Getting Kids to Eat Vegetables

At dinner tonight, 3 out of 4 members of the family love-love-loved the main dish. Alas, J wouldn’t even taste a smidgen. Her loss. She ended up eating bread and butter and grapes for dinner. You can’t win them all.

So, I had food on my mind, and then I manipulated M into eating asparagus by mentioning casually that it would make her pee smell different. Yes, I know: it’s inappropriate table-talk. But it got the job done.

Anyway, it all made me think about methods for getting children to eat vegetables. In the grand scheme of all American children in 2011, I’d say that my kids are pretty good eaters. They’re not super-stellar, but usually they’ll try things, and they eat several vegetables. I give a lot of credit to Ellyn Satter‘s advice on feeding kids, which I’ve said before. If you’re trying to get your kids to eat vegetables, here are some techniques I’ve used that have worked for me.  And actually, they work for grown-ups, too.

No value judgments

One of Ellyn Satter’s big pieces of advice is not to say things like “You have to eat two bites of peas before you can have dessert.” Because that sends the message to kids that they have to go through the chore of the yucky, stinky peas in order to get the valuable reward of dessert. If you’re early enough in parenting to follow this advice, it works pretty darn well. My favorite example is the time when M was 5 and J was 2. They asked for dessert and I answered honestly that we didn’t have any. They went into the kitchen and soon I heard them laughing uproariously. They had outsmarted me, found dessert, and started eating. What was the dessert? Carrots. I conceded defeat.

Another thing along these lines is that even when we’ve served dessert, I usually leave the vegetables on the table. My kids have eaten a bowl of ice cream after dinner and then gone back to snacking on broccoli while we chatted after dinner.

Modeling

Even though I do an Academy Award-worthy job of acting like I don’t care if they’re eating ice cream or broccoli, I just rave about my vegetables. Once I happened to be eating salad while J was eating chocolate. J said, “I know you like salad much more than chocolate.” I told her that I liked both, but that a big bowl of salad made me feel good, while a big bowl of chocolate would give me a tummy ache. I didn’t say that I exclaim over delightful salads in her presence while furtively scarfing down my favorite chocolate chips when she’s out of the room. That’s my little secret. Or, you know, now it’s our little secret.

Frozen Vegetables

My kids love frozen vegetables directly from the freezer. Peas, carrots, corn–they somehow perform a magic spell as long as they’re still Popsiclesque. On more than one occasion I’ve said this at a playgroup: mothers expressed disbelief, we’d trot to the freezer, break open a bag, and the majority of the children would start chowing down.

Presentation & Novelty

I think that part of the frozen attraction is its sheer novelty. It works in other ways, too. Artichokes are such an interesting vegetable to eat that my kids instantly wanted to try them. They shun salad, but they’ll both use lettuce as a wrapper when we make our special Asian burgers. Come to think of it, the side dish to that is cucumbers, carrots, & red pepper strips that have been blanched in boiling water with some rice vinegar and sugar. My kids just like variety. For carrots, sometimes I put out the big ones, green tops and all; other times I’ll cut sticks or put out the baby-cuts; or I might shred them extra fine, like in our spring rolls, which is the only way that I can eat raw carrots without gagging, myself.

Timing and Availability

We have some form of cut-up or easy-eat vegetable available always, usually in a little bowl in the fridge that’s pulled out for mealtimes. Our biggest hits are carrots, broccoli, cucumbers, and sugar snap peas. When our little friend who likes red peppers comes over I always have pepper strips, because my kids won’t eat them and so I try to use the peer pressure. When I set the table for dinner, I always put the veggies out first. Then my hungry children will eat them while they wait for the other stuff. Generally speaking, my kids aren’t allowed to eat in the living room at all unless it’s popcorn on a movie night. But I’ll make an exception for vegetables, explaining that they’re neater (because I’m still trying to act all neutral about the food) than, say, crackers or chips.

Gateway Drugs

Plenty of parents have luck with the gateway drugs of butter, cheese, and ranch dip. Actually, only butter works at our house. It’s why J is hooked on artichokes (butter + lemon juice + garlic salt = J’s version of nectar), and it’s the only way I ever managed to like carrots at all (by boiling the hell out of them, then caramelizing them in sugar and butter. Strangely, my daughters both turn up their noses at this candy-like version).

Flat-out Deception

I’m not above it. Most notably, there are my fabulous berry & spinach smoothies. When I became overwhelmed with zucchini and yellow squash during CSA season, I shredded tons of it and stored a bunch in the freezer, and then I figured that I could try sneaking some into my tomato sauce the next time I had pasta. Guess what? Everyone thought that the sauce was better than usual! Woo, hoo!  I’ve also made chocolate cupcakes with beets in them, and my children were eating them happily until Cute W, for reasons unknown, decided to tell them about the secret ingredient.

Eliminate the Texture Issue

My kids will avoid chunky tomato sauce, but crushed tomatoes or a smooth sauce are just fine. Pretty much every kid in my extended family also loves our traditional pureed potato leek soup, which we make with an immersion blender. We love our immersion blender. These days I’ll often blend some of our vegetable soups because the kids might avoid the vegetables, but they’ll eat the broth without noticing if it’s a little thicker with vegetables. I sometimes have texture issues myself, like with my recent eggplant dip. Sometimes it works the other way, too. For a while M became weirded-out by guacamole, so we switched to sliced avocado for a while.

Gardening & CSAs

Kids are more likely to eat foods if they help raise them. I talked last year about gardening with kids, and some CSAs let kids participate. Plus, of course, the produce is better. Sometimes for fun we have a contest between the grocery store and the farmers’ market produce.

Yes to Produce Policy

Generally, if my kids request any kind of produce, I’ll buy it. Sometimes I’ll even ask if they want to pick out anything in the produce section or at the farmers’ market. But I specify that whatever they choose can’t be wrapped (see, there I go avoiding saying “no cookies”). Otherwise they’ll absolutely pick out a Dutch Dessert. Because they’re smart girls. And there’s also a limit on overpriced fresh berries.  Of course,  I completely love both of these items myself. If  money and calories were no object, I’d totally throw a big pile of fresh raspberries on an enormous chocolate tart.

Those are some of our most clever vegetable techniques. But we’ll also have entire days go by in which my children will eat no vegetables whatsoever. And that’s part of why I love Ellyn Satter, too. Because according to her, if I just offer the good stuff, my job is done. Which I try to remember on the days when they turn up their noses at everything. But seriously, there’s nothing like children eating vegetables happily to make a gal feel like Super Awesome Mama. If I could get my children to eat red pepper strips while M coaches J on her reading, I think I might actually levitate.

Have any good methods or recipes, anybody?