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Teaching Kids to Eat Healthy: One mom’s refusal to hide vegetables

At our house, we have a no-coercion, no-lying policy. I don’t call vegetables cutesy names, and I don’t secretively puree plants and add them to typical kiddie fare. What is there to lie about? Vegetables come in every color, taste and texture, and they have fun names like rutabaga! And if you succeed, then you set your child up for a lifetime of healthy eating.

My two and a half year old happily eats Brussels sprouts, beets, kale, peppers, broccoli, spinach, zucchini, asparagus, cabbage, artichokes, sweet potatoes, winter squash, tomatoes, onions and a whole lot more. I know, you parents with picky eaters think, I’m just lucky. But I like to think I have something to do with my son’s garden-greedy palate. I’ve worked hard to make it easy for him to love vegetables, so maybe what’s worked for me will work for you:

The early bird gets the: parsnip?

Try exposing your baby to a cornucopia of veggies before they say their first word. Babies are more likely to eat a food if the flavor was present in their mother’s amniotic fluid or breast milk, so Mom, think like Popeye and eat your veggies. And when your baby is ready for solids, don’t hold back. Before my son had teeth, I pureed every vegetable I could get my hands on – he ate more varieties of veggies before he was one than I had eaten before I was 20.

How does your garden grow?

It’s not news that children who participate in gardening activities are more interested in eating fruits and veggies. My best friend’s daughter had a difficult time transitioning from pureed produce to whole, refusing to eat any fruits or vegetables not ground-up. That is, until she went apple-picking at a local orchard. Her mom was surprised to see her toddler pluck an apple from a low-hanging branch and sink her teeth right in. If your kids plant seeds, water plants, or pick cherry tomatoes off the vine, they are far more likely to give them a try. And you don’t need a huge garden plot to reap the rewards – a sunny balcony or window can support a tray of lettuce, a tomato plant or herbs. If you can’t do that, tour a farm and visit farmers’ markets to see how foods are grown and cared for.

Get cooking

There are many strategies out there on how to prepare vegetables so your kids will eat them. Start simple – learn how to cook vegetables well, and let your kids help. If you are not gifted in the vegetable-preparation department, invest in a good cookbook. Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone describes a wide variety of vegetables and simple preparations for each. Don’t be afraid to embellish – a little butter, cheese, sea salt, lemon juice or vinegar can give your child a new appreciation for a previously disregarded dish. And although it doesn’t speed up the preparation of dinner, involve the kids. Even the littlest chef can give the sweet potatoes a bath.

Give them a choice

We try to keep things low-key at our table. We ask that each food is given a respectful try, and if our son enjoys something, that’s wonderful. But if he doesn’t want to finish something, that’s OK, too (although I’m not going to make him a peanut butter sandwich instead). Provide a choice of vegetables, and chances are your kids will ingest something healthy. My son doesn’t always eat everything I put on his plate, but I’m confident that he will not be an adult who subsists solely on pizza pockets. And that’s really what I’m concerned with – not how many peas he ate last Tuesday.

Practice what you preach

Most importantly, eat your veggies with a blissful smile on your face. There is nothing more influential than parents cooking and eating their veggies with gusto. And be careful of projecting your dislikes or social conventions on your child – you may be surprised at what they enjoy eating. All parents can attest that kids have unique palates; some kids eat crayons, some like spicy garlic pickles, fermented sauerkraut or kale chips (perhaps for breakfast).

Vegetables are a part of my family’s daily life, and not just when we’re sitting at the dinner table. We talk about veggies, read about them, shop for them, grow them, cook them and enjoy them. And I think this is why my kid eats them, and why I think your kid will eat them too. If not today or tomorrow, probably in a month – and definitely when she is 30, feeding her toddler a bowl of Swiss chard while she enjoys a roasted butternut squash and quinoa salad.

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