Parents Need to Eat Too

I Bribed—Excuse Me, Encouraged Via the Promise of Reward—My Child to Eat Vegetables

I Bribed—Excuse Me, Encouraged Via the Promise of Reward—My Child to Eat Vegetables

It’s true.

Harry ate vegetables.

For fourteen straight days.

Do you understand how momentous this is? The kid’s been so challenging to feed for so long, I actually got paid to write about it. And yet for a full two weeks, he was willing to try a new vegetable nearly every day. He ate celery. Jerusalem artichoke. Watermelon radish. Fennel. Rutabaga! On one memorable day, he sampled avocado, Jerusalem artichoke, and cucumber. And most thrilling of all, Little Gram’s Sauce. I’m not saying he liked everything—in most cases he ate a single mouthful, but that’s about a thousand times better than we’d been doing for the last few years.

Cucumber has been added to the regular rotation, people. An actual green thing, he eats willingly!

I have no idea what brought about this sea change, but a few weeks ago he started asking for new toys. We’d been doing pretty well, avoiding The Gimmes post-holidays, but now we’ve entered that awkward period where his new toys don’t feel so new anymore, yet his birthday’s still six months away. Enter the incentive. I told him that he could get the toy he was clamoring for if he ate a new vegetable every day for two weeks. Honestly, I only said it because I thought it would make him shut up about the toy—I never imagined he’d take me up on it. But he agreed immediately, so we made a chart on green construction paper and hung it on the wall over the kitchen table. (That’s why those drawings are so, um, rough-hewn: I was writing sideways against a wall.)

Each day, we’d discuss what the vegetable would be. I shlepped to the farmer’s market in Union Square, just so I could find something new and interesting—because of course, my son didn’t choose to become adventurous during the summer, when the abundance is staggering. No, he woke up to new flavors in February, when the vegetable farmer doesn’t even bother coming to my neighborhood market. But fine, I went with it, and so did Harry.

Some nights were more challenging than others, mostly when I dared to combine the vegetable with something else by using it in a soup or stew. On those nights, he’d leave the chosen vegetable on his plate while he ate everything else around it; he seemed to think that if he saved it for last we might give him a pass. Nope. One or two nights, there were tears—he let the single mouthful of food become such a big deal that he nearly scared himself out of it. But most nights, he enjoyed discussing the choices with me and willingly tried things. A few times he asked if he could taste something raw, like rutabaga, so he could compare it to its cooked state.

Tonight, we filled in the last box on Harry’s chart. He ate a single mouthful of my Fast White Beans & Greens Stew—which included a cannellini bean, some diced tomato, a chunk of carrot, and some wilted baby greens. (That recipe’s coming, I promise.) It was dramatic, mostly because he really, really, really didn’t want to eat something with so many flavors combined. But Stephen and I pushed back, pointing out that he’d come so far to get his toy, it would be a shame to blow it now.

He put it in his mouth, and chewed on it for a good half-hour. (It still hasn’t sunk in that the faster he swallows something, the faster the flavor will dissipate; instead, he’ll chew and chew and chew, tuck it inside his cheek, and then chew some more before washing it down with diluted apple juice.) Finally, he swallowed, to great huzzahs and hugs from his parents.

Who knows if the whims of my child will swing back in the other direction. I take nothing for granted. But tomorrow, UPS arrives with his reward, and Harry’s already debating what to go for next.

This Post Has 12 Comments

  1. I love that one of the tags for this post is "zen" – so appropriate. And of COURSE he decided to do this in February! Why make it easy on you?

  2. I really enjoyed this post, Debbie. And I actually chuckled when you described his 30 min long chew. I used to try to swallow the food without chewing. I practically choked a couple of times doing that, so maybe all that chewing isn't all that bad. 😉

    FYI-I volunteer at a garden where we teach children about healthy eating. We actually make the children take a pledge: "I swear that I will always and everywhere take at least one big bite of whatever is served to me before saying 'no, thank you.'" I'm amazed at how well it works!

  3. Casey, I suspect that if I'd been a bit more zen about his eating before he was old enough to notice, things might be better now. Sigh.

    And Susan, I cannot for the life of me figure out why he doesn't swallow asap. He'll sit there on the verge of tears, cheeks puffed out, trying desperately to keep the food off his tongue, when all he has to do is swallow. This doesn't happen often, but when it does it's hard not to laugh.

    I've thought about the pledge thing, but I suspect that it would only work if he was signing it with a group of peers–if it's between only him and me, he'd probably balk.

  4. Great Story…. the only way I got mine to eat veggies was to toally hide it. NOT cheesy sauce… but totally puree SMOOTH & add to spaghetti sauce (carrots & green beans & broccoli) Cauliflower in mashed potatoes. I just could not sit at the table with the arguments, gagging sounds etc. She's 21 now & still eats FEW veggies LOL.

  5. This is fantastic, Debbie! Great news. I will be really interested to hear whether Junior carries on eating the veggies! We managed to persuade our reluctant vegetable eater to eat a few just before Christmas because he knew Santa was watching, however that hasn't translated into an ongoing enthusiasm! (By the way, agree that bribery is a very ugly word. We like 'incentivise'). And the whole chewing thing! I know! Just swallow it, have a drink and move on already!!

  6. SG, I'm reluctant to go the hiding route–I really want him to know what he's eating & enjoy it, and I know he's ok nutritionally thanks to all the fruit. Not sure this is any better, but at least he's doing it willingly.

    Liz, I'm very curious to see if this actually turns into a new behavior! We're debating whether to start a new chart, but one that takes 3 weeks to fill in. Figure if we extend the time it takes to get a reward, eventually we can stop. That might be a dream, though.

  7. We call it "polite bite" in my house. Since I was on a similar trajectory to you I think it's fair to say it does get easier and kids with sensitive palates do branch out in their own time and when they're ready.

    But I still remember when I could count on one hand what greens my kid — a vegetarian! — would consume. There are still many he doesn't like, such as broccoli, brussels sprouts. But he east spinach, kale, chard, and loads of salad stuff. It's all good. Congrats on the cucumber victory.

  8. My opinion on the whole "hiding" thing is that if a child really isn't eating vegetables, it's okay to grate some carrot or zucchini into the spaghetti sauce or even the banana bread. When my boys were little, they vastly preferred the fresh-out-of-the-garden veggies–new snow peas. baby green beans, strips of green and red pepper, asparagus–to things cooked and served on their plates. They loved broccoli (with cheese sauce on it) and artichokes (with a mustard sauce to dip it in), though. And throughout most of their childhood, when I was cooking, and they walked through the kitchen, they were as likely to snag some chopped carrots and zucchini as they were to snitch some grated cheese.

    What a marvelous adventure this is for you!

  9. Sarah, I like "polite bite"!

    Coreopsis, thank you for calling this an adventure. Makes it seem almost…fun.

    Meanwhile, last night Harry ate peas willingly. By the spoonful. With no chart. Lord almighty, perhaps things are changing. Perhaps.

  10. Yes, at our house, it's a "No thank you" bite– you have to take one bite before saying "No thank you." And my picky 5 1/2 year old has the additional rule of "Every time you make a face or say Yuck, you have to take ANOTHER no thank you bite."

    The jury is still out, though.

  11. This is a great example of attacking a problem from all sides and with all your creative resources. You never know what will actually work.

  12. So true, Cindy–these kids are utterly unpredictable, so you may as well try everything.

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