How to get kids (and other picky eaters) to eat their veggies.Posted: 06.08.11
It’s a struggle that a lot of people are facing these days: after having grown up on processed food, we’re finding out that eating stuff from tin cans, brightly-colored boxes, and greasy fast-food sacks is detrimental to our health, along with smoking, drinking, and all manner of other really fun things. In order to keep ourselves and our families healthy, we’re turning back to fresh foods–including that all-time kid-repellent food, vegetables. (Did I mention this can often be mom-and-dad-repellent, as well?) The only problem with changing our diets is getting our family members to eat the food that’s good for them. Some people are lucky and they have no problems with this. Others of us are not so lucky.
I have to admit that my husband is quite a sport when it comes to eating the food that I cook–if I make it, he’ll try it. Eventually. Sometimes I have to make it two or three or ten times, but he eventually gets curious when I’m enjoying something that much and he’ll eat it. But as Roseanne Conner said, “Do you think he came out of a box that way?” I’ve been wearing him down for years to open up his adventurous nature when it comes to food, and even now, it can be tricky. Recently, for example, we’ve been tackling the issue of eggplant, which my husband swore up and down that he hated. So, I haven’t had eggplant in years–he doesn’t like it, so I don’t buy it. I’ll buy other things that he professed not to like–like Brussels sprouts, one of my favorites–but I can’t for the life of me imagine what I would do with a whole eggplant just for me, so I generally skip it.
A few weeks ago, though, Mr. Geek came home with an eggplant-based pasta sauce. I don’t know if he just wanted to try it or if he just got it to make me happy (aww), but it turned out that he really liked the pasta sauce. So, I started to prod him with a few relevant questions.
“So, how have you had eggplant cooked before?”
“Umm, I dunno.”
“Was it fried or grilled, maybe? Eggplant can be kind of tricky if you don’t cook it right.”
“Uh, I’m not sure how I had it.”
After a minute or two of squirming, he confessed: ”Okay, so, I’ve never actually had eggplant. My dad hated eggplant so I just figured I would too.” A-HA!
Ladies and gentlemen, this is not the first time my husband has claimed he doesn’t like something, only to figure out that 1) he’s never actually had the food in question or he’s never had it cooked properly, 2) he actually does like it and maybe even loves it. If I left it at “I hate eggplant,” well, I’d never, ever get to cook eggplant again. I had to remain diligent, but I found a chink in the “icky veggies” armor.
For children and other picky family members who aren’t so willing to try new things, you may have to try different tactics to get them to eat their veggies. Don’t worry–I have a whole bag of tricks that you can try. As a person who, myself, grew up largely on processed junk and fast food, I have a wee bit of credibility in this area.
Also? I got my husband to LIKE Brussels sprouts. Yeah, LIKE. So read on.
Tip One: Realize that it’s a process.
If you want any hope of changing your meals from this:
then you can’t expect it to happen overnight. Too much change and children especially will totally balk, in my experience. Start with your non-scary, non-threatening kid-friendly vegetables. What those are will probably depend on your kids; a lot of kids seem to like carrots, but I have always hated raw carrots (love em cooked, though). I didn’t like cucumbers either as a kid, but I loved broccoli, salad, and leeks. Introduce fresh vegetables a little at a time, at lunch and dinnertime, even breakfast–although I would not do snacktime veggies at first, there’s nothing that will make a kid hate vegetables more than to take away precious snacktime and replace it with something suspect. As your kids get more used to vegetables, you can start having vegetable-heavy meals once or twice a week when they’re ready. If you introduce new ingredients gradually in familiar surroundings, the change will be easier on your family.
Tip two: Cut down on processed food altogether.
If your want your veggies to have a chance, it’s a lot easier to pair them with grilled chicken than it is to pair them with chicken nuggets, or to get them to eat it if they know there’s not a can of Spaghetti-O’s waiting for them in the cupboard if they refuse. Processed food tastes “good” to us because it’s mostly sugar, fat, and salt; people are trained to crave these components, which is why junk food is so addictive (and can be hard to give up). Our palates are dulled by eating processed food; if you’re used to eating it, you won’t want to eat healthy foods. They’ll be lacking all of those addictive qualities. Cutting down on or eliminating boxed mac ‘n’ cheese, chicken nuggets, fish sticks, Hamburger Helper, and other processed foods will make healthy foods seem more appealing over time as your taste buds readjust, and your veggies won’t seem to be such a hard contrast.
Also, use fresh veggies instead of frozen or–God forbid–canned. Some frozen veg is okay when used in soups or stews; I often use frozen peas in pasta dishes or frozen corn in soup. On its own, though, it won’t be nearly as good as the fresh variety. Canned vegetables are even worse; too-soft peas, mushy green beans, and all the added salt you could never want. Your kids will know what’s up if you try to give them these sub-par vegetables.
Tip three: Do anything, anything at all, besides plain boiling or steaming your vegetables (at first, at least).
While boiling and steaming vegetables are perfectly healthful ways to prepare your veggies–as long as you don’t cook em to mush–they aren’t that appetizing for people who don’t enjoy the pure flavor of vegetables. Sure, I love blanched broccoli with just a pinch of salt, but I’m not picky when it comes to vegetables; if you’re trying to woo a picky eater, they’re not going to be as happy about a plate of steamed green stuff.
Roasting is a good method for many vegetables; root vegetables like carrots, potatoes, yams, and turnips can be roasted, but so can broccoli, asparagus, or fresh green beans. I also like to sauté asparagus or green beans in a little olive oil after blanching them for a few moments in hot water; sometimes I top them with a tiny bit of fresh Parmesan cheese or pecorino Romano.. This gives them extra flavor, and olive oil is also very healthy so you’re not diminishing the healthiness of the vegetables at all. (I also sauté my Brussels sprouts, always–these can also be roasted). This is how I got my husband to start eating asparagus, actually; now, I usually steam or blanch my asparagus, and he still likes it. The simple trick is not to make them boring–without smothering them in butter, ranch dressing, or processed cheese-food sauce, that is. Use flavorful, healthy dipping sauces, toppings, or alternative cooking methods to give your veg some pizazz.
A few suggested pairings: asparagus or green beans with a small amount of parmesan and/or toasted almonds; green beans with a homemade teriyaki sauce and some sesame seeds; broccoli or green beans with tzatziki or other yogurt-based dip; roasted carrots; roasted butternut squash with chili spices (if your family likes chili, this is a big hit at my house); roasted sweet potato fries; if you get desperate–melt a little cheese (real cheese, not processed cheese food) over your broccoli–just until they get used to it.
Tip four: Integrate your veggies into a meal that’s so fun, they’ll have to eat it.
Come on, who’s not going to eat a veggie pizza? Take the vegetables your kids like–or can tolerate–and pile ‘em up on a crust with some sauce and a bit of mozzarella. Your kids might grumble that it’s not pepperoni, but they won’t find this nearly as threatening as a pile of weird green stuff on their plate. You can do this same trick with pasta (made even more fun with a dinosaur serving fork) or make a stir fry and serve it with those cute starter chopsticks. A veggie fondue would be really fun; a fresh cheese fondue (not processed cheese sauce) or another yummy sauce that they could dip into would be something different that they might really dig. This is not just sinister trickery to get your kids to eat veggies; nay, you’re also doing something very important: you’re creating good associations with vegetables. Bad vegetable associations can stay with your kids for a lifetime.
When I was a wee girl, my aunt and uncle were babysitting me; my uncle sat me down in front of a plate of lima beans and wouldn’t let me get up until I finished them. As soon as lima beans turned into a punishment rather than a food, my reluctant partnership with this food came to a grinding halt; to this day, I can remember how gross I thought they were, and I’ve never been tempted to eat them again. My grandmother, on the other hand, always made vegetables seem like a right and normal part of a meal; I was never pressured to eat salad, or leeks, or broccoli, but I loved spending time with my grandma and so I have nice associations with eating those things. (Also, she used to make a somewhat unhealthy but really tasty broccoli and sour cream casserole that I can directly attribute my love of even plain broccoli to today–another tick in the column for slowly introducing foods in desirable settings.) When you’re a kid, so much of what you do is emotional rather than logical or rational; it’s important, then, to make sure your kids feel good about eating these vegetables by giving them good memories to go with them.
Tip five: Get your kids involved before dinner hits the table.
Whether your kids are helping you prepare the meal, helping plan the meals, or even heading out to the garden or the market with you, getting kids involved in meal planning is supposed to boost their willingness to eat and enjoyment of vegetables. Asking your kids what kind of vegetables they want seems like a really sound place to start–after all, they can hardly turn their nose up at things that they picked out, right? (Okay, so, they can, but they’re less likely to do so.) Getting them into the kitchen helps instill that “I made it myself!” pride that makes kids take a lot more interest in something than if it magically appears on the plate; taking them to the farmer’s market or out to the garden can have this same effect. Even young kids like to have some autonomy, or at least some say in what goes on around them, so keeping them involved can help reduce the tendency to balk at eating their veggies.
Tip six: Don’t forget that fruit is healthy, too!
Using fruit in place of vegetables can really help boost your kids’ healthy food intake. You don’t want to rule out veggies–especially green veggies–but fruit has a lot of good vitamins, fiber, and antioxidants, and can often be a little more kid-friendly. Especially while you’re transitioning away from processed food, fresh fruit can help get those taste buds re-wired. Cut up an apple or an orange and serve it with lunch or dinner dinner, or a handful of fresh berries (great for antioxidants) or grapes, and this will probably be a great transition tool for your kids. (Of course, you don’t have to stop when you introduce more veggies–I often eat fruit with dinner, sometimes more than one kind!)
Bonus Tip: Don’t do this. Ever.
This is just way too much fun. Cough. And very likely, your kids will never eat fruits or vegetables again. Ever.
Do you have any picky eater tricks? Post them in the comments below!
- 7 Creative Ideas to Pack in Fruits and Veggies (familydoctormag.com)
- Challenging my hate for veggie meals with homemade eggplant lasagna (chaswhole.wordpress.com)