotten before. I saw tiny leaf-shaped organic mint and calendula cookies on sale at Aldi and I snapped them up. A great opportunity to make trying something new fun!
  3. Make novelty special. We also follow my Mom’s tradition of singing a blessing (the Shehecheyanu) whenever we have a certain food for the first time that year. It’s not as much celebrating novelty as celebrating variety I guess. So in May when we get our first fresh strawberries of the year, we celebrate with a blessing. Same with the first asparagus of the spring. Or the first peach in summer. Or the first piece of fresh corn on the cob. Or the first roasted chestnuts in the fall….
  4. Make variety the norm. Dina Rose’s It’s not about Nutrition blog talks about the three foundational habits that translate nutrition into behavior:  variety, moderation, and proportion. I’ve not done a great job so far at teaching moderation and proportion, but I have managed to inculcate variety. From the time Chickpea was quite young I instituted Dina Rose’s rotation rule: “We don’t eat the same foods every day.” It’s a nice short sentence that was easy for Chickpea to understand. I’d often follow it with something like “We had X yesterday. We will have it again soon. Maybe tomorrow.” Derek always thought it was a little bit too extreme, but I think it’s been a good general policy. And Chickpea has taken it to heart. She will complain if she had pasta for lunch at daycare and I inadvertently serve pasta for dinner. If we buy strawberries and I we have them for dessert one night, and then for breakfast the next day, she will object, even though she loves strawberries. I have to offer a special justification to convince her (“the strawberries will go bad so we have to eat them right away”). Following the rotation rule is sometimes a pain, as it means that I can’t serve leftovers again the next day. So if we have a dish for dinner on Monday, Derek and I might take it for lunch on Tuesday, and/or we’ll eat the leftovers for dinner on Wednesday.
  5. Eat seasonally. Eating seasonally is another way to institute a rotation rule. Not only do we not eat the same foods every day, but we don’t eat the same foods in each month! We are a member of a CSA and we walk around and watch the plants go from tiny sprouts to ready to eat. We talk a lot about the seasons and which foods grow when. Chickpea is better at guessing when fruits and vegetables grow than Derek is! She knows that we can’t get brussels sprouts or kale anymore because it’s spring, but that now we can buy asparagus. She knows that peaches and berries and melons are summer fruit and citrus is a winter fruit.

In addition to the foundational stuff above, here’s a hodgepodge of practical mealtime strategies:

  1. Pair a new/unpreferred food with a favored food, and when she asks for the favored food plain, tell her (truthfully, but still sympathetically) that there is none left. “I mixed it all with <new food>.” For example, before she liked hummus she generally wouldn’t eat veggies dipped in hummus. But she loves (and rarely gets) crackers. So I served the crackers with a thin smear of hummus on it. Now she likes hummus and will eat it happily with carrots and cucumber or other raw veggies. Before she liked zucchini I would mix black beans and corn and/or roasted red bell pepper and sauteed zucchini together. She could of course just eat her favored food out of the mix, but if she asked for seconds I would remind her that “it’s all one dish.” I do let her pick a few things out and give them to me (like scallions), but she’s not allowed to just eat a small fraction of the items and then ask for more of that one component. I give her raw fennel and kohlrabi (which she normally won’t eat) with Annie’s dressing to dip it in (but–importantly–no spoon).
  2. Put very small portions of everything on Chickpea’s plate, including the new food. Tiny portions are less intimidating. So I might give her one floret of broccoli, one tablespoon of brown rice, six chickpeas, and two cubes of roasted butternut squash.
  3. Stall. Especially in combination with tip #2. For example, when she eats all her brown rice and broccoli and chickpeas (but doesn’t touch the squash) and asks for more, I stall. “Okay, just let me finish my firsts and then I’ll get you seconds.” Sometimes while she’s waiting she’ll eat the less preferred food that’s still staring at her on her plate.
  4. Don’t put any of the new food on her own plate. Just put it in a bowl on the table and serve myself some. Eat it enthusiastically. Argue about who gets the rest with Derek. When she asks what it is, I would say “Oh, that’s jerusalem artichoke. I didn’t know you wanted any. You can take some if you want.”
  5. Be silly and play games with the new food, to at least get her touching it and associating it with good vibes. For example, the first time we had black eyed peas she didn’t want any and I picked one up and held it up to my eye and said “I see you.” She thought it was hilarious and wanted to do it herself. Eventually she ate a whole bowl. We still play this game when we have black eyes. At my mom’s once she didn’t want any sauteed yellow turmeric cabbage, because it had the texture of worms. My sister walked in, looked at my plate, and said  “Ewww, you’re eating worms for dinner. That’s so gross!” I pretended to eat my “worms” enthusiastically while my sister expressed utter disgust, and Chickpea followed suit. Sometimes we do “blind taste tests”. So for example we’re eating salad and she just wants the mache leaves not the arugula or the red leaf lettuce, so I propose a blind taste test. She closes her eyes and has to guess what kind of green she just ate. Or she has to guess whether she’s eating a roasted carrot, sweet potato, or winter squash. There are a lot more “pre-feeding” or “food experimentation” ideas online. The idea is to get your kid comfortable with a food before they decide to eat it by basically having them play with it, often at a special time separate from mealtimes (so that they don’t feel any pressure to eat the food). It’s not about nutrition blog has lots of experimentation ideas. Here’s more.
  6. When I’m cooking I ask her to be my taste tester. Will you try this and see if it’s cooked enough? Does it need more salt? Is this cantaloupe ripe enough? Which parsnip is better, the soft one or the crispy one? She loves to be the expert, and will often (but not always) try whatever I offer, despite any previously held prejudices. It helps that she’s usually pretty hungry at that time. If she doesn’t like it she doesn’t ask for more, but often she will like it and ask for “another bite.” Then it becomes her appetizer. I distinctly remember this strategy leading to Chickpea eating a big bowl of steamed celery root once.
  7. Make small modifications to familiar foods. So Chickpea likes okonomiyaki (Japanese cabbage pancakes). The first time I made it I just used cabbage and leeks. Later I added scallions (which she usually doesn’t like but she’s accepted in okonomiyaki). Next time I might add mung bean sprouts or shiitake mushrooms or a little bit of nori flakes. Even if she can’t taste them, at least she’ll see me add them and know that she’s eaten them without anything terrible happening. Then over time I can increase the amounts.
  8. Add novelty in other ways as well. For example, instead of a fork serve a borderline or new food with toothpicks, corn cob holders, a little cocktail fork, or child-sized tongs. Serve sushi the first time with child chopsticks. Maybe try serving a smoothie or a cold soup with a syringe, or in a shot glass, or with a little ladle. Slice different colored bell peppers into long skinny strips and place them vertically in a shot glass rather than cutting them into squares and serving them on a plate. Use little cookie cutters to cut beets into heart shapes. Serve lunch on a new colorful plate, or with a new napkin. Light candles. Eat outside. Host a tea party on the floor. Have a picnic. (This one is especially helpful because your kid will actually believe you when you say there’s nothing else to eat.) Make the meal fun and novel and your kid might be so into the new accouterments that they forget to worry about the new food.
  9. I tell Chickpea stories about foods, especially if it’s been a while since she’s had it. So if I’m making lentil soup for dinner I might tell her the following (true) story: We haven’t had lentil soup in a long time. Do you remember the last time we had it? You said you didn’t want any and so Daddy and I ate almost all of it. There was just a little bit in your bowl, and at the end of dinner you decided you wanted to try it, and you loved it! You ate your little bowl up and asked for more, and I felt so bad because we had already finished the rest and there wasn’t any more. But I told you I’d make it again sometime, and so that’s why we’re having lentil soup for dinner tonight. Or if I happen to have an old video of her eating a food I’ll show her that. Recently she decided she doesn’t like flax seed. I happen to have an old video in which she’s demanding more flax seed in her chia pudding. “Alotta flax seed. More flax seed.” There’s nothing better to convince a 3.5 year old to eat flax seed than seeing her 2-year-old self begging for more flax seed.

Finally, one last tip. This isn’t a feeding strategy, but more of a mindset shift. I find it helpful for cultivating patience. Acknowledge that your toddler’s neophobia might actually be a helpful evolutionary adaptation (or at least in prehistoric times it might have been). One theory for neophobia suggests that toddlers are biologically hardwired to avoid unfamiliar foods, so that newly mobile toddlers don’t wander away from their parents in the forest and start eating some poisonous plant.

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