“How do I get my child to eat their vegies?” has to be one of the most common questions I am asked from parents. The battle to get vegies into our kids seems to be universal and fraught parents will try anything to get something naturally green into their offspring. Jessica Seinfeld took things to extreme in her book Deceptively Delicious, with recipes to hide the vegies such as adding spinach puree to chocolate brownies. But is it really that important and if so what vegies and how do we do it?
To me the idea of adding spinach to brownies is ridiculous. Spinach is one of my favourite vegies and yes, it is teeming with nutrients that are important for health. But adding it to a mix of butter, flour and sugar does not make a healthy treat for the kids. What message are we sending our kids? Brownies are delicious and spinach is so horrible we have to hide it! As a kid I hated spinach and I survived and thrived. Now I eat it almost everyday. Not because my mum hid it in my meals, but because she put a little on the plate every time the grownups were having it and eventually I stopped rejecting it and started to like it.
Research shows that a child can take up to 20 times of trying a new food to finally accept it. This probably has an evolutionary basis. Many things in nature are poisonous and in our evolutionary past children would have had to rely on their parents to teach them which plants could be consumed, which parts of the animal and so on. Through trial and error mankind discovered foods that delivered the nutrients we needed to be well and this vital information would have been passed on from generation to generation. Today things are far changed but our genes remain the same. Children are programmed to be suspicious of new foods and with reassurance from adults they trust and repeated exposure to a food they learn the food is OK and safe to eat.
If you’re thinking ‘but that doesn’t happen with a new lolly or a bright coloured cake though!’ you’re right. It doesn’t. So clearly there are some factors about foods that will override the cautiousness over new foods. Manufacturers know this and it’s no coincidence that children’s foods are so often brightly coloured or highly refined and sweetened. These are factors that appeal to many adults too.
In nature sweet foods are usually safe and since there are not that many, they are also vital sources of fuel. We are programmed to like them. Wonderful experiments with babies still in the womb show them responding to a sweet taste (infused glucose) with a smile and opening and closing their mouths, as if to try to get more. By contrast feed a bitter taste and they close their mouths and try to turn away. In nature bitter foods are sometimes poisonous. These reactions therefore make sense. Vegetables are often at the bitter end of the scale and to a child with more sensitive taste buds than adults, they truly do taste a little bitter and not enjoyable. This is not helped if they are also over cooked so as to be soggy or slimy, or just don’t look palatable on the plate.
This doesn’t mean I don’t think it’s important to feed vegies to kids. It just helps to understand what the problems are and where they come from. We make matters worse if we make a fuss about it. Teaching our kids to get through the vegies or they don’t get dessert, reinforces the message that vegies are really something to be tolerated rather than enjoyed. Vegies and other plant foods are indeed crucial for good health, especially the leafy green varieties. Since hunter-gatherer days we have consumed large amounts of these foods. They provide fibre, minerals, vitamins and numerous phytochemicals we are only beginning to learn the importance of. But the goal with kids is to simply expose them to all sorts of natural foods and gradually allow them to develop an adult palate. Our job is to provide healthy foods, teach them how important eating well is to the way their bodies perform and feel, and allow them to choose how much to eat.
The rule in my house has always been that the kids have to taste everything on their plate, but if they truly don’t like something they can leave it. Vegies are just part and parcel of the meal. Sometimes they are a side dish, but mostly they are mixed into recipes, thrown through stir-fries, added to pasta dishes, tossed in olive oil dressing in a salad or roasted with some fish or meat. My kids still won’t eat leafy greens and often pick vegies out of the meal. But I keep putting them in there and try hard not to make a fuss over it. I consider it more important that they eat their fish, their meat, some dairy, legumes, wholegrains and that we minimise refined packaged foods. I take them shopping and we choose vegies together, I give them choice over which ones they would like and try to get them in the kitchen to help me prepare and cook foods. They see me eat loads of vegies and I am often eating an extra salad over and above our meal together. Hopefully this will lead to them joining me one day. Meantime let’s all relax and just allow our kids to enjoy healthy foods and not pander to ‘kids food’ constantly. Put a family meal on the table, not different meals for everyone, and while there will inevitably be some foods they will never like, you will find they become more adventurous over time – provided you set the path.
Read more about raising a healthy family on Dr Joanna's website.