How I Convinced My 4 Picky Kids to Like Vegetables
One mom's best laid plans for mealtimes were turned upside down. But it's how she adapted that's made all the difference.
I used to be one of those amazing mothers. With sweet, impeccably groomed kids who dazzle everyone with their ability to eat all the foods. We’d have family dinners with heaping platters in every color. My kids would sit around a gorgeous heirloom table, laughing and looking very J. Crew together. Teaching kids to eat good food can’t be that hard, I’d think to myself. You’ve just got to stick with it.
Unfortunately, this was all before I had actual kids.
Then came the babies. One, two, three and four.
Followed by my lesson in humility.
It turns out that teaching kids to eat healthy food — like keeping a room clean or listening to teachers at school — is a learned skill. And like teaching kids to keep a room clean or listen to teachers at school, parents have to be on the Eat Your Vegetables job all the time. Like, constantly.
That’s because the whole picky eating thing starts so early. Babies fresh from the womb automatically prefer sweet and rich foods because guess what else is sweet and rich? Breastmilk! We can’t have babies rejecting food from the start, so that preference is built right in. And there’s more. Mother Nature’s second gotcha: Children’s palates are typically not keen on bitter foods. Another safety measure, this one designed to keep children away from poisonous plants in society’s pre-Gerber days. It sounds like parents are practically doomed from the start.
But don’t lose heart.
Because it can be done. And despite these early built-in tendencies, it is important to learn to love food that nourishes your body.
So, here’s what I’ve learned to do as a mom of four with kids (ages four, six, seven and nine) who actually eat vegetables often, actually much more than I did as a kid and without as much angst.
1: Make it a priority. We eat veggies all the time. We put veggies in other foods (think marinara packed with sweet potatoes, bell peppers and carrots), we eat them as side dishes like Broccoli & Cheese Patties or Sauteed Sweet Corn and Peppers and we mix them into main meals. Sheet Pan Sausage with Sweet Potatoes and Italian Zucchini Casserole are more vegetable than anything else — and they’re both delicious! (Tip: Double the veggies on every stir-fry or pasta dish). Don’t forget breakfast and lunch too. Spinach is a natural inside smoothies, and no one can resist a Veggie Calzone around noon. The more kids see and experience vegetables, the more they learn to like (or at least deal with) them.
2: Talk up the nutrition. Once I started explaining that vegetables have super powers that help our bodies work better, our kids got into it. Carrots help your eyes! Spinach makes you strong! Hokey as it sounds, kids eat this stuff up. (See what I did there? Once you start down this road, it’s hard to stop. Sorry.)
3: Make up stories. While you’re in the speech-making mode, get creative. When I want kids to try something new, or harder still, something they already think they don’t like, I tell them a quick story to make it fun.
4: Roast everything. If there’s one cooking technique that makes most vegetables more palatable, it’s a hot oven with extra virgin olive oil and a dash of salt. Cauliflower, broccoli, carrots, use any vegetable you want (even frozen) because the technique is always the same — and so are the results: crispy on the edges, soft on the inside and delicious with every bite. (More tried and true methods: raw veggies with any type of dip, adding cheese or even a nice squeeze of lemon juice.
5: Serve small portions. In the end, everyone’s got a right to their own likes and no thank-you’s. When I serve any meal, including vegetables, I only give the kids a couple bites of everything. Once they eat what they started with, they can ask for more of whatever they like. You don’t have to force anyone to eat a heaping plate, and kids start learning to stop eating when they’re full — instead of going full steam until the food is gone. Along with eating food that actually nourishes them, that’s another habit that will serve them well from here on out.
The last thing is really just part of parenting but something that took me an embarrassingly long time to figure out: There will probably be whining. But it doesn’t have to be a lot. Here’s when I channel the awesome Zen quality of those super hero teachers at school. Prepare for this. Have a plan for what to say. Start by explaining your expectations. "Hey guys, tonight’s dinner is Lemon Chicken with Asparagus and Potatoes," I say. "I’ll give you a small bit of everything and you can ask for more of everything you like. You only have to try this small amount, but I would love it if everyone can be a good sport about it, okay?" I’m shocked at how effective this is.
Sometimes everyone likes their veggies. Sometimes people slink down in their chairs. But the most important part of the whole equation turns out to be me: If I can keep my calm on, our whole meal (not to mention the rest of our lives) goes more smoothly. That’s something only a real parent knows.