Yes, You Do Have to Eat Your Vegetables!

Vegging out.

Vegging out.

My boys are completely normal American children, which is to say, if you sit them down in front of a bag of potato chips, they’ll plow through them. If you give them a bucket of Halloween candy, they’ll dig right in. If you make a cake and offer them mixer beaters coated with chocolate frosting, what do you think they’ll do? (To be fair, they differ; James self-limits, for whatever reason, his junk-food tooth is more easily satisfied than Daniel’s, who — like his mom — will reach the bottom of that chip bag before he hears his brain’s “stop! please for the love of God, stop!” signal.)

But you know what they do when faced with a dinner plate with chicken and broccoli? Well, in that they differ slightly from each other, too. James will start right in on the broccoli, while Daniel will make a beeline for the chicken. And neither of them get the pasta (presuming there is pasta, and both of them hope against hope every night that there will be pasta) until the protein and the veggies are gone or mostly gone. They also both know that once their cup of orange or apple juice is finished, they are free to help themselves to water. Another thing they expect: fruit after dinner. There is ALWAYS fruit, as there always was when I was growing up.

I’m actually way more easygoing on the “you must eat this” front than my parents were. I can still remember a bleak-looking little bowl of spinach (it was in a bowl to segregate its juices from my meat and potatoes; at least my parents bowed to my need to keep foodfromtouching) sitting in front of me until I finished it. And I always did, even though I didn’t like it. We didn’t have royal battles; the undercurrent of parental-control-versus-children’s-grousing was a very quiet hum. But it was there, and all parties present knew the parental-control faction would win every time. I hated it, but I ate the spinach, and I ate the liver, and I ate the beef stew (a semi-nightmare for a child who didn’t like foodthattouched.)

But you know what? Aside from the liver, which even my parents don’t eat anymore (I think my mom bought it because it was a low-cost source of protein and iron, and she’s anemic), I like all those foods. And I’m convinced (anecdotally, nonscientifically) that it was precisely in the “I’m in charge here, no backtalk” rules we had for eating that, eventually, gave me not only a taste for a wide variety of foods, but an understanding of what was good and healthy to eat, and even how to prepare foods. It’s not a mystery. My sister was less of a nightmare picky eater than I was, and my brother was possibly even worse than I was. And now, all three of us? We know how to cook, and we know how to eat.

The way in which my tactics (and my husband’s; as in most child-rearing things, we are firmly on the same page, thank heaven) differ from my parents is that I don’t make them eat what they would call really “weird” vegetables; I do bow much more to their proclivities than my mom would ever do. So, while I make them eat their veggies before the “fun” foods like pasta or french fries, I don’t make them eat stew, and I do bread their chicken and fish a lot of the time, and I do cook their veggies plain and slick them with butter, something my parents never did.

I realize I’m lucky as heck that I have good eaters who like vegetables (even if it’s a mind-numbingly boring repetition of broccoli; peas; green beans; carrots; and back again); who eat hearty lunches at school without complaint (a sandwich on whole grain bread, a yogurt, fruit, milk), and who don’t snack outside of circumscribed times and places. Daniel swears he’ll do such things as try eggplant when he’s 16 (or was it 14? I’ll have to ask him). And I swear I get his dislike of zucchini. He tries, and the texture skeeves him; I feel the same way about mushrooms, one of the few foods I avoid entirely. I won’t force that issue, but I will keep trying and hope he grows into it.

But what I won’t do is throw up my hands and stock my freezer with chicken nuggets (which, for the record, I do buy when they’re on sale; nothing like being able to pop some in the toaster oven when I don’t feel like fussing), or assume that fruit snacks, with their “100% vitamin C!” labels are a replacement for an apple or an orange.

Because as they get older, they need to have both a proper respect for food and mealtimes, and a proper respect for the fact that I know better. I’m sorry if that’s not PC anymore (we’re not supposed to direct our kids’ eating, for fear of triggering an eating disorder), but I do know better.

Food and kids is in the news, as it should be, with rates of childhood obesity rising to the point that our children’s generation is on track to have lower life expectancy than we do. That’s shameful, and horrible. But at the same time, I see and hear from a lot of parents who don’t exercise the control they could, either because it’s too hard to buck the tide, or because they’re afraid (sometimes rightly, depending on their tactics) of giving children a lasting poor relationship with their bodies. It is true that some chubby kids will grow into a healthier frame. It’s also true that some won’t. It’s true that some kids with no good example of how to eat will figure it out themselves. It’s also true that many will not, and will reach adulthood thinking a crumb cake and a Diet Pepsi is a good breakfast.

So here’s what I think. I believe that full-on nagging (or blaming or shaming)  a child who either doesn’t eat the right things, or who eats too much, or who you perceive (maybe because of  own weight or body-image issues) eats too much, does more harm than good. But I do think that pushing kids to eat better, even sometimes insisting that they do, can ultimately be a good thing, presuming you practice what you preach. My parents, as they sat by while my spinach cooled, didn’t humiliate me or shame me into eating it. It was just what was done. It never occurred to me to refuse, despite mild resistance and a lot of grumbling (and, in my brother’s case, a lot of surreptitious tossing of broccoli spears onto my plate).

I think, I hope, that staying in control works, when you combine it with teaching kids the right way to eat (just the other day, I showed Daniel, for the first time, the “serving size” on a box of Fig Newtons; now that’s his new fascination. The serving size, not the Newtons), and doing so yourself. Especially when the alternatives range from bad nutrition to obesity and diabetes.

What do you think?