Ask a Pediatrician: My Kid Refuses to Eat Vegetables. Should I Be Worried?

I have a 5-year-old who just hates vegetables (unless, you count french fries and ketchup, that is). How worried should I be about this from a nutritional perspective? Is this going to affect her development? She’s pretty small for her age. Is there anything I can do (besides sneaking spinach into her smoothies)? 

Raise your hand if your kiddo only eats six things! I raised my hand for a very long time. And I know I’m not alone. I frequently receive questions from parents about their children refusing to eat vegetables and only consuming a very basic diet of carb-heavy foods, leaving something to be desired in the way of appropriate amounts of daily fruits and vegetables. It’s the beige diet! Parents often express concern that their children may not be receiving the proper nutrients they need to grow and agonize over the potential negative impacts on their health caused by these eating habits.  

I understand this concern on a very personal level, as I too, obsessed over my son, Luke, now a teenager, not receiving proper nutrition due his small size and refusal to eat. For years I could have spent hours discussing his daily caloric intake and making projections on how big he might turn out to be, to the point where I’m sure it was not only unhealthy for my own psyche, but also completely boring to those who had to listen to me! I’ve been kept awake at night worrying about whether or not his brain development was impacted by the fact that he will not eat a single vegetable. I used toys, TV and other bribes to get him to eat something…anything! I took him to feeding specialists and had several pediatrician visits where this subject was the primary topic of discussion. So, yes, I’ve been there! 

The fact is Luke just happens to be a smaller than average kid…and that’s OK! He has never been a great eater, and I am sure that I have made it worse by giving the scenario way too much attention. In many cases, and for me personally, this situation became a control battle between child and parent. Eating and sleeping are two factors we truly cannot control, and I think everyone can agree they are battles we can all do without.

If your child is growing normally and not getting sick all the time, then do your best to sneak in healthy foods whenever you can, but don’t make a career out of insisting on exact daily portions. 

Here is my advice to parents who are running themselves ragged over otherwise healthy picky eaters: 

Try to stop obsessing

Plain and simple, this is sometimes more of a control issue for parents versus a health concern about children not receiving proper nutritional recommendations in their daily diets. Of course your intentions are good…you’re the person who loves your child the most. However, similar to my case, you could unknowingly be creating a stressful stigma around eating which could lead to them being even less motivated to eat. 

The growth charts don’t lie

As long as your child is active, not getting sick often, and growing at an average rate according to the growth charts your pediatrician uses during annual well checkups, try to dial down your anxiety. In the instance of a child actually not tracking with age-appropriate growth curve and falling ill regularly, that’s what we refer to as FTT, otherwise known as “Failure To Thrive”. This is a very complex diagnosis that often requires a lot of testing and workup through genetics, GI exploration and more. This kind of diagnosis will not be a result of your child exclusively eating chicken nuggets and mac and cheese. Of course, you should always discuss your concerns with your pediatrician, who knows your child’s medical history. 

Give them a choice, but keep the choices to a minimum

Continue to offer healthy foods with every meal in order to allow your child some control in their decisions. This can make them feel like eating healthy items becomes their choice and they’ll be more likely to do it. For instance, you can ask “would you like to have carrots or green beans with your chicken tonight”? This question demonstrates that they will be getting a vegetable no matter what, but they have some choice in the matter of which one they’ll be eating for dinner. The key, however, is not to offer too many choices or it becomes overwhelming. One or two veggies per meal that represent different colors of the rainbow will suffice. That way there’s a choice between two—versus many—healthy options on their plate at one time. 

I’ve come across countless articles, books and advice from nutrition experts about tips and tricks for getting your toddler or young child to eat more healthy foods. Hacks such as “grind cauliflower into the tomato sauce” and “hide spinach in the smoothie” are all fine and can prove useful for parents who are frustrated by their child’s refusal to eat veggies. However, as long as your child is growing and appears healthy and active, you can stop ruminating on it. I’m trying my best to keep a lid on myself and my obsession to help my son thrive and hopefully you can do the same. 

From a fellow parent of a picky eater,

Dr. C

Dr. Christina Johns is a pediatrician + Senior Medical Advisor at PM Pediatrics, the largest pediatric urgent care group in the U.S.  

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Dr. Christina Johns is a pediatrician + Senior Medical Advisor at PM Pediatric Care, the largest pediatric urgent care group in the U.S. She received her undergraduate degree at...