My toddler used to eat vegetables…and then he stopped.

Makes you want to tear your hair out.  I know because I’ve been there.

Actually, we’ve all been there.  We’ve all had our once-happy-veggie-eaters turn into no-I’m-not-gonna-eat-that-and-there’s-nothing-you-can-do monsters.  It’s one of the most common frustrations parents have.

Well, there is something you can do.  Read on.

Many scholars believe toddlers have a natural impulse to reject foods because it keeps them alive.

Here’s the theory:

Toddlers are particularly vulnerable to eating poisonous foods because of two conditions: their newfound mobility frequently puts them out of momma’s protective reach, and they have a natural desire to put things into their mouths. Making toddlers reluctant to eat unfamiliar foods is Mother Nature’s way of solving this problem.

I don’t buy it.

1) This theory can’t explain why a child would reject a familiar food; one they’ve learned is not poisonous; one that’s already been cleared for consumption by mom.

2) Anyone who has ever been around a toddler knows these kids will put anything into their mouths—as long as it seems dangerous, weird, or something that would freak their parents out.  Dirt. Flowers. Legos.  But healthy vegetables? No way.

Here’s what I think (and it’s backed up by research).

Toddlers reject vegetables because other things taste better.

Of course control, developmental and personality issues also play a role. But answer this: How long after your child started eating solids did you switch from plain Cheerios to Honey Nut Cheerios?

Or start serving up Brown Sugar Cinnamon Oatmeal instead of plain oatmeal?

When did you trade in your child’s plain yogurt for vanilla, blueberry, or those delightful yogurt tubes? Introduce apple juice? Goldfish crackers? Chicken nuggets?

Around the time your child started rejecting vegetables?

Baby Food is bland, and it all—fruits, vegetables, cereals—taste basically the same. In comparison, toddler food is full of flavor.  In fact, it gives kids a “flavor-hit.”

Researchers recently discovered:

Kids who eat foods high in sugar, salt and fat—the basic “Child-friendly”  diet—end up seeking out these kinds foods in order to achieve a “flavor-hit.”  They’re going for the high!

Child-friendly foods may seem bland and boring to you, but these items are loaded with sugar, salt and fat. And kids like them!   Read The Truth About “Child-Friendly” Foods.

That’s probably why the old standby, pasta with butter and parmesan, is such a success:  Think salt and fat.

“Flavor-hit” foods train your kids to like junk (corn chips, not corn; cheese puffs, not cheese, and strawberry ice cream, not strawberries).  “Flavor-hit” foods never taste like broccoli.  (But they do taste like french fries!)

In other words, the basic “child-friendly” toddler diet trains your kids’ taste buds away from vegetables.  

The way to increase vegetable consumption—or to stop the downslide— is to consciously manage the flavors you feed your kids.

Don’t think about nutrients as much as flavors, and don’t overload your kids with sugar, salt, and fat.  That was the message in my post Why Toddlers Don’t Eat Vegetables.

The reason is clear: Research shows that when kids eat a diet filled with sugar, salt, and fat they want more of these flavors.  It’s a self-perpetuating cycle, and manufacturers are happy to oblige.

Here are some posts to get you thinking about proportion and flavor:

~Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.~


Source:  Cornwell, T. B. and A. R. McAlister. 2011. “Alternative Thinking About Starting Points in Obesity. Development of Child Taste Preferences.” Appetite 56: 428-39.