Serving Up Self-Control With a Plate Full of Vegetables

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A girl looking at a piece of broccoli on her fork.When my oldest child was a toddler, she ate everything. Peas, broccoli, carrots, entire meatball subs. Whatever she tried, she liked, making mealtime a breeze.

Until she turned two-and-a-half.

During this time, we lived in temporary housing while purchasing a new home. I was also pregnant. With less energy and a bare pantry, dinners often consisted of chicken nuggets and macaroni and cheese, and takeout. While I knew this wasn’t healthy, I also understood this change was temporary. And so I didn’t worry.

By the time we settled into our new home, we had a newborn. My exhaustion, along with my daughter’s love for chicken nuggets, went into overdrive. Overwhelmed and lost in the newborn haze, I let her eat the foods she wanted. Until one day, I woke up and realized my oldest no longer ate broccoli. Or peas. Or anything green at all.

Frustrated, I tried to reset the clock.

First, I tried to reason.

“Honey, vegetables are big and strong food. They help you grow!” I said.

“But I AM big and strong. Even the doctor says,” she said.

Next, I tried trickery, pureeing vegetables into her favorite foods.

“This macaroni and cheese tastes funny. I don’t like it,” she said back.

And so I moved on to consequences.

“No dessert unless you eat your vegetables,” I said.

“That’s okay. I’ll just have a snack,” she said, laughing.

And when I tried to fight it, the baby started crying, and well, you get the picture.

I took the easy way out and gave in. And while I continued to cook vegetable-rich dinners for my husband and me, I allowed my daughter to evolve into a full-blown picky eater. It was my fault. I knew it was my fault. And yet, for years, I seemed unable to break the pattern.

Every night as I would eat vegetable stir-fried dinners, my kids would sit next to me and eat junk, sticking out their tongues when I offered them a taste of real food.

“They’ll grow out of it,” friends would say when I discussed it with them. “Keep offering the vegetables. One day they’ll say yes!”

But that day never came. And soon, the only vegetables my kids ate were corn and baby carrots.

Then a few months ago, a friend introduced me to a parenting book by Dr. Leonard Sax, a physician and psychologist who had very strong feelings on one topic that surprised me.

That topic? Vegetables.

In his book, Dr. Sax discussed the importance of eating vegetables not just for children’s health but for their development of self-control. While I had never thought of dinnertime in this manner, this idea resonated with me as soon as I read the words.

By making my children eat their vegetables, I would require them to do something they didn’t want to do. This would teach them to endure temporary discomfort to accomplish a greater goal. In this case, that goal was healthy eating.

Reading this perspective inspired me to implement a new family rule. No longer would vegetable eating be optional. If my kids wanted dessert, they would need to eat what I coined the Vegetable of the Day. If they decided not to eat Vegetable of the Day, that was their choice. But it meant there would be no after-dinner indulgences.

Three mouths dropped when I explained this new rule to my kids that night. My oldest recovered first and immediately turned to what she does best. Negotiation. 

“What if I only eat a bite?” she asked.

“That doesn’t count,” I said.

“Can I swap Vegetable of the Day for another vegetable I like?”

“Let’s focus on trying some vegetables first.”

“But what if it’s late and I’m tired and starving?”

“Then you’ll eat what I made for dinner.”

I could see the anxiety building on her face as reality sunk in. Vegetable of the Day was her worst nightmare. And so that night, I started small. Two pieces of broccoli were placed on each child’s plate.

“This is the Vegetable of the Day! You must eat both pieces to get dessert,” I said.

The kids looked at me. Then they looked at their plates. And then the screaming ensued. It didn’t stop until I tucked them into bed hours later. At that point, I was exhausted. I wanted to quit. Vegetable of the Day felt impossible.

But there was a bright side. I didn’t have to clean any dessert plates. And so I continued.

The next night didn’t start much better. All three kids saw the broccoli and started screaming. But after a few minutes, they tried to eat it.

One of my kids doused it in ketchup. Another chased it with orange juice. All three made faces like they were about to gag. But that night, they earned dessert.

They earned dessert the next night too, and the one after that. In fact, in the three months since starting Vegetable of the Day, they only missed dessert that first night.

After the first week, the crying dissipated too. And a couple of weeks in, they stopped asking for ketchup and making funny faces. Vegetable of the Day became routine, and even if it wasn’t their favorite routine, they accepted it.

So much so that my non-vegetable-eating kids have now tried broccoli, cauliflower, asparagus, zucchini, yellow squash, acorn squash, sweet dumpling squash, green peppers, red peppers, yellow peppers, Brussels sprouts, sweet potatoes, and more. Each week I have made the portion a little bigger. And while there are still occasional grumbles, nobody yells.

Our kids have stopped yelling at other times too. Our mornings, once filled with stress over outfit choices and the time we left the house, have become calmer. Anxiety over homework has lessened. And while we still deal with our fair share of sibling spats, the kids are listening to us more and learning how to resolve their conflicts instead of just yelling.

Of course, it’s hard to know how much improvement is from vegetable eating and how much due to the kids just getting older. And I know Vegetable of the Day won’t fit everyone’s parenting style or help every child. For example, children with sensory issues and extreme picky eating may need different solutions. But for our family, I believe this change is bringing us all a little more peace.

Through Vegetable of the Day, our kids are learning how to process their anxiety, live with discomfort, and more clearly focus on what they’re trying to accomplish. Skills they will need to succeed in school and beyond. Skills I wasn’t helping them develop by always giving them a free pass.

And they are also learning to like vegetables, something my son admitted just the other day.

“What’s the Vegetable of the Day?” he asked while I was cooking dinner.

“I’m not sure yet. I have to choose. Why are you nervous?” I asked.

 “No. Excited! I like trying new things,” he said.

I looked down at my sweet six-year-old and smiled.

“That’s great, honey,” I said. “Why don’t you pick something out in the vegetable drawer?”

He cheered. I cheered back. Then I said a silent “thank you” for all we’d learned from Vegetable of the Day.

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Jackie Nastri Bardenwerper lives in Fairfield, CT with her husband and three children, ages 9, 6 and 4. She is the author of several novels that encourage tween and teen girls to listen to their inner voice, from saving the family fishing business in ON THE LINE, to following a passion for crafting in SALTED CARAMEL DREAMS, and exposing a friend’s hurtful social media platform in POPULATTI. She is currently working on a new children's book series and a new novel on motherhood. She also shares her own motherhood experiences on her Instagram @jnbwrite. When not writing, you can find Jackie and her family enjoying Fairfield’s beautiful coastline where they love fishing, swimming and sailing.

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