Vegetables can play an important role in helping control kids' weight gains while supplying important nutrients they need for growth and development. But getting kids to eat them can be a challenge.
"To get kids to eat vegetables, they must be available when and where kids tend to eat, be very easy-to-eat, and taste good," says Joan Carter, RD, an instructor in the Department of Pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine and a Le Cordon Bleu-trained chef.
To make vegetables more tempting to kids, Carter offers these tips:
- Offer the new vegetable at the beginning of the meal when small children are the hungriest. Serve vegetables in new combinations. Children tend to favor peas, potatoes, carrots, beans and corn. Mix these vegetables with others they are less likely to eat, such as broccoli and cauliflower.
- Use a little fat, sugar and salt to help make healthy foods more appealing to kids. "Kids are born liking sweet tastes, so use this to your advantage," Carter says. Cook carrots with a little sugar and chicken stock; make carrot "slaw" with raisins; top broccoli with low-fat cheese sauce; add grated vegetables like carrots or squash to home-baked muffins.
- Prepare vegetables in new ways. Try a stir-fry or add fresh vegetables to prepared soups. Mix a vegetable in with a favorite food, such as peas in macaroni and cheese or blend soft cooked carrots into mashed potatoes. Add vegetables to pizza toppings or sautï¿½ed minced veggies like broccoli and red pepper and add to spaghetti and pizza sauces, meat loaf, and pureed soups. Make oven-baked sweet potato "fries" or bake this high-fiber, vitamin-A rich alternative to white potatoes with a touch of sugar, cinnamon and cloves.
- Make eating veggies fun and easy. For kids over the age of 4, make veggie "kabobs" with cherry tomatoes and cucumber slices or "grab bags" with baby carrots, broccoli "trees" and celery sticks and keep near low-fat dips or salsa on a child-level shelf in the refrigerator. Use cut-up pieces of vegetables to make a "smiley face" on mashed potatoes. Offer an edible spoon, such as a stalk of celery, to scoop up chili or stew.
- Enlist kids to help scour magazines for new veggie recipes that the family could try. Let kids use the recipe to conduct an "ingredient scavenger hunt" at the grocery store and later assist in preparing recipe at home.
- Become a family of Farmers' Market "explorers" who stop and ask growers about their produce, their farms, and how they cook vegetables for themselves. Grow a family vegetable garden.
- Be a good role model. Eat your vegetables and show you excitement about finding and trying new ones.
And what if despite your efforts, your children still turn up their noses at anything yellow, green or leafy?
"Don't give up," Carter says. "It may take some time before kids try a vegetable and it might take a lot of tries before they begin to like it."
The best advice is to continue to offer vegetables at each meal and encourage children to try one bite. If they don't like it, that's fine. Allowing young kids to stop at one bite can make trying new foods less scary, while forcing them to eat something they truly don't like will only make the situation worse.