"Eat your veggies!!!" Isn't that the battle cry of all moms of little kids? Johnny doesn't like carrots. Suzy won't touch green beans. Their mom is tearing her hair out, fretting how her munchkins are going to get enough alphabetic vitamins.
If you are a regular reader of my blog, then you know I have many challenges as a full-time single mother of two school-age boys. There's the aggression. There's the disagreement on games to play. There's the volume. There's the unwanted scorekeeping. And on and on.
But I am proud to say that persuading my sons to eat their vegetables isn't one of my challenges. Chris and Charlie are very good consumers of the green stuff (and orange and yellow, etc.) They really are.
Hey, I'm as amazed as anyone. What is my secret?
No, doing the Julia Child thing as a way to convince my nine year old and seven year old to say yes to leafy greens is not my style. Quite the opposite.
When Christopher was a toddler, I stood in front of the frozen vegetables section at Shaw's and faced a choice: broccoli with cheese sauce or plain broccoli. White corn with butter sauce or without. Peas in butter sauce or just peas. What's with all the butter sauce? On face value, it was a mundane decision, but somehow I instinctively recognized that it was a momentous decision. A decision with consequences. A decision that would set the course of things to come. I was choosing between the tastier (and more fattening) version and the less palatable yet healthier option.
Odd, but I had a precedent of sorts. In the days of formula-feeding Christopher when I was away from him -- I breast-fed at all other times -- I opted for the tougher-kid approach: no bottle-warming, even in winter. My son turned out to be an eager milk drinker and very healthy baby. I never regretted my course of action (and I saved myself the cost of a bottle warmer).
Likewise, I chose the tougher-kid option there in the frozen-food aisle. I bought only plain frozen vegetables. If my son was going to learn to eat vegetables, he was going to LEARN TO EAT VEGETABLES. No namby-pamby melted cheddar cheese smothering them. No silky smooth buttery concoction drowning them. My son could choose to dress up or down his vegetables any way he liked when he got older, but first he had to learn to taste the vegetables and like them au naturel.
Back at home, I rolled onto his tray next to his hot dog slices a handful of honest-to-God naked peas. He picked them up one at a time and popped them into his mouth. I can't remember if he made a face. I was in too much of a sleep-deprived haze in those days. But he did it. He ate the peas, and we have pretty much never looked back.
Here's my theory: if you don't know a bottle can be warmed, then you won't miss it if it isn't. If you don't know vegetables can be purchased with yummy sauce already on them, then you won't miss it when they come without. Give your child the real deal and skip the disguise.
Don't give your child any reason to have a negative opinion of vegetables. For example, don't say: "Try this. You might not like it, but it's good for you." Or "Spinach is not my favorite, but it might be yours." Just serve a small portion sans the editorial comments. Or, if you have to say something, make it positive. Me: "I ate so many beets when I was a child." Or try "What's summer without corn on the cob?" How about "Remember that yummy guacamole you enjoyed with tortilla chips at your friend's house the other day? Well, this is an avocado. Guacamole is made of avocado!"
It may not work. You could end up with sweet potatoes on your wall. But just maybe Suzy will surprise you. So why jeopardize your chances with negativity right out of the gate?!
Along the same lines, when possible avoid serving your child vegetables in front of people who might taint his or her opinion of them. You don't want anyone telling your child the squash on the plate is undesirable. Treat this as seriously as you do the Easter Bunny and Santa Clause. You jump through hoops to guard those secrets as long as possible to protect your child's innocence. Do the same with vegetables. You want to shield Johnny from the prevailing view of kids that vegetables are gross. This may be easier to accomplish for single parents who, like me, usually don't have other people around when serving their children. Perhaps, if you're lucky, your child may not find out until he gets to elementary school. And by then, hopefully, he will have learned to like some veggies enough that he won't care what his peers think.
Christopher is such a boy. He makes choices outside the status quo and proudly stands by them. Being an adventurous eater -- and that includes enjoying all manner of Asian food, seafood (even squid), sushi, and delicacies such as frog legs he's had the opportunity to sample at a family Club Med in Florida we visited for many years -- is one way my son marches to the beat of a different drummer.
Charlie, whose choices are more conventional across the board, goes with the flow very nicely, however, when we eat out at an ethnic restaurant or seafood place. He doesn't have a big appetite -- and, yes, he often selects a fried chicken offering (he is only seven, don't forget!) -- but he gamely tries new foods, including vegetable dishes.
Take your young ones to farms to see vegetables growing in the fields and for sale in the store. I've been taking my sons for years to Harvest Days and Farm Festival Days. They are really fun for the kids because they often also feature pony rides, hay rides, crafts, live music, etc.
Let your children check out farmers' markets. They can see which vegetables grow in their area and learn the importance of buying local and organic. Then go home with some purchases.
If you have the space, grow a garden of your own, or join a community garden if you live in a city. Two years ago I started a vegetable garden in our backyard. It has been very exciting for my boys each morning in the summer to check on the progress of our broccoli, lettuce, eggplant, cucumbers, and especially tomatoes. We grew several variety of them . . . with delicious results.
When you can, eat out at a restaurant that serves vegetables well. For example, we recently discovered one not far from our home that offers up the crunchiest and most savory asparagus spears I have ever tasted. They come alongside our favorite steak tips. A win-win situation! As much as I would like to (remember, not a cook), it is obviously not possible for financial reasons for most of us to eat out all the time. So make a good decision when you can dine out.
Put vegetables in dishes without hiding them. I like to throw green vegetables into plain white rice, brown rice, couscous, and ramen noodles. The latter two, courtesy of Near East and Maruchan, respectively, have the advantage of coming with flavor packets. But the point is: you can still see and taste the vegetables. They are not buried underneath a sauce and their flavor killed by the ingredients of said sauce. Bonus: since my boys have grown to enjoy vegetables plain, they actually prefer to eat them that way raw than with a dip.
I might have added mac 'n cheese to the above list. However, I've tried pouring peas into the bright orange Kraft variety, and both of my boys protested . . . loudly. I get it and agree, actually. Kraft mac 'n cheese is sacred to kids (and many adults, present company included). It is not to be tampered with. And, since I had to eat the pea-tainted batch because I don't throw food away, I will say that the veggies did alter the absolutely perfect flavor of Kraft's woefully unhealthy fun meal.
For the past couple of years, I've been listening to and reading about on Facebook the wonders of the Crock-Pot. How it is so easy to just plug the thing into the wall and drop a bunch of food items into it for a certain amount of time then, voila, you have a tasty dish loaded with goodness. Now that's my kind of cooking! I think I will buy myself one this winter. (I know, I said that last year. Well, maybe it will happen.) Anyway, the Crock-Pot method seems like an ideal strategy for offering up healthy dishes kids would enjoy. Personally, I've always loved stews chock-full of beef, potatoes, and vegetables, especially in winter. They warm the tummy and comfort the child (or adult) coming in from the cold.
Try to refrain from obsessing over how many servings of vegetables your child gets a day. Generations of men and women have grown up just fine without counting their peas and q's. (Sorry, couldn't resist the pun.) For the record, I don't count vegetable servings. I provide opportunities for my sons to eat vegetables, and they take the bait because they genuinely like vegetables. Your stressing about it will be noticed by your child and may very well compound the problem. Lord knows enough kids (and adults) suffer from anxiety around food issues!
Christopher chooses salad bar as his lunch choice at school on a regular basis. He's been doing so since kindergarten. And Charlie loves grape tomatoes as a snack. Last week when dinner wasn't enough for my hungry fellas, I asked: "How about some broccoli?" Both answered in the affirmative. Well, they consumed an entire package of Green Giant Broccoli Spears (no sauce) between them!
A few days ago, we went to a pizza place after football practice where the three of us usually choose the two-slice special. I felt like having something different for a change, so I ordered the chef salad. Charlie asked for a barbecued chicken sub, and Chris chose wings. When I finished my salad, my older son saw the two green pepper rings I had left on my plate. He asked for them and gobbled them up happily.
That's my boy!
I've found that it really helps if your oldest child takes to vegetables because the younger one/s will notice and very possibly emulate the first. With unwanted results, this is what happened for us in regard to swimming. Despite countless lessons at numerous locations -- not to mention from his frustrated former swimming instructor mother! -- Christopher refused to put his face in the water for many years. No way, no how. Charlie watched these protestations and this fussing and, much to my chagrin, took them on himself. Now had my second child not witnessed his brother's behavior, I'm convinced, he would have had a different experience learning how to swim. Alas, as a full-time single mother, I was unable to shield him from Christopher's lessons. Charlie had to come along because I didn't have any other child care.
That's just the way it goes sometimes. Okay, all the time.
It's called doing the best you can. Maybe it's swimming. Maybe it's vegetables. You can't reach perfection in every area of parenting. You can only try to approach the challenge in a positive, pressure-free way. Easier said than done on occasion. I know.
Don't I know!