As children, most of us avoided vegetables like the plague, but as adults we repeat phrases from our youth we vowed never to utter: ”Eat your broccoli, honey-it’s good for you.”… “Think of the poor starving children who’d love to have those beautiful green beans!”…“Finish those carrots-they’ll help you see better!”
This war between kids and vegetables has been going on since the dawn of time, because children’s aversion to the bitter alkaloid tastes found in some vegetables is a prehistoric instinct to help detect poisons. Because of this defense mechanism, children prefer bland, sweet, and salty foods. Another survival technique encoded in our DNA is a distrust of unfamiliar foods with strange textures. Most children are turned off by slimy or mushy textures because the brain equates these textures with rotten food. Eating processed foods further reinforces this distaste because their crunchy/chewy/creamy textures are typically more appetizing than those found in plant-based food. In addition, all humans have an instinct to overeat sugary and calorie-rich food, because a person who fills up on vegetables alone will not get enough calories to survive and thrive.
Fortunately, knowing all this can help you ease your finicky eater into the wonderful world of vegetables.
- Sweeter side: Focus on offering sweeter root plants like carrots, sweet potatoes, and beets. Picky children may also be more open to trying corn, sweet peas and winter squash.
- A little bit of sugar: Add flavor, and just a touch of sweetness, by adding a little lemon juice, honey, agave nectar or stevia. Believe it or not, caramelized onions go a long way in making bitter produce more palatable.
- Get sneaky: Other techniques include adding finely chopped carrots to pasta sauces, blending up vegetable soups, and putting minced vegetables into homemade burgers.
- When all fails, try fruit: Note that children are usually more open to trying fruits because they’re sweeter and more calorie-dense. Offer a variety – different berries, unusual citrus, heirloom melons – to get kids to embrace a wider variety of flavors.
- Patience: Veggies are often an acquired taste, so be patient as your children experiment with these bitter, unfamiliar foods. Modeling good eating behaviors is an ultimate key to success. Continue to try new things yourself, and pile your plate high with a variety of colorful vegetables. Getting children to assist in shopping and cooking is also helpful; kids who are invested in the end result are more likely to give it a try. And, make it fun to try new things. For instance, try a fruit “taste test.” Buy five or six kinds of apples or melons, and serve everybody in the family a slice of each. Get them to vote on their favorite and explain why. Bonus: When you hear your child explain what flavors they like, you’ll get insight into some other fruits or veggies to try.
Most children need to be exposed to a new food at least 4-5 times before they will accept it, so don’t get frustrated if at first you don’t succeed. Whatever you do, don’t give up on offering your children a variety of healthy vegetables. They will thank you one day, even if it’s not until they find themselves repeating your words to their own children!