Tips for Getting Your Kids to Love Vegetables

| February 28, 2008 | 9 Comments
  • 9 Comments

Ever since Jessica Seinfeld’s book “Deceptively Delicious” was a hit last year, I’ve been contemplating why people feel the need to hide vegetables in their children’s meals. I need to say up front that the idea of hiding vegetables in food has always made me cringe. Although I would like to think my dislike for being “deceptive” is due to my belief that parents should always be honest with their children, I must admit my sensibility as a true vegetable lover is offended as well.

I am also confused as to why this book was such a big hit. I realize that the author is Jerry Seinfeld’s wife, and that the exposure she received from her publisher is pretty impressive, but is there more to the story (other than another cookbook author suing both Seinfelds for plagiarism)? My question is: why has the vegetable become persona non grata at the family dinner table?

I can think of many reasons why parents should avoid hiding vegetables in their kids’ food. For one thing, if the veggies are hidden, kids have no idea they’re actually eating them. Although this may seem to be the point of masquerading them in the first place, it sets up a scenario where children grow up thinking they can live vegetable-free lives. Okay, maybe not vegetable free entirely, but if vegetables aren’t a part of a child’s regular daily food consumption, she (or he) won’t acquire a taste for them and so won’t necessarily want to eat them as an adult. Stealth recipes, as Ms. Seinfeld calls them, can eventually backfire. The trick of pureeing and chopping up vegetables so children don’t notice them will only work for so long. At some point, those little smarties will figure it out and when they do, they’ll get the message that vegetables are “gross” and inedible, worthy only of being smashed to bits and hidden in meat, pasta or cheese. I realize that many parents themselves aren’t vegetables lovers, but instead of throwing in the towel and passing on an aversion to an essential food group, I suggest exploring new and different ways of eating and preparing vegetables with the kids.

With this in mind, here are some suggestions for serving vegetables in an open and honest way with your family. They may not all work for you, but the chances that one or two of these suggestions could make even a small impact is worth a try.

1. Take your children with you to the store or farmer’s market to pick out the vegetables themselves. Show them the variety of vegetables available, as well as the vibrant colors and different textures. When you get home, your kids will be more excited about the vegetables they’ve chosen for the family dinner table and more likely to eat them.

2. Take your child to the farmer’s market and speak with the farmer or sales person about the vegetables that are currently in season. This will help your children to build a curiosity about where their food comes from.

3. Grow your own vegetables if you have a yard. And, even if you don’t, try growing some small container plants like cherry tomatoes or peppers. After growing a vegetable for weeks to months, your child will be excited to get to pick it her or himself and, more importantly, eat it.

Note: Gardening doesn’t have to be labor intensive. If you want to spend a lot of time in your yard, you can have a beautiful garden, but this isn’t necessary. Just pick a few plants to grow and be sure to water them every couple of days.

4. Ask your child to help you cook. They can help you wash the vegetables, peel them, chop with supervision, and actually do some of the cooking. If your child feels a sense of pride about the meal your family is eating, he or she is more likely to want to eat it.

Idea: One way to do this, now that it’s almost Spring, is to buy fresh English peas in the pod and spend time with your kids shelling them. This is a fun hands-on experience that my daughters love. Oh, and be sure to let them taste them raw.

5. Make vegetables fun by purchasing them in a new way.

Idea: Try buying purple potatoes or different colored carrots to spark your child’s interest. In the Fall, you can also buy Brussels sprouts on the stalk. When my daughters were about four, they weren’t thrilled with sprouts until we bought them this way; but, after an afternoon of plucking them off the stem and then pretending the stem was a scepter, they loved them. I now try to buy the sprouts on the stalk as often as I can. Buying Brussels sprouts has become an event instead of a hated side dish (I don’t have a picture of Brussels sprouts on the stem here as they’re not in season, but check out those purple carrots!).

6. Respect that your child will not love every vegetable and allow them to name one or two that they prefer not to eat. Then ask them which vegetables they love and make a point to eat one of them that evening.

7. Try serving some vegetables raw with dip as part of your meal or as a snack. Great vegetables to use are carrots, peppers, cucumbers, snap peas, green beans, broccoli, and fennel.

8. Try cooking vegetables in a different way. Sometimes a child’s aversion may be to the texture or preparation of a dish, rather than the vegetable itself.

Idea: Instead of steaming cauliflower, try chopping it up into small florets and roasting it with olive oil and butter topped with some fresh bread crumbs.

9. Serve vegetables every day so they become a natural part of the meal.

10. Be sure to eat your own plate of vegetables in front of your child so they see you enjoying them yourself. In this case, actions really do speak far louder than words.

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Category: Bay Area Bites Food + Drink, kids and family

About the Author ()

I am a writer, editor, mother of twins, and enthusiastic home cook. I was raised by an Italian-American mother who, in the 1970s, grew her own basil (because she couldn’t find any in the local grocery stores), zucchini (for those delicious flowers), and tomatoes (because the ones in the store tasted like “a potato”). My mom taught us to love all kinds of food and revere high-quality ingredients. I am now trying to follow in my mother’s footsteps and am on a mission to help my daughters become adventurous eaters who have a healthy respect for seasonal food raised locally. My daughters and I grow vegetables and go to the farmers’ market. We also love to shop at Piedmont Grocery and Trader Joe’s. When I’m not hanging out with my daughters or cooking, I like to contribute to cookbooks (including Williams-Sonoma’s Food Made Fast and Foods of the World series), work as an editor, and write about food for Bay Area Bites and Denise's Kitchen. My food inspirations are M.F.K Fisher, Julia Child, and Alice Waters — three fabulous women who encompass everything I love about food.
  • Michael Procopio

    Great article. It makes me want to wrangle up some children on whom I might experiment.

  • stephfour

    I don’t think this book was marketing for the Bay Area where we have access to fresh wonderful produce. I think part of the problem is that many parents of small children don’t really know how to prepare vegetables well. I know I grew up hating vegetables because all we ate were frozen veggies boiled until any taste they had were gone. Now I love veggies and love learning new ways to prepare them.

    One thing in Jessica’s defense is that she still serves unhidden veggies to her children and admits that it is important that they learn it’s part of a healthy diet. Hiding vegetables is more of a sanity device for her. This way every meal time isn’t a battle to get the kids to eat a balanced meal. Not having any kids myself I can’t provide actual experience. Plus all my nieces are excellent vegetable eaters. Any parents of fussy eaters out there want to voice an opinion?

  • Denise Lincoln

    Thanks so much for your comments. I would love to think that parents in the Bay Area give their kids fresh veggies every day b/c we have such great access to them, but know first hand this unfortunately isn’t the case. I know a fair number of parents (who live in the Bay Area and are active and involved in their children’s lives) who have just given up on the idea that their children will eat vegetables. Some of these people sneak in vegetables, while others give their kids vitamins to make up for nutritional short falls.

    You are right that preparation is incredibly important, as is getting your child involved in cooking the meal, choosing the vegetables, etc.

    I’m glad your nieces love to eat their vegetables.

  • The Java Junkie

    My daughter has always been a great eater of veggies, with the exception of brussels sprouts – she was finally won over by the “on the stalk” version. Great ideas!

  • Kim Guymon

    I think you missed one point in the book. She says to continue to place the veggies on the table in their glorious, naked form and do the veggie battle. However, you will have peace of mind knowing you’ve already won it because the kids are scarfing down a ton in the spaghetti sauce you just made.

    My 10 1/2 year old started eating veggie baby food and was fine with it most of the time. But the child has an absolute aversion to most veggies now. He can taste them a mile away. No corn or carrots for him. However, he’ll eat baby spinach covered with Ranch Dressing, sweet potato “pudding” (Sweet Potato baby food topped with brown sugar) and Shepherd’s pie. So, we do what works. But he also eats a lot of hidden veggies thanks to his sneaky mom.

  • elarael

    As a child, I had no aversion to vegetables as long as they were fresh and simply prepared. Now I know that that’s how they are best. If people had only given me a serving of finely grated raw beets for example, instead of wildly over-flavored, pickled, cooked beets, I would have loved them. Same goes for all the butter soaked veggies I was ever entreated to finish. They are so much better for kids, plain, or very lightly flavored and fresh.

    I think the fact that I often saw them growing and had some connection to the earth, thanks to our science teacher and our class projects, made an enormous difference.

  • http://www.lifeskills411.org Julie From Lifeskills 411

    Awe poor Jessica. I have to say I did use her tactics on my husbands son. He did not like vegetables so I coated them with ranch dressing (which he loved) and we got them down.

    I think Jessica’s point is get them down. I believe that a child’s taste buds are different than a parents and we should respect a child’s wishes when they don’t like something and see if we can find a way that they like it.

    When I was little mustard worked for me. It covered the taste of just about anything. My father made over-cooked veggies all the time and I hated them but with the mustard I could get them down. Before I was allowed to use the mustard I spent many nights crying at the kitchen table over the veggies I could not eat… I was not allowed to get up until I ate them and I have to say that was really TORTURE…

    I belive that just about any Food is good but you have to find the way YOU like it prepared.

    Collard Greens: I use chicken broth and smoked turkey necks. I was them very well and season them generously. Most everyone loves my “Greens” even if they are not a greens person. I make sure they are tender but not soggie and cut small so that they are not to much in one bite. I only use the leaf and remove all the stem.

    My Kale is killer… I make sure it’s fresh and tender and after a carefull washing I pull off all the leaves and cook in chicken broth and a turkey italian sausage. Everyone loves it.

    I am on a special program for Food Addicts and I eat a lot of vegetables every day “6 oz” at lunch and dinner and also a large 10 oz green salad with raw veggies for dinner so I am learning to appreciate the goodness of vegetables and I have found many ways I love them.

    I still use Mayo on my brocklie and asparagus but am hoping for a new toping If anyone has a suggestion.
    My food sponsor says try Salsa or lemon…as butter and mayo are no no’s.

  • Karee

    I really liked this article. I was actually researching how to hide veggies in my son’s food – he’s almost 3 and won’t eat any veggie except celery because the Wonder Pets eat it. I feel much more confident, however, about getting him to eat veggies, after reading this. I hadn’t thought about taking him shopping to pick them out. I know he’ll look at the veggies in the fridge that he thinks are pretty and he’ll oogle over them for a few minutes, but when it comes time to tasting, you’d swear they growled at him. The one thing, however, I am going to try to do is make cookies out of mashed carrots and yams, instead of flour.

  • Denise Lincoln

    Hi Karee — I’m so glad you found this helpful. I hope your son enjoys picking out his veggies. Good luck!