Sure, I’d like to think that my family’s diet is so varied and so plant-based and so amazing that of course my five-year-old would willingly eat a kale salad, or chow down on some brussels sprouts, but the reality is that turns her nose up at some of my favourites with an “ewwwwwww gross!”
As a parent, it’s tough to make sure your child gets the nutrients he/she needs. You want to make sure his/her diet is healthy, and tasty, and yet sometimes these things seem to be mutually exclusive. It’s the hard part about catering to your children: their tastes haven’t quite caught on to their bodies’ needs.
When I was pregnant, I was gifted Jessica Seinfeld’s book, Deceptively Delicious. I loved that book. But as with most things I come across, I like them mostly in theory. The book was full of great ideas and tips on how to sneak vegetables into your kids favourite foods, if, of course, you had the time/desire/equipment necessary to puree vegetables, package them, and have them at the ready to mix into those everyday comfort foods that kids typically love. I say typically love because most kids like mac and cheese. Not my kid, of course, but most kids. My kid would rather starve to death than eat a bowl of pasta. I tried a million ways, a million sauces, al fornos, and salads. I don’t even know why I took it as such a personal affront that she didn’t love pasta. But for a while, it was like a mission: I was determined to find some iteration of pasta that she would like. #momgoals. But I digress: back to the book!
What I didn’t love about the concept of sneaking pureed vegetables into meals was the actual sneaking part. See, I truly believe that kids should learn that vegetables are the fundamental building blocks of their diet and therefore should be visible in food. Sure, once you toss a bunch of greens into a stew or soup, they don’t necessarily taste like greens, but the overarching message is still there. The veggies are visible, and they’re being eaten. This isn’t to say that the puree thing isn’t a good way to bulk up a meal with more veggie goodness, because it is. It’s just, that for me, anyway, I want my daughter to grow up with an appreciation of vegetables. I want her to see them in her food and to get used to them there. I want her to know that they are good and essential, even if they don’t taste amazing to her right now in their naked, raw, vitamin-packed glory.
We are not vegetarians, although we do eat a lot of vegetarian, plant-based meals. This is not always an easy sell to kids, though I will say, having a kid who likes beans is a huge plus. But adding more vegetables to your child’s diet doesn’t have to be an onerous chore. Here are a few tips and tricks that have worked well for us and our little chef-in-training:
Getting Kids To Eat Their Greens (It can be done!)
Get your kids in the kitchen
When I first moved out on my own in my twenties, I literally knew how to make two things: inconsistent chocolate chip cookies and horrible scrambled eggs. I didn’t know how to properly hold a knife. I didn’t know how to plan meals, or make menus. I learned from scratch, as an adult how to be in the kitchen. Even though my daughter just turned 5, she is active in our kitchen. She helps make pizzas, measures ingredients for baking, and is learning how to use a knife to cut vegetables. A real live knife!!! And she cuts like a pro star! Now, I don’t leave her alone with the knife or even step an inch to the side. I’m there, hands hovering over her hands, keeping her on track and paying attention, because 5 is a notoriously distractible age. She is so proud of herself and of the product created because she helped make it happen. This isn’t to say that she will then gobble it all up with no fuss, but there is a connectedness and ownership with the food prepared that she takes a bit more seriously than she would otherwise. I have also recently instituted the chore of official food waste dumper on to her. She gets to take out the container of all the scraps we accumulate in a day. In my opinion, I think this is a great chore for small kids because they get to see the amount of food we waste. They can make that connection of how full the compost bin gets in only one week. I try to use these moments to talk about what it means to have food and what life would be like without it. We come up with ways that we could use up something or how we could save it for another day, instead of throwing it out. I would hope that this small chore instills a respect for the land that crops are grown in and for the farmers that help make it happen. Our North American diet of extreme variety is a luxury and I want her to know that.
Lead by example
I think this is one of the most underrated concepts. Kids watch everything you do. Literally everything. I know exactly how I sound when I’m angry and the way I look when I sarcastically way roll my eyes and laugh when I think something is ridiculous, because my daughter flawlessly impersonates me when she’s playing with her dolls. Kids watch what you do, what you eat, how you react to food and the relationship you have with it. If your plate is full of veggies, and you treat it like it’s no big deal, then hopefully, your child will also embrace that attitude. I think it’s important that, for the most part, everyone at the dinner table eats the same thing. Just because kids prefer chicken fingers and applesauce doesn’t mean that they should have that for dinner while the adults are eating steak and salad. One meal for all. It makes your life so much easier to make one dinner and to plan menus accordingly. When everyone eats the same thing, for the most part, kids come to understand that this is normal. This is dinner. We all eat vegetables. We all eat the same meat or beans. We eat this to be healthy. Catering to your child, in my opinion, makes them pickier than they already have the tendency to be. We aren’t total drill sargaents here: our daughter doesn’t like curry, so on curry nights, she still gets the rice and naan bread, but instead of the curry, I give her a fry up of all the vegetables, beans, or meat I’ve used in the curry. She’s still eating exactly what we are, just with a twist on the spice level. She sees our plates and she sees hers: they’re the same.
Firm but fair
Do you remember when you were a kid and your parents were like, no dessert unless you eat your peas, or you couldn’t leave the table until your plate was clean? We’ve departed from that way of disciplining as adults because we hated it so much and because we felt it didn’t enrich our appreciation for food. Eating mushy asparagus or overcooked broccoli was a punishment and managed to shape some of our aversions to certain vegetables as adults. But I think our parents’ hearts were in the right place. They needed to make sure we got the vitamins and minerals from those vegetables, and forcing them in seemed the only way to do it. I’m not saying to bring back that way of thinking, but there is something to be said about getting your kids to eat their veg, regardless of whether they like it or not. They don’t have to eat all of it, just one bite, or two bites: whatever you decide a good family rule is. Be firm about it, but also be fair: if it’s Brussels sprouts or another notoriously gag-worthy vegetable that night, maybe one small bite will do. Children need to know that they have to have at least a bite or two of each veggies, every night at dinner. Which brings me to my next point:
This is a tough one. Mostly because some nights it totally doesn’t seem worth the hassle. But being consistent is important. And I don’t mean consistently yelling or threatening or punishing. I just mean consistently encouraging you child to take that bite or two. Consistently making sure that there are two or three different veggies on their plate at dinner. Every day. If you have an older child, this will not necessarily be an easy task, but it can be done. Kids’ tastes are continually changing. one day they hate something the next day it’s all the rage. Even if you know that your child despises peas, still make them eat a bite or two every time you serve them. Eventually they may come to appreciate that particular vegetable, or at the very least, not have a total fit when it’s served.
Let them have some choice
Kids like to feel like they have a say in how things are done. Seeing as my daughter is 5, going on 25, she likes to make all our household decisions. And no, she doesn’t pay the bills, yet, since she still thinks a quarter and a $20 are the same thing I mean, how could I possibly trust that!? Kids like to choose. They like options. Now, I don’t mean, catering to them for meals or making something separate for them. But, I’ll say something to my daughter like, we’re having salmon for dinner tonight, do you want broccoli or cauliflower? And she’ll crinkle her nose and I know she’s about to do her ewww gross thing or get all kindergarten smarty pants on me and say, I don’t pick either. Then I say, that’s fine, I’ll pick then. The threat of losing a choice, even one that she doesn’t particularly love the outcome of either option, is usually enough to get her to suddenly take an active interest, but if your child needs more incentive, have them choose between two veggies they actually do like (say, cucumbers and carrots) and then get them to choose between two they don’t like, so at least they’ll see one vegetable on the dinner plate that isn’t totally puke-arific, in their opinion.
Get a little sneaky…
Now, in the vein of Jessica Seinfeld’s book, sometimes you gotta sneak some goods into something that your kids will eat. Where I do things a little differently is that I don’t try to hide the good stuff. I leave it out there in all its (usually) green glory. Soups and stews and casseroles are great for this. The good veggies are there, but they’re sort of masked by the other flavours going on. I still get the nose crinkle, but once a nibble or two is achieved, I get a “mmmm…quite good” (because she thinks she’s British) and soon she’s slurping up that spinach or kale or collards like no one’s business. I tell her exactly what she’s eating. Sometimes we even talk about it as I’m making it: why green vegetables are so good for you and why they taste better all cooked up in a soup.
I think it’s fair to say that most kids would not think spinach is delicious. As in, hey kids what do you want for dinner tonight: rousing three cheers for spinach salad! Probably not happening. It’s chewy, and green, and well, that’s really enough to stop a kid dead in their tracks! Give this soup a try. It’s warm and comforting and full of simple flavours that kids usually dig. Chop up the spinach as finely as you want: the finer the spinach, the less threatening it may look on a spoon.
Chicken, Quinoa and Spinach soup
1 tablespoon Sunflower Oil
1 onion, chopped
3 carrots, chopped
2 celery stalks, chopped
3 cups cooked chicken, white and dark meat, shredded, or coarsely chopped
4 cups chicken stock, preferably homemade
2 cups of water (if using store-bought stock, use an additional 2 cups of stock instead of water)
5 cups of spinach, washed, and shredded fairly finely
1/2-1 cup of uncooked quinoa or a sprouted quinoa blend (like this one from TruRoots which is really great!)
salt and pepper to taste
In a large dutch oven, saute onions, carrots, and celery in sunflower oil over medium high heat until onions are translucent. Add chicken, chicken stock and water. Cover and let simmer over low heat for 15 minutes. Add spinach and stir to evenly distribute. Cover and allow to simmer for 5 minutes or so, until the spinach is wilted. Add quinoa, cover and cook according to your particular’s brands instructions (usually about 20 minutes). Taste. Season with salt and pepper, if necessary.
Makes about 6 servings of soup.