The idea that vegetables = yuck is one that tends to be picked up from television, books, friends and so forth – or even from your attitude. It does not come from anything in the child’s tastebuds. If a child has been given vegetables (and junk food like chips and sweets have been kept to a minimum) from the start, then he/she is probably going to continue eating vegetables.
Having said that, it is also important to have a little bit of leeway. Not all vegetables taste the same, and you may have some vegetables that they just don’t like. Don’t worry unduly. As long as the number of disliked vegetables remains minimal, then simply avoid these vegetables. In our household, these are parsnips and broad beans. Other, more luxurious, vegetables – mushrooms, artichokes and asparagus, for example – you can take the attitude of “well, if you don’t like them, I won’t waste them on you and I’ll have yours. You never know – your child might feel that they’re missing out on a treat and have a go.
Here are a few things that have worked for me and my two children:
Cooking and presentation is big step in encouraging children to eat vegetables. I hesitate to go against such an authority as the renowned Mrs Beeton, but she had the wrong idea about cooking vegetables – she suggests boiling them for far too long. For example, carrots do not need to be boiled for an hour before eating! Vegetables boiled for ages may be soft and easy for children to chew, but they have also lost most of their flavour. And, what’s more, most of the nutrients have been boiled or leached away, so if you try the old line of “eat it up – it’s got lots of vitamins that are good for you”, you won’t be telling the truth.
Some vegetables can be eaten raw, but others (e.g. broccoli, silver beet and cauliflower) need a bit of cooking to eliminate bitterness and to make them easier to chew. But don’t overdo it. Children often like the crunchiness of raw vegetables – carrots are good examples. Cherry tomatoes that squish and burst in the mouth are also great – plus the “mini” look of them is appealing. Small amounts of frozen vegetables as a “sneaky” snack are nice on a cold day – frozen sweet corn works well.
Forget the old rule about not playing with your food. Turning certain foods into games can encourage children to eat them. My children got a group of their friends eating broccoli (to the point that they nearly fought over who was going to have the last piece) with one game. This was “lumberjacks”, where a “chainsaw” (the knife) gets used to fell a tree (the broccoli) and saw it into logs so the log loader (the fork) can take it to the paper mill (the mouth). Sound effects permitted. Another vegetable game popular with my children is Rabbit Races (seeing how quickly you can nibble from one end of a raw carrot stick to another). “Roads and Shoes” is another game, which involves constructing a road out of mashed potato then fitting your fork with “shoes” made of peas, corn or green beans and sliding the “shoes” along a road before entering the mouth (julienne strips of vegetables become skis). With a bit of imagination, half a zucchini becomes a dugout canoe, a slice of toast topped with veggies becomes a liferaft. OK, so you’ll have to put up with sound effects at the dinner table, but this is preferable to whines of “Do I have to?” and “I don’t like it – it’s disgusting!”
Grated cheese can be added to any cooked vegetable and melted. Most children love the taste of cheese, so they’ll eat the vegetables to get the cheesy taste.
Eat vegetables seasonally – this way items like peas, corn and tomatoes can get a response of “we haven’t had this for ages” rather than “not peas again!”
Add extra vegetables into staples like pasta dishes or mince. Kids will hardly notice the vegetables are there. Mashed potato can also be made “fancy” by adding things like carrot (cook along with the potatoes), fried onion, raw capsicum, pumpkin or even silver beet. Cheesy vegetable muffins or scones can work, too.
Fancy preparation (tucking peas into pasta shells, cutting vegetables into fancy shapes) help and is often recommended by children’s chefs. But, as Shirley Conran said, life’s too short to stuff a mushroom – or a past a shell. Better to serve raw veggies with a dip or have a fondue if you are in the mood for something fancier.