You can’t have dessert until you finish your vegetables.

It’s an edict known by most children to the point of being cliché, and I would argue that it is entirely counterproductive.

I spent my summer as a counselor at a camp for pre-school children. There were many challenging parts to this job—pulling socks onto wet feet, desperately trying to prevent “accidents,” dragging 18 kids on one not-long-enough leash to the playground, and so on. But one of the most soul-wrenching challenges was lunchtime.

Lunch, while typically a “break” in the day, was relaxing for nobody. The counselors, myself included, were pressured to get the kids to eat as much as possible of the lunch provided by the camp. The campers spent a harrowing half hour being wheedled, cajoled, and blackmailed into eating food they found distasteful.

The food wasn’t bad. It was purchased from a company that advertised its food as a healthful alternative to standard cafeteria fare. To describe it as gourmet would be a stretch, but the quality did not justifiably provoke a reluctance to eat it. So what was the problem?

I think the anti-vegetable (and to take it further, anti-health food) epidemic has much less to do with taste than it has to do with taste conditioning. Let’s look at the scenario in which a parent (or a teacher, camp counselor, etc.) forces a child to eat healthful food as a condition for getting to eat dessert.

This teaches the child two things. One, it teaches hir that healthful food is undesirable, something to be suffered through as the price for getting to eat dessert. The entire dining experience becomes a power struggle, enforced by authority figures by means of the Dreaded Broccoli (or Carrot or Spinach). Not only does this establish eating as a cause of stress and tension, but it also makes the children hate the food that ze feels is being forced on hir.

The second thing it teaches the child is that dessert is the ultimate goal. Saying to a child that they “can’t have” something while providing no explanation for it makes it that much more alluring. Have you ever heard a parent discuss the intricacies of nutrition with a four-year old? Unfortunately, it almost never happens. To quote Stephen Sondheim’s “Into the Woods,” “What’s as intriguing or half so fatiguing as what’s out of reach?”

While sugar may or may not be naturally addictive, I believe nearly anything can be addictive if it comes with enough positive reinforcement. Dessert is given a boatload of positive connotations. Not only is it the reward for finishing “yucky” vegetables, but it is also associated with birthdays and holidays.

There is also an automatic assumption that children will not like healthful foods, and people tend to develop what is expected of them. In many books, television shows, and movies, the idea of kids not wanting to eat vegetables is pervasive. As an avid viewer of the PBS show “Arthur,” I remember watching with fascination the episode where D.W. refuses to eat most foods. I also remember reading “A Bad Case of Stripes” by David Shannon, which centers on a girl who absolutely refused to eat lima beans. While these stories send a good message in the end—that healthful foods are actually good—it establishes these types of foods as something  “different” that should be treated with caution.

In the position of an educator or a parent, it is easy to fall into step with the examples you are aware of: the ways those around you are acting, or the ways your parents acted when you were a child. At the camp, though many members of the staff agreed theoretically with the idea of granting children “eating independence,” most followed the trend of applying counterproductive pressure simply out of habit.

While pressure should be avoided because it turns mealtimes into a battle rather than a pleasant experience, children may still need guidance. Even though kids are naturally curious, something they have never experienced before can be daunting. Setting a good example can work wonders in this respect. Show them that grownups eat vegetables too, and that eating spinach is a sign of maturity and not a punishment.

Treating healthy food in a positive manner can be very effective. My mother tells me that my grandparents would exclaim that they had carrots or cherries to offer as if they were a special treat, and now you’d be hard-pressed to find a situation where my mom will pick something sugary over any good fruit or vegetable options (with the exception, of course, of 70 percent dark chocolate).

At the end of the day, a thoughtful push for a healthy balance is all that can be expected. Just as I would die if I ate only cookies, I would also die if I ate only spinach. Personally, I feel lucky that I was fully educated about food; I crave green beans just as often as Peanut M&Ms, and I generally desire to eat healthful food not for the sake of losing weight or improving cardiovascular health or any other specific benefits, but simply because I think it tastes good. This means that if a truly excellent and worthwhile dessert opportunity rolls around, I can indulge in that as well. Just ask my friends about the time I ate an entire pint of Coffee Almond Roca frozen yogurt.

So, as a general rule of thumb for any children you may encounter over your lifetime: teach them to love vegetables, and let them eat cake.

Comments are closed