Suddenly, out of nowhere, green vegetables are the most rejected foods on your toddlers plate! Have you experienced this yourself? Why do all kids hate green vegetables for a period of time, and what can you do about it?
Why does this happen?
When it comes to a toddler’s refusal of certain foods, I often wonder if there is an underlying innate behaviour they exhibit during different developmental phases. For me, if I can understand why my child is behaving the way he is, then I can respond appropriately (and more patiently!). It then becomes something we can communicate about, and an opportunity for him to learn. When it came to him refusing green vegetables, I couldn’t see any reason why this would be an innately good thing to do.
Thankfully, someone has done the research for us!
Researchers at Yale University in 2013 found that 18 month old children were more likely to avoid objects that look like plants, and more likely to gravitate towards man-made objects such as metal and plastic. This in and of itself baffles me as I’m a big advocate for nature play, and I believe children thrive in nature as compared to entirely man-made, artificial environments.
The researchers went on to find that even green looking artificial plants were avoided in preference for other objects.
What they concluded was that toddlers are displaying a survival behaviour in which anything that resembles a plant is avoided. Innately this means they are less likely to be exposed to toxic plants through touch or by eating them, thereby saving their lives. Now it’s kind of starting to make sense. Our little humans are so dependent on us to keep them alive that they do have some innate survival behaviours in place to help them along.
What else do we need to consider?
What about the taste? Green vegetables are plants, and they have substances in them that make them bitter to taste. These substances are supposed to protect the plants from being eaten, and they do repel some insects or animals well. Thankfully our digestive tracts can tolerate them, and also cooking helps break them down too. So when we are feeding our babies and toddlers, it is important to remember that their taste buds are more sensitive than ours, and all these flavours are new. Given we know they have an innate desire to avoid poisonous plants, if they taste a very bitter one they may be more likely to avoid that plant even longer. And I think personally this is why we can easily hide green veggies in fritters, meatballs, sauces etc with our toddlers happy to eat them. It is all about the preparation and flavour, in order to bypass your toddler’s innate desire to stay alive.
Your toddler’s frontal brain region has not developed yet.
The frontal region of our brains controls our ability to reason, to think logically, and to control our emotions. The “terrible twos” is a big time for your toddler in terms of brain development, as their frontal region starts to slowly kick in (it doesn’t completely develop until late teenage years!). They’re in this frustrating phase of realising they are independent beings, and not knowing how to think or behave in a reasonable manner. In this sense, refusal of anything and everything is something us parents deal with every single day. Including green vegetables!
During periods they absolutely refuse everything, let them go. You’ll learn more about this in my upcoming e book all about toddler eating (I really need to work out a catchy name), but the main point is toddlers will not starve themselves. That’s another innate trick they have up their sleeves! When it comes to foods, my favourite line is “you don’t have to if you don’t want to”. Ie, you can eat this if you like, or you can eat nothing (as I do not offer junk food snacks just to get something into him), and I don’t mind whether you eat or not. When you maintain a neutrality about whether they eat or not, they don’t behave just to get reactions out of you, or bounce off your reactions (which they will because they have limited emotional regulation!). Their green vegetables don’t look so bad when you’re not forcing them down their throat.
Back to refusing greenery though! Because your toddler doesn’t have the frontal brain regions to reason, and understand that green vegetables are actually very good for them, they are using their natural instincts to guide them.
There’s one last thing to consider. And that is the human attraction to high fat, high carb meals.
Your toddler will always favour a highly fatty bowl of chips, breads, chicken nuggets… whatever junk food they love… over a bowl of veggies. Number one, they get far more calories, and from a survival point of view this is great for them. And number two, we all know they taste pretty darn good, which is partly because they fire up our dopamine pathways in the brain to give us a little hit of pleasure (which is why we often go back for more even when we are hungry).
So if you’re in the habit of offering vegetables, and if they don’t eat them, offering white processed carbs or deep fried foods, it’s probably not going to help your toddler understand that vegetables are good to eat.
So what can we do to get our toddler to happily eat more greens?
I want to share with you what I do with my toddler. There are many other ways to do it – it’s just that this way works for us.
I have noticed that my toddler will happily eat his greens if he doesn’t know he’s eating them. So we add greens to everything we can (I think most of us mothers do this at some point!).
I have also noticed my toddler is happier to try greens if they are sitting on my plate, and he sees me eating them too (this is based on his natural instincts that say if mum eats it, then it’s safe to eat).
My current method:
Currently I hide as many greens as possible. I also offer a couple of different green vegetables on his plate, with the comment “you don’t have to eat them if you don’t want to”. I then also offer him the greens from my plate, which he always puts in his mouth before deciding he doesn’t like the taste of them. This is also fine, and I repeat “you don’t have to eat them if you don’t want to”. Continuous exposure to the same flavours will lead to acceptance in the majority of cases (at least 10 exposures, if not more!).
My reasoning is that I will not force my child to eat anything at all. I am fostering a positive relationship with food, and I don’t want him to feel the stress of having to eat something he doesn’t like, or to have to finish all the food on his plate. Nagging your children to eat what you’ve made, or forcing it into their mouth, will only create a negative experience around food and lead to more resistance in the future. This goes for offering junk foods as treats too, which creates a positive association with unhealthy foods, leading to healthier choices being far less exciting.
By allowing him to choose what he wants to eat (based on what I have offered), he is exerting his independence within a healthy boundary. He understands it’s either this meal, or nothing. And though he is testing that boundary lately, we are staying true to it so he learns that there is truly a boundary there.
Have you got any tips that worked for your toddler when it came to green food?
Want to hear about when our toddler eating e book will be released? Be the first to hear about it inside the FREE Fearless Foodies Facebook Group (click here to access)!
9 Toddler Approved Recipes
Free gift for you! Learn which 9 recipes are a hit with our toddler, no matter what!