While nutrition experts have yet to agree on what constitutes the perfect diet, there is no doubt that vegetables play a vital role in promoting good health. This is particularly true for children, whose growing bodies need the vitamins, minerals and fiber that are loaded into vegetables of every kind. For children aged 2-6, three servings a day of vegetables are recommended. Children older than 6 should be having at least three to five servings a day. This may sound like a lot, but keep in mind that a “serving” is only 1/2 cup chopped or raw vegetables or 1 cup of raw leafy greens (such as spinach or kale).
Some kids are vegetable lovers from a very young age. If you are a parent of such a child, be thankful for this little gift. In my private practice, I see many less fortunate parents for whom the dinner table has become a battlefield. For their children, broccoli, spinach, and every other kind of vegetable are the enemy. If this situation sounds familiar to you, do not despair. There is hope for the vegetable-loathing child. With a little commitment and creativity, veggies might even become a family favorite.
For the picky eater, your first strategy should entail both variety and repetition. Introduce a wide variety of vegetables (over time) so that kids have an opportunity to experience many different flavors and textures. If your child rejects a specific vegetable, do not be too quick to give up. While you never want to force or bribe your child to eat any food, you should be persistent in reintroducing new tastes. Experts agree that it often takes repeated exposures to a new food before it is readily accepted. As many as 5 to 10 “introductions” may be necessary before your child will try it.
In addition, studies have shown that when children are involved in the preparation of their food, they are more apt to taste the foods they make. Even very young children can help remove peas from the pod or add pre-cut veggies to a salad. Plus, involving your children with meal preparation is a great way to engage in a fun activity together.
Still, even with repeated exposures and active involvement in the cooking process, some children may never accept vegetables as part of their diet. If this is the case in your home, you may want to try some of the “sneaky” strategies listed below to ensure that your family is eating enough veggies. Don’t worry; you don’t have to be a gourmet cook to make this work!
—Dips, sauces and dressings are a great way to “mask” a vegetable’s true identity. One fast and simple dip can be created by pureeing 1/2 head steamed broccoli and adding 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese. For dipping, use a few slices of pita bread; or for the really adventurous, carrot sticks.
—For a super simple side dish, you can’t beat sweet potato fries. Just slice a sweet potato into 2-inch long fries and lightly dust with canola oil spray. Bake at 450F for 12-15 minutes. An alternative “side” to sweet potato fries is oven-fried zucchini sticks. No unhealthy deep frying here… instead cover 2-3 cut zucchini with 1/4 cup bread crumbs and 2 tbsp. Parmesan cheese. (If you first dip the zucchini into a lightly beaten egg, the crumb mixture will adhere well). Bake on a lightly oiled cookie sheet at 400F for 7 minutes or until golden brown.
—For a failproof main course, try pita pizzas. Top pitas with tomato sauce, part-skim mozzarella cheese, and grated cauliflower and broccoli florets (use the smallest holes on the grater so they will be well-disguised).
—For the ultimate in food subterfuge, try a soup. Pureed broccoli and carrot make delicious soups, and your kids might not even recognize the veggies in liquid form.
Finally, with all meals, try to create a pleasant and welcoming atmosphere in which food and family can be enjoyed. Your dedication and persistence in the early years will reap big rewards for your children later on. The good eating habits we learn as young people tend to stay with us throughout our lives. So go on and cook up some veggies… your children may grow to love them.
KATHERINE BROOKING, M.S., R.D., is a nutrition counselor and writer. She sees adults and children in her private practice in Katonah and Manhattan. She can be reached at (917) 620-5244 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit her website at kbrookingnutrition.com.