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I love turnips, kale and broccoli, and luckily I have passed the vegetable gene onto my daughter. But all too often, I speak to parents faced with the dilemma of getting their kids to eat vegetables. They wonder: Should I sneak veggies into my child’s food? Should I force them to eat vegetables? What can I do? Here’s what I tell them.

Sneak it in?

A few years ago, hiding puréed vegetables in children’s food was an emerging trend. The advice was simple: Add a dollop of pureed cauliflower to pasta, a spoonful of kale in meatballs, and a scoop of beets to brownies. (Brownies? Yes, brownies).

Most dietitians didn’t agree with this tactic. They felt that children should learn to enjoy the tastes and textures of vegetables and should not be tricked into eating them. Plus, they wondered about the sparse nutritional value of vegetables that were cooked, pureed, and then cooked again in an entree. But when your child won’t eat any vegetables despite your best efforts, the sneaky route may seem like an attractive option.

Science says…

A study published in the August issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition looked at whether incorporating puréed vegetables into meals at preschool could increase vegetable intake. For one day, 40 preschoolers were served foods with added purées.

The result? Daily vegetable intake increased by up to 73 grams compared with usual intake. That’s equal to one large carrot or ¾ cup of broccoli. It’s a scant amount, but for some parents, it’s a big improvement over no vegetables at all. Plus, the kids liked the taste of the new foods, and their intake of vegetable side dishes was not affected.

Of course, this study was conducted in a preschool, where children tend to eat what their peers eat without complaining. There’s no telling if children will be as accommodating at home, but it may be worth a try.

Even better ideas

It may help to simply ask your child what they don’t like about vegetables. If they’re too crunchy, steam them so they are soft. Too mushy? Serve them raw instead. Figuring out what your kids don’t like can help you offer options that they DO like and teach them how to be healthy. And with a rainbow of different colours, shapes and textures to choose from, you can always bring something new to the table.

Hovering over a child with the insistent phrase, “Eat your green beans” is never going to work. Intimidation or force will backfire. Instead, try to inspire vegetable-loving children by taking them with you to the grocery store, farmer’s market or pick-your-own-farm. Let them choose a new vegetable or pick a recipe to cook with you. If children have a hand in choosing and preparing vegetables, they are more likely to try them. Remember, if you demonize vegetables as something you have to “sneak in,” you create a power hierarchy and make veggies even less desirable.

If you do add puréed vegetables to foods to give entrees a nutritional boost, whole vegetables should still be served as a side dish at every lunch and dinner. Children need to see that meals always include vegetables. And it helps to see BOTH parents eating their veggies too.

If your child likes a meal that includes pureed vegetables – say lasagne or burritos – have them prepare the recipe with you the next time you make it. If they already enjoy it, it shouldn’t be a problem to see the vegetables being added in.

In 2009, a Cornell University study showed that giving vegetables catchy new names can entice kids to eat more of them. When kids were given “X-ray Vision Carrots,” they ate nearly twice as much as they did when they were simply labelled “carrots.” Plus, children continued to eat about 50% more carrots even on the days when they were no longer labelled. Names like Power Peas, Dinosaur Broccoli Trees and Tomato Bursts may work too.

Not in dessert

Hiding vegetables in dessert is a bad idea. Even if you hide a half-cup of beets in brownies, these decadent goodies are still baked with refined flour, sugar and butter. And a half-cup of beets divided by 30 brownies is less than ONE TEASPOON per brownie! Your kid would need to polish off the whole pan to get one full serving of vegetables. Plus, you might mistakenly encourage your child to have dessert (and seconds!) because vegetables have been added. That is definitely not the way to teach healthy eating.

The bottom line? It’s okay to add (not hide) puréed vegetables to entrées to boost the nutrient content. However, this scant amount of vegetable mush should not replace the parents’ responsibility of getting kids inspired and involved, serving vegetables at every meal… and eating them too.