Monday, March 26, 2012

Kids and Vegetables

Years ago, I stopped to visit a friend while she was preparing dinner for her daughter. She cooked while we chatted and at some point asked her daughter if she wanted broccoli or beet tops. The 3 year old child screamed out, "Beet tops!! I love beet tops!" I was stunned. Beet tops?! Are you kidding me?

I never forgot that moment, and am happy to report that now I too have kids that generally eat their vegetables (no, not beet tops... I'll never live up to that one). Another friend asked me today how I managed to pull that off. I am going to share what I told her. But kids can be capricious, so let's hope I don't jinx myself by posting this!

My best tip is to start them young. Or rather don't stop. Go right from Gerber's pureed squash to the real thing. If that ship has sailed, then the next best thing is to start serving vegetables every day and set the example by happily eating them yourself.

I notice a big difference in intake if I cut the snacks off about 2-3 hours before dinner and serve the veggies first. I also use these tips from Dr. Sears. My take on tip #1: At snack time, I set out an ice cube tray (I got some star shaped ones from the Dollar Store) filled with finger foods and dips (celery, carrots, granola, apples, raisins, broccoli, cheese cubes, peanut butter, ranch, yogurt, etc.) When I introduce something new, I'll dip some pieces myself and take a few bites saying stuff like "Mmmm, I like the celery with peanut butter" to get them started and show them what's good.

Presentation also does the trick sometimes too. Last week I wanted to introduce a spinach salad with shrimp. I arranged the food into a monster face (spinach hair, carrot slice eyes, cucumber mouths, and shrimp ears) using ranch as "glue". They ate it all. Even the shrimp.

If they don't care for something, however, my husband and I have agreed to skip the battle of wills at the dinner table. Although we are not above negotiating if it gets results. We don't allow the word "hate" at mealtime. They have been taught to say, "I don't prefer this" instead. I find it very rude when someone works hard preparing a meal and a kid pushes it away with a face and whines, "I don't like that." Especially if I am the one who made the dinner! 

Now let's discuss particulars if you don't even know where to start. I don't bother with canned foods anymore. Too many nutrients leach out during the processing and too much salt is added in. Frozen vegetables are great and, of course, I go for fresh whenever possible.

Here's what works the best with my kids:
  • baby carrots, raw
  • green beans, frozen or fresh, steamed*
  • broccoli, raw w/ ranch or microwaved*
  • corn, frozen or fresh, boiled or microwaved*
  • cucumbers, raw with ranch (leave some slivers of skin on when peeling)
  • asparagus, grilled w/ olive oil, salt & pepper
  • various lettuces or purple cabbage in salad with ranch
  • baby spinach, raw mixed into salad**
  • salsa w/ chips
  • snow peas, stir fried in sesame oil
Here are some others that they tolerate:
  • yellow squash and/or zucchini, sliced or cut into spears, grilled or sauteed in a pan with butter, salt, and pepper
  • Brussels sprouts cooked a very particular way
  • peas as a condiment (added to stews, chicken pot pies, etc)
  • onions and celery (if I chop them tiny and add them to ground beef, soups, or stews)
*I always steam my vegetables in the microwave by adding the veggies to a Rubbermaid container, covering just the bottom of the dish with water, and adding salt and pepper. I put my lid on loosely, microwave on high for 5 minutes, check and stir. Then cook for 2-4 more minutes depending on how firm I want them. Once they are done, I drain the water, stir in a pat of real butter, and add more salt and pepper to taste. If you are anti-microwave, feel free to steam on the stovetop with a colander.

**I can usually get away with swapping the less nutritious iceberg lettuce with fresh baby spinach in almost anything (salad, tacos, etc.). Lately I have been slipping fresh spinach into other dishes as well (lasagna, omelets, calzones, etc.).

And last but not least, involve the kids in the process. Let them help shop. Even better... help them grow their own. Last year I won my boys over to tomatoes by letting them plant some in a container on the front porch (BTW, if you want to plant from seeds, now is the perfect time to start). The yield was not great and the tomatoes were tiny, but my oldest picked one, popped it in his mouth, and declared that he liked it! I consider that a win. This year we are planting tomatoes and peppers.

So there you go. My secrets. Well... actually, I have one more secret. It's possible we are winning the veggie battle simply because we cut out the competition. My kids aren't saints. I'll be honest, if we had fruit snacks laying around all the time, they would choose those over the carrot sticks. But I save the junk for road trips and Grandma's house. They don't seem to be suffering.

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