I am taking a summer break for a few weeks to spend time with my family and travel. Meantime, I'm reposting some of the more popular posts I’ve written over the past nine months so that new readers have a chance to catch up. Enjoy this post! - Ayala
Two recently published cookbooks guide parents through the art of sneaking puréed vegetables into their kids’ food.
While I agree that getting your kids to eat well is important, and vegetable and fruit consumption is linked to lower risks of obesity and certain chronic diseases and cancers, I think that teaching them to eat well is even more important.
From the beginning of time the key to offspring’s survival was learning where to get safe foods, and how to avoid dangerous ones. That was very apparent when our ancestors were gathering food, and a mistaken identity of a plant could lead to disease or death. I would argue, that in our times, in which there is an overabundance of things to eat, our roles as parents are just as important, because choosing the right food has become very difficult, especially since kids are exposed to so much advertising and marketing, pushing all the wrong foods.
The best way to get children eating more fruit and vegetables is that they enjoy the tastes of these foods.
I have a few suggestions:
Early repeated exposure
How early? Flavors from the mother's diet are transmitted through amniotic fluid and mother's milk. Studies show that when mothers eat fruit and vegetables during pregnancy and breastfeeding, their babies accept those fruit and vegetables more readily. Later on, between the age of 6 and 24 months, the infant is usually most receptive to new tastes and textures, so this is the time to introduce many fruits and vegetables. Even if the initial introduction did not go very well, repeated exposure will often get the baby to like the new food.
Young children copy us, and for a short while will tend to believe whatever we say. Sitting at the family dinner, and eating a balanced diet, rich in plant based foods pleasurably, will get the message across very well. The fact that in some cultures most young children are excited about spicy and even bitter foods, shows that food preference is not a physiologic absolute, but more of a cultural, habitual behavior. While the preference for sweetness is universal, other preferences can be learned.
Let the food taste like itself
If the broccoli and cauliflower are mixed into cake, the main flavor of the dish is still just sweet. Let good quality fruit and vegetables taste like what they are. Cook them simply, or serve them raw. This way your child will learn to like the food for its flavor and texture.
Serve the best quality vegetables and fruit you can find
One of the reasons children and adults dislike some dishes, and generalize to a whole family of ingredients is because of the quality of the ingredient or the poor preparation they experienced before.
There is a huge difference between an organically grown local tomato, ripened on the vine and picked just today, and a winter tomato from the supermarket. Overcooked broccoli and Brussels sprouts are bitter and emit unpleasant-smelling sulphur compounds. If the only 2 movies you saw were bad ones, you might think you don’t like the movies.
Serve one family meal, no substitutions
Making a “kids menu” is unnecessary and impractical. Beyond infancy, children can be gradually introduced to the family diet, and eat whatever we eat, in smaller portions. There is no reason why a toddler should eat bland yellow foods that have cartoons on the package.
The no substitution policy is important. If a toddler is hungry, he will want to eat. If he has no option but the dish on the table, he is much more likely to give it a try. If he can opt for the mac and cheese instead, why stretch himself?
Involve children in making vegetable and fruit dishes
Introduce them to the world of botany and gardening using the vegetable in their dish as a starting point. Take them to the farmers market to meet the people who grow their food. Teach them how to make a good vegetable salad, or how to prepare a nice bowl of edamame for a snack. Encourage them to spend time with you in the kitchen, preparing food (if the kids are in the kitchen taking part in the food preparation, the idea of “sneaking” the vegetables becomes even more ludicrous).
The more I know about vegetables and fruit, the more fascinated I am. More about that another time, as this post is getting too long.
The last point I want to make is about the notion of tricking children. I think children are very smart, very sensitive, and have an uncanny way of understanding social complexities. For a while children will believe anything they’re told, and that gives us adults a great opportunity and carries great responsibility. But a child will not continue believing an adult just because he’s an adult. We have to earn our credibility with children by being wise, credible and honest. I would not risk losing my credibility for a few ounces of pureed food.