02/06/2012 01:04 am ET | Updated Feb 09, 2012

How To Get Children To Eat Their Vegetables

Dear Susan,

My step-children, five and seven years old, refuse to eat the healthy food I put on their plates. Their mother doesn't care what they eat and feeds them pasta almost every night. When they are with us, we try to serve food that is good for them but they complain and won't even try their vegetables. We have tried everything but the only way they'll even taste a vegetable is if we promise dessert. What can we do?

The Veggie Monster

Dear Veggie Monster,

In today's world of fast food and chemically enhanced meals, it can be nearly impossible to get kids to try plain old veggies. Taste buds accustomed to the intensified flavors promoted by today's food industry make ordinary foods seem unappealing, especially to children who aren't concerned about the nutritional value of what they munch on. But serving fresh and healthy food is one of the best ways to ensure our children have the nourishment they need to feel and do their best. Here's my advice:

  • Research shows that for our palate to get used to a new food, we need to taste it 8-10 times. Place small portions of green beans, carrots or broccoli on your child's plate, add a little butter or a sauce that your kids help you concoct, and be patient. By tasting a food repeatedly -- without fuss or fanfare -- kids gradually accustomed to eating it, so don't give up if your kids turn down their noses at a vegetable dish the first time you serve it.

  • Do NOT force your kids to eat what you have served. Invite them to have a taste, but don't make it a big deal. The more you need a child to do anything, the more you contribute to the possibility that they'll resist. And be wary about bribing your kids; promising dessert if they just eat three bites makes veggies seem like medicine!

  • Disguise your vegetable dishes by chopping them into soups, covering them in tasty sauces or shredding them into salads with a delicious dressing. And always have raw carrots, celery, cucumber or jicama in the fridge that your kids can munch to get their dose of vegetables at snack time so dinner doesn't become the only opportunity to serve up their veggies.

A child's behavior, mood, sleep and ability to focus are strongly influenced by the foods they eat. Follow these tips, and your children will be asking for another helping of squash and peas without even knowing how much they're helping themselves to good health.

Yours in parenting support,

Parent Coach, Susan Stiffelman, is a licensed and practicing psychotherapist and marriage and family therapist. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in developmental psychology and a Master of Arts in clinical psychology. Her book, Parenting Without Power Struggles, is available on Amazon. Sign up to get Susan's free parenting newsletter.