From an evolutionary viewpoint it makes sense that young kids won’t like or even try new foods. Back in the (Paleolithic) day, not eating an unknown food could save the toddling Homo sapiens from poisoning or worse. Nowadays, since there are so many vegetables around, most will be still unfamiliar to the young palate. But if the (rare) adventurous child decides to give, say, rainbow chard a try, its bitter taste will most likely stop her or him right at the first bite. Bitter, the evolution-conditioned brain is thinking, could mean toxic.
What’s a responsible parent to do? Without vegetables, a kid’s dinner quickly becomes that dreaded arrangement of dreary whites, yellows, and browns: bread, pasta, cheese and fries.
It all seems to boil down to three problems: most vegetables are unfamiliar, quite a few are bitter, and kids are, well, kids. The solution: make those veggies familiar, give ‘em some sugar, stop the snacking, and let your kids be kids!
Get them acquainted.
Take your kids to the supermarket or a farmers’ market, where they can see, smell, touch and taste fruits and vegetables. Stop at a farm where your kids can see them in their natural habitat. Encourage them to ask questions: How does asparagus grow? How come some carrots are orange and some purple? Can I grow mushrooms in my bedroom?Allow them to pick a vegetable that they like. Talk about what they’ve learned during the car ride or walk home.
Next, ask them to help you prepare dinner. Design some appropriate chores for them: wrap the to-be-baked sweet potato, mash potatoes, arrange sliced tomatoes on a plate, spin the spinach, peel the parsnips, chop the chilies!
If they want to have a taste, let them, even if it’s better cooked than raw. Some vegetables that are delicious when raw: bell pepper, tomatoes, corn, cucumber, peas, broccoli, celery, and avocado. (Yes, I know, several of these are technically fruits!) Grow tomatoes or zucchini in your backyard; make an herb garden in your windowsill.
There are a thousand ways to make vegetables interesting. Onions make you cry! They fall apart in rings! Red cabbage makes water blue! Boil broccoli for one minute and it becomes super green! Beets make everything red! Peas are inside a pod! Look, purple corn!
Sweeten the deal.
Add a few drops of honey, melted butter, or maple syrup to the veggie on their plate. Show them you’re doing it, or let them do it. They (I assume) know and love those flavors, so it will help them over their instinctive refusal of the new food, and the sweetness will hide any bitterness. Next time, add a little less sweetness. By the third time, they’ll be fine. Just brush their teeth extra well.
Make them hungry.
Yes, hungry. Kids need snacks mid-morning and mid-afternoon, but not an hour or two before dinner. When they’re hungry, they’re much more likely to eat your new vegetable. If they really can’t wait any longer, give them a taste of what you’re cooking. During dinner, instead of giving them a juice box, pour them a glass of water. Hunger is the best sauce. Really.
Let kids be kids.
Kids don’t like to be told no and want to play with their food. So let them have fun: arrange colorful veggies in a playful pattern, and let them play around with them. That way they’ll get to know them better. If possible, give your child options: two or more veggies. Have some peas, corn, carrots, and broccoli ready in your freezer, to be heated up at a moment’s notice. When you give them water, add a sprig of mint, a slice of mandarin or orange, or a few slices of cucumber for some (new?) flavors, and let them fish out the garnish any way they want to, and eat it!