Written by Jesse Hackell MD
Let me start by saying that I am not of the belief that the job of a parent is to FORCE a child to eat any particular food. Attempts to do so usually result in mealtimes which are unpleasant and stressful for both parents and children, and negate any attempts to have family meal times as a time of sharing and interaction.
That said, we all know that children are often picky in their accepted food choices, and that they do not always cooperate in eating the variety and selection of foods which we, as parents and physicians, would like. There is no dispute that a child’s diet should include fruits and vegetables, for many reasons: These foods provide vitamins lacking in other foods, they contain fiber which is needed for normal intestinal function, and they are generally lower in calories than processed foods, while still providing the same feelings of fullness, and thus may help to change the continuing trend towards childhood obesity.
Getting your child to accept and eat vegetables is a lifelong process, starting when the very first foods other than breast milk or formula are presented (it could even be suggested that breast-fed infants are introduced to vegetables through the maternal diet, knowing as we do that maternal intake does contribute to the taste and quality of the milk, but that is a different topic.)
There has recently been a change in what is recommended as first foods for infants. In the past, processed single grain cereals were the starting food, followed by the addition of vegetables and fruits. Now, however, researchers believe that the order in which foods are introduced to an infant makes little difference in eventual food tolerance. Thus it would make sense to introduce a child to foods such as vegetables which are both less processed and less sweet than other foods, and to let the child learn that these tastes (and some vegetables certainly do have strong flavors!) are just a natural part of eating. Adding whole grain baby cereals, as opposed to processed white cereals, further introduces stronger flavors, and makes them a part of the child’s diet from the start, and might well lead to better acceptance in the future.
As your child gets older, individual preferences become stronger. We can hope that early exposure might make this transition a non-issue, but that is not always the case. So we need to have techniques to make vegetables more palatable to toddlers and older children as well.
Many vegetables benefit from brief cooking, which softens them and make them more readily manageable by toddlers. Offering cooked or frozen and reheated pieces of many vegetables, such as carrots, will make them easy to handle for your children from their first attempts at self-feeding. And the nutritional value of these vegetables is far greater than the ubiquitous “puffs” of carbohydrates so often given to young children. Later, cooked and cooled broccoli spears, asparagus and carrots can be offered as a snack. Some children like to “dip” their vegetables in some sort of sauce, and I would suggest the use of plain balsamic vinegar as opposed to the common ranch dressing, which has far more fat and calories. For a child who will not eat a traditional tossed salad, vegetables and dip is a good prelude to dinner, and often can satisfy a hungry child home from school or play for long enough to enable the entire family to eat dinner together.
I do not believe that we need to “trick” our children, or disguise vegetables so they do not know that they are eating them, as so many people (such as “The Sneaky Chef”) are advocating. Nonetheless, common foods can and should be made with added vegetables, to benefit every member of the family. One favorite includes the use of vegetables in any dish made from ground meat—meat loaf, burgers, tacos or meatballs, for example. Using one pound of any ground meat (beef, veal, pork or turkey), take one cup of shredded carrots, one cup of shredded broccoli stalks (having steamed and cooled the florets for use with a dip), and one cup of shredded onion. Saute these in a little olive oil til soft, and mix with the meat, adding an egg if desired to hold things together. Add some bread crumbs, or even better, some rolled oats (not the instant variety), to add soluble fiber and beta glucans, which are thought to help control cholesterol, and form into a loaf, patties or balls, and cook as usual. The vegetables add moisture to the meat, as well as fiber to the diet, and they make the meat stretch further. You can also use chopped spinach or chopped artichoke hearts, which do not even need sautéing. Top with a tomato sauce, also prepared with added vegetables, for even more benefits.
I think the key here is to start doing this from the very first time your child eats these foods. Get them used to the fact that meatloaf simply has these flecks of orange and green in it, and they will not question the presence of the vegetables when they find them. If it becomes second nature for you to incorporate vegetables in everything you prepare, it will become second nature for your children to eat them as well.