Sunday, October 19, 2008

15 Ways to get your Kids to eat their Veggies - Guaranteed!

Ok, let’s back up - I can not guarantee anything - but here are my credentials:
I have raised one picky eater into a handsome, 17 year old, healthy vegetarian and have been a nanny to countless others, some of whom I have turned into artichoke connoisseurs - at age two!
I refuse to believe that kids will not eat healthy food - after all the survival instinct kicks in at one point, and I refuse to have power struggles over food with two year olds - because to put it very bluntly - you won’t win - they will!
So - general rules - it has to be fun - relatively simple - and doable. Some of these tips may seem borderline insane - but let’s face it, so is trying to be a good parent some days! I am not in favor of “sneaky chef” tactics, you know the whole “hiding spinach in brownies” philosophy - because, quite honestly I think it is lying, reenforcing the notion that veggies are bad and brownies are good, and it is also a whole lot of work to hide miniscule amounts of vegetables in cups of sugar and goops of oil - there has to be a better way, and there is - 15 of them! No lying, no tantrums and no marathon sessions in the kitchen!
Some of these you might have tried, some of these tips already work for you, and others are worth a shot. Let’s start:

Let’s try to understand why kids are such picky eaters. I think it has something to do with the basic survival tactics of our caveman ancestors - back then, the kids who did not practice extreme caution when coming across an unknown food, often did not survive their curiousness. As a result, this inbuilt safety mechanism can drive the most dedicated mom or dad up the wall.

Let’s take it step-by-step

1. The “Salad - no way!” problem. What might be going on here is, that the mixing of different textures and flavors feels like a loss of control to our cautious kid. Solution: Try serving the same ingredients as a platter - nothing touches anything else - with the salad dressing as a dip. As you are slicing and dicing the ingredients for a salad don’t mix your child’s portion, simply arrange them in piles on a plate - or for extra coolness- bonus points - make them into a face or a character from a book. The dressing as a dip has to be of the highest quality; only the best oils, with a protein base and not too much sodium. Definitely out: anything with artificial flavors or colors, anything hydrogenated and please no MSG. Tofu as a base, works really well. Readymade dips include nut butters, cream cheese or hummus. Store bought dressings I can recommend include Newman’s Own - especially their “Light” line - and Amy’s salad dressings, available in the health food store or some supermarkets.

2. Rename veggies to give them a funky spin - I learned this trick from my grandmother, who was a cool person way before "cool" was even a term. She would have no problem naming spinach leaves “dragon scales” and snow peas “magic butterfly wings”. You could even make a dragon with spinach as scales with a lovely thousand island dip - maybe some carrot slivers as fiery dragon breath - you get the idea. Be creative - for more inspiration, consult Play With Your Food, by Joost Elffers, available at link

3. Sometimes it all depends on consistency - I know many kids that will not touch any green veggie that has wilted in the cooking process - they call wilted spinach “slimy” and to be honest, they are kind of right - but they will happily eat spinach "raw" - remember, better call it “Dragon Scales”.

4. You have heard this one before - let your kids help you cook. Take a deep breath - stop stressing and have more fun in the kitchen. Okay maybe this does not work after a long, busy day when you are just plain tired, but maybe on the weekend. Let them help you bake, or chop veggies, or mix dough for homemade pizza. They love getting their hands dirty and you can have really great conversations in the kitchen - I don’t know why it is, but being in the kitchen and cooking together gets people to talk to each other. When I say let them chop and cut - before you sue me for handing kitchen knives to your three year old - I am talking about craft kids scissors and plastic lettuce knives, of course. They are quite handy for performing a number of tasks. Not everything can be accomplished with these tools but you would be surprised at how handy scissors are in the kitchen. I actually have several pairs of real scissors in my kitchen, and they are some of my favorite prepping tools.

5. Research recipes together - kids are wizards on the internet and there is not a single fruit or vegetable that does not have an almost exhaustingly long description in Wikipedia or sites like that. Learn about veggies together! Give older kids the power to research recipes and make some choices about what goes on the dinner table. They may surprise you in their fearless approach to try out new things.

6. Join a CSA ( Community Supported Agriculture, otherwise known as your neighborhood farm). Buy a share in your farm and go on weekly trips to pick up the bounty! Your kids will be able to breathe fresh air, get to pet chickens, goats and other animals, and maybe help you harvest. Just a couple of weeks ago, I saw, at my local CSA, a little boy who helped his mom pick sugar snap peas and announced loudly and with conviction that these were way better than candy - there is a lifelong enthusiastic veggie eater for you. Find your local CSA here.

7. Mono eating: some kids want to eat only one type of food at a time - and that’s fine! Some adults embrace mono eating much later in life, when they realize that it is actually much easier on your digestion. Of course, the quality of these exclusive foods matters greatly, and most doctors agree that eventually kids will grow out of that habit and embrace greater variety. One should keep in mind that nutrition is the sum of its parts, and what is consumed over the course of a week many be more important than any one particular day. Imagine for lunch one day you set up your child with a gigantic bowl of baby carrots and a hummus dip. You’d be amazed at how quickly you’ll see the bottom of that bowl. You might be thinking that your child needs more to eat - but think about it you’re child is full, he or she is smiling, and they’ve just consumed a load of fiber, vitamins, protein, fat and a lot of carrots! It’s great!

8. Smoothies - although I am not one to embrace hiding vegetables - Smoothies do pack a nutritional punch - the basis of smoothies can be milk, tofu, soy milk, rice milk, coconut milk, etc. So, this can become a very valuable addition to a picky eater’s menu. Add unusual smoothie ingredients such as: lettuce, cucumbers, carrot juice, tomatoes, cooked butternut squash, cooked pumpkin, zucchini, beets (cooked or raw), or cooked sweet potatoes, and of course your fruits of choice. Try not to make your smoothies too sweet. Have fun experimenting wildly! Most blenders are safe for kids to operate, under adult supervision of course - and working the blender makes smoothies twice as fun for them!

9. Over at the Vegan Lunch Box blog, Jennifer McCann presented a great idea. Her observation was that sometimes vegetables just aren’t as accessible as cookies or crackers. So, the solution here is to buy a condiment box with an ice compartment (available at Linen’s n Things or Bed Bath & Beyond). These plastic boxes have five compartments to hold about two cups each of your soon to be favorite veggies - you put ice underneath to keep the veggies fresh and crispy all day long. This way the box can go straight on the counter in everybody’s view. Check out a picture here:
The options of what to put in the box are endless and open for discussion, of course. Suggestions are cucumber slices, carrots, snap peas, fruit spears, lettuce leaves, apple slices etc - you get the point. Now all you need is a little dressing, hummus, nut butter or any other dip, and you are all set - all day long for a veggie feast.
Whatever is leftover at the end of the day - becomes either pre-diced dinner ingredients or can be used for the next soup, smoothie or crock pot meal.

10. Speaking of crock pots - even small children can help decide what goes into a crock pot - and because it is not hot when you put the meal together, there’s no danger of getting burned - and again you have that involvement that gets children interested, and helps you avoid the power struggle.

11. You should respect that your children might want to eat at a different time than you would. The very first time you try to force your kid to eat, you have lost the battle. You are actually teaching them, that the more he or she resists eating, the more attention you will lavish on them trying to make them eat. This becomes their favorite game really fast. It is much better to wait until they are hungry and ready to eat.

12. Never use food as a bribe or reward or punish a kid for not eating. This creates a no-win situation and could lead to lifelong struggles with food. Especially the perception sweet is good (mostly a reaction they learn from you) is really a hard one to shake.

13. Play with your food! - touch it, make it into silly shapes, dye it with naturals dyes etc. the whole idea of the Japanese Bento Boxes is very intriguing. Check out some of the craziness and steal some of the ideas. Scroll all the way down - it is worth it! Did you see the tomato lobster - crazy! Some of these are extremely elaborate and some probably use artificial food dyes, which I would not recommend, but the general idea is wonderful. You will be amazed what kids will eat, if food is presented this way. Just think about how they are willing to embrace cereals just because some cartoon character is on the box - imagine if the same cartoon character actually is the food they are about to eat.

14. Tell stories that feature your kids, the veggies they are about to eat and the wild adventures they are going to have. This one is not only a lot of fun but really works. Don’t fret if you are not much of a story teller - borrow heavily form the classics - go ahead - whichever story you remember will do - just change the main character to become your child and weave vegetables into the story. This is another one from my grandmother, who was an awesome and fearless story teller. I remember hundreds of stories that featured me and the very lunch I was eating that day! It was so much fun and I remember being completely captivated, making sure I would eat every last bite.

15. Play the ABC Vegetable game. Vow to eat at least one vegetable for every letter of the alphabet with your kids. There is research, choosing, and cooking involved - and it should be fun! Some letters obviously will be harder than others. One mom tried this with her kids and writes a blog about her experiences in “The Great Big Vegetable Challenge” which you can read here
You will find inspirational stories, recipes and tips at this awesome blog.

Well, that’s it! I hope some tips here are useful to you. If you have any more that worked for you, let me know I’d be happy to expand this list.

1 comment:

earthmother said...

nothing touches anything else

When I read that in your #1 tip, I laughed out loud! You can most certainly tell you've been a mom and nanny. Been there, done that!

These are great tips, Moni.