Why is it often so hard to get kids to eat vegetables? They can be colorful, crunchy, sweet, and fun. And yet, the battle, whether an outright battle or inner parental turmoil, rages on. You are raising a growing kid and you want them to keep growing, and veggies have cornered the market on healthy growth (as much as you might try to convince yourself after hours of tears that fruit is enough). But, your kid just wants ABC pasta — every day. Here are some insights that I have found in my experience to help motivate your kids to eat well.
Think Like the Swiss
One thing that I have learned on the vegetable front, and actually any food front (including items that your child considers to be YUMMY), is to be neutral. Kids have very little power in their pint-sized world and eating is an area that they often choose to exercise what little power they have.
As much as you may be tempted to say things like, “MMMM Broccoli; this is my FAVORITE food EVER; better than chocolate ice cream,” take a deep breath and step back. Serving your meal without judgment, save for generic comments to other adults about how you are enjoying the meal, helps to start out on Swiss territory. Most kids, particularly toddlers, eat foods in blocks. Generally it is ok not to worry if picky-pants eats cereal and pasta for two days straight, because over the next two days they may move on to blueberries and peas.
So, when figuring out nutrition, look at the week as a whole, and remember that kids are survivalists. They will not starve, if given ample opportunities for meals, and they will not completely deprive themselves of nutrients (though a multi-vitamin does help ease parental anxiety). Generally, letting go of the battle, while setting some limitations, will help prevent the battle from ever brewing and your child will have nothing to rebel against. There is all kinds of research out there to substantiate the idea that making a big deal about what kids eat leads to food issues later on. Seems to follow that basic logic that if you raise your kid like a hippie, you end up with Alex P. Keaton.
Break out the Mixmaster
Sometimes, after reviewing week after week of diet charts, your little culinary critic really seems to be missing the mark in terms of vegetable intake. Still, no need to despair. There are steps you can take before resorting to sneaking vegetables into your kid’s food. The goal is to build a life-long appreciation for different foods, including veggies.
Take a look at what your child does love to eat. Most kids can be convinced to eat bread, pastries, and pasta products without too much urging. If you have some culinary/baking ability (and if you don’t, this would be a good time to develop it), try making zucchini muffins (zucchini being a cross-over fruit/veggie), Kale scones, spinach infused bread rolls — you get the idea. As an added bonus, have your child join in on the preparation; they will have a more vested interest in consuming it.
And again, if your child adamantly opposes spinach but is partial to kale, don’t try to make something with spinach. Serving the one vegetable that your child likes once a day is better than nothing. At one point, our family practically owned stock in the artichoke industry, (and the olive oil industry). Which leads me to an obvious point, but one which some conscientious parents may initially cringe at. If your child will only eat broccoli with salty Chinese sauce on it, it may be time to pick your poison.
You have tried everything, and now you are pulling your hair out. What now? Gentle cajoling can be tried first, explaining that we need to eat a variety of different foods to grow strong and healthy. Get into the details of what vitamins you get from which veggies and how it helps you. Classic stuff, but sometimes works on even the most stubborn (that’s not to say that you won’t hear, “well I don’t want to grow,” from the most staunch resistors).
And speaking of variety, sometimes trying new and “exotic” veggies, which your child picks out from the grocery store, helps break up the monotony. Because, like adults, sometimes kids are just BORED with food. If your kid won’t touch lettuce, consider something more interesting like fresh basil or even mint. Herbs are chock full of vitamins and minerals. But when all else fails, a Mixmaster won’t be enough; it is time to bring out the Vitamix.
Armed with a powerful pulverizer, liquefier, and otherwise destroyer of food, you can convert any vegetable into a form that your child will ingest. True, your child will get more nutrients if they break down the fiber content in their own mouth, but you are on your last legs here. Smoothies and pureed soups come to mind but some kids (like mine) don’t like those either.
If you serve your child juice, sneaking in a wee bit of beet juice adds pink and iron, calcium, and vitamin C! Use your liquefied delights in everything that you cook. Try making more from scratch. You can buy “spinach” pasta, but I have found the added nutrient content to be substandard.
Make homemade pasta and really cram the spinach in there. Homemade burgers, meatballs, meatloaf — all of these can be stuffed incognito with veggies and can be made by vegetarians, vegans, and carnivores. And if you happen to have Encyclopedia Brown on the premises, take full advantage of the neutral colored veggies like cauliflower and parsnips. Sweets can also get in the game with treats like carrot cake and rhubarb pie.
When you are at your most frustrated with your kids, take heart in knowing that this too shall pass, even if you have to get by with sweet potato tater tots in the meantime. The day WILL come when your child will eat endive with gusto, even if that day comes when they are 29.