Sunday, February 27, 2011

You Can Lead a Child to Vegetables, But You Can't Make Him Eat!

You can find just as much literature on how to get your kid to eat a healthy and well-balanced diet as you can on potty training.  It is my belief that when that much advice is available in print it is a clear indicator that there are no good answers and that each child will respond differently to a particular technique.  Put simply, you're going to have to figure it out for yourself.  I've heard a lot about Deceptively Delicious over the years.  Those who use this cookbook love that they are fooling their kids into eating vegetables.  Personally, I don't really agree with this approach unless you desperately need to get the nutrients into your kid.  How can you get your kids to appreciate and even enjoy vegetables if you dress them up as dessert?  As with anything pertaining to kids, patience is the real key.  It takes a long time to develop a taste for something new.  I like to think that kids feel the same way about vegetables as adults do about beer; it's an acquired taste.  Each of my kids has, over a great deal of time, acquired a taste for something I thought for sure they would never eat.  So, it is possible!

When it comes to eating a well balanced meal, Abby gives me the least grief.  At about two, she started adding vegetables to her diet.  The process was slow and at times a little painful to watch.  Her first veg was green beans, but she didn't just pick up the bean and eat it, she pulled it apart and only ate the little beans inside.  It took me three years to get her to eat the whole thing.   It took over 5 years of offering brussel sprouts before she finally took a bite and said, "Mmmmmm, these are good!"  I had to employ every ounce of self control in my body to remain calm and reply, "yes, I know."  Elijah on the other hand has been a challenge from birth!  It took him several months just to get the hang of nursing, and the only baby food I could get him to eat was bananas.  In my opinion his eating habits were barely capable of sustaining life, and yet his doctor kept telling me he was a very healthy little boy.  He started with a menu that consisted of buttered noodles, bread with butter and french fries.  He viewed anything with color as poison.  So last year when he suddenly asked me for more strawberries, I nearly peed my pants with relief and excitement.  He has since added almost every fruit to his list of likes.  He still won't even touch a vegetable, but I'm holding out hope that he will surprise me one day.  Jonah falls somewhere in the middle of these two extremes.  He didn't start eating solids until he was nearly 10 months old, and he never did eat baby food.  He always insisted on eating table food, and he insisted on feeding himself.  This meant that he didn't get introduced to yogurt, soup or oatmeal until he was able to use a spoon fairly well!  He'll try nearly everything you put on his plate, but so far the vegetables get spit out.  This doesn't worry me in slightest.  He's not yet two years old, and my past experience has taught me to keep my expectations low.

I don't have all the answers, and I can't offer any tried and true, surefire techniques.  I can, however, throw out a few ideas to mingle with all of the other ideas floating around in your heads.  There is a pretty common belief out there that if you get your kids involved in meal preparation, they will be more inclined to eat whatever lands on the dinner table.  To a certain extent, this is true.  I once got Eli to lick a piece of purple cauliflower after he helped me break it apart for soup.  He didn't like it, and has yet to regain any trust in me when it comes to food, but he did try it and that was a small victory for me.  Obviously, I believe in getting my kids involved.  I have found that when they are driving me crazy with their fighting and their whining in the grocery store, soliciting their help in the produce aisle works wonders.  Picking out green beans is a great way to get them involved and keep them occupied for a few minutes.  I just show them an example of a good green bean and a bad one and then tell them to inspect each bean before they put it in the bag.  Not only am I getting them involved and preserving a bit of sanity, but I'm getting them familiar with vegetables in a way that is positive and non-threatening.  Thankfully, farmer's markets are popping up in nearly every community.  The atmosphere is fun and exciting, the people are friendly and samples are usually available.  I encourage you to find one and take your kids there regularly.  The same goes for gardening.  Most kids love the whole process of planting a seed and watching it sprout and grow into a plant.  The revelation that that plant will then produce a morsel of food that can be served up with dinner is an extraordinary and potentially powerful message.

Another way to get your child's attention is through color and patterns.  Something that exists on nearly every vegetable out there.  Think back to the purple cauliflower.  I originally bought it because it's color and texture absolutely captivated Elijah.  If you can't picture the details of a cauliflower's florets, take a good look next time you find yourself shopping for produce.  It's really a beautiful and intriguing looking veg.  If at all possible, try to work with colors that are your kids' favorites.  Abby's favorite color is pink, and she is tempted by radishes every time she sees them even though she knows, through painful experience, that they are very spicy.  Carrots catch Jonah's eye and draw him in as do red bell peppers.  He's usually brave and samples a bite or two before spitting it all out on the floor.  I'm hoping this is part of the process of acquiring the taste for these delectable treats.  We've all heard of broccoli and asparagus being referred to as little trees.  I wish I could come up with more of these imaginative comparisons for my kids, but when I look at an eggplant, all I see is an eggplant.

Although I don't agree with dressing vegetables in sheep's clothing, I am definately in favor of pairing them with something more likable.  If your kid already likes mashed potatoes, feel free to add some mashed cauliflower or parsnip.  In fact, you can do this with just about any root vegetable.  They all will change the flavor and texture of the mashed potatoes, so it's not a sneaky trick, it's a new adventure!  And if you're feeling really adventurous add a little food coloring.  (Maybe some green mashed potatoes and turnips for St. Patty's Day?)    I once received a recipe for apple and parsnip soup that my kids actually liked, so I thought it was pretty comical that I didn't really care for it!  Like potatoes, apples go well with a whole laundry list of foods including vegetables.  Don't be afraid to get creative.  A more recognizable pairing would be drizzling cheese sauce over broccoli.  I've tried this only to have my kids slurp up every drop of the cheese and leave those poor little trees completely intact.  If I wasn't so infuriated, I would have been impressed.  Another common vegetable partner is dip.  As in carrot sticks dipped in ranch dressing.  The vast majority of kids in this country think ranch dressing is delicious.  Mine prefer ketchup and soy sauce.  So much so that these two condiments have been promoted to side dish, and therefore must be purchased in bulk.  It may gross you out to watch your darling angel dip celery in ketchup or peas in soy sauce, (I know it does me) but you should delight in the fact that they are finding a way to like their vegetables.  Most likely, these odd pairings won't stand the test of time.  I remember once thinking that wine coolers tasted good.

Lastly, lead by example.  Do you eat your vegetables last or with little enthusiasm?  If you pick half-heartedly at your salad, how can you expect your kids to devour theirs?  Over the past few years I've made a conscious effort to not only make my servings of vegetables larger than the protien and starch on my plate, but to also eat them first.  I can't say that my kids now gobble up their veggies before even taking one bite of their hot dogs.  Quite the opposite, they snarf down their hot dogs and are then "too full" for peas.  But I know they are watching me, and my end goal is to show them that vegetables are not the enemy.

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