When I decided to become a Vegan, it was a weighty decision. Not because I thought it would be really hard for me personally but I had a husband and two young children to convince as well. With my girls, I decided to take the slow and steady approach. I just casually began adding more almond milk to their cow’s milk, switching out hummus for deli meats in their lunches, scrambled tofu instead of scrambled eggs and kept experimenting with snacks. I didn’t want them to turn into “junk food vegans” and yet they weren’t used to eating tons of vegetables on a daily basis either. I expected some obvious obstacles, like breaking habits, protests and dealing with public venues and parties, but there have also been some surprising obstacles along the way. The greatest of which has been from our well-intentioned but still-missing-the-mark American culture in how it views getting kids to eat vegetables. Here’s a case in point: After several months of researching and being patient, I finally found a really good deal on a high-speed blender. I was very excited and decided to naturally fold my girls into that excitement by having them watch the instructional video with me. During the introduction and again later on in the video the instructor made mention of ways to sneak in vegetables so that kids will never notice and certainly never taste them. There’s also a children’s book where the girl in the story turns pink because she’s had too many pink cupcakes and the only way to return to her normal color is to eat green food…all described as necessary but very icky. In fact, there are whole cookbooks dedicated to the idea of sneaking in vegetables. I realized that all of my efforts to invite my kids into seeing vegetables as fantastic and interesting could be thwarted by how they are portrayed in our culture. And while there are many positive things going on to encourage vegetable intake, I think the idea of sneaking them in needs to be put to rest.
Here are a few concepts and questions to consider:
Are You Responsible For Whether or Not Your Child Eats?
No. And this is a very important concept to grasp. You are only responsible for the foods and drinks you offer. This is true whether we’re talking about an infant or a teenager. If a child is basically healthy then you can count on their innate need to stay nourished and hydrated as well as to know when they’ve had their fill. That means force feeding or threatening is NEVER a good idea and will quickly become a battle and a source of manipulation that your child will use against you. Also, if you’re engaged in this kind of battle during meal times there’s no way you can cultivate the other equally important aspects of mealtime, like conversation, enjoyment and practicing manners. You control only in what you offer, not whether or not they eat it. Also, understanding what you’re responsible for as the caregiver will hopefully release you from any guilt that you somehow didn’t do your job if they don’t eat.
Never Underestimate the Power of Presentation
Everyone loves attractive food but what appeals to a 5 year old is quite different so go ahead and have some fun and get creative. My husband and I hosted a party recently for a large group of children and I made everyone “Bunny Juice”, (a banana, pineapple, green grape, coconut kefir and spinach smoothie). They were all so interested in how it was presented that they didn’t bother to ask what was in it until later. When introducing a new vegetable, putting some thought into how it’s presented is a good idea and by the way, your attitude is a big part of the presentation!
Third Time’s The Charm?
No, I wouldn’t count on it. For a toddler, it can take 6-12 times before they’ll accept a new food and for older kids, it might be even higher depending on their personality and how much they’ve been expected to try new foods before then. I offered salad to my older daughter a few nights a week for a year before she finally accepted some and now she doesn’t even think twice about it.
Gardens, Farmer’s Markets and Messy Hands
Even if you live in an apartment and all you have is a few pots and a patio, then you can still have a family garden by growing some herbs or tomatoes. Get the kids involved in every aspect of the experience from choosing the vegetables to caring for them and then finally eating them! If gardening’s not your bag then the next best thing is the Farmer’s Market. Turn it into a quest, making a game out of finding a new and unusual vegetable. Buy it and then include them in the process of finding a recipe online or in a cookbook and then let them help you prepare it. Having your little ones with you during all these activities will slow you down considerably and you’ll need to accept a lot of messiness but please do because it’s totally worth the end result. They’ll take pride in their work and they’ll be much more likely to try that artichoke or beet green!
Are There Legitimate Food Dislikes?
I am of the opinion that a true food dislike is a very rare thing and this is why; there are literally hundreds of ways to prepare or incorporate a food into a recipe. For instance, I can’t stand canned asparagus but give me some fresh stalks drizzled with olive oil, salt, pepper and lemon and roasted and I’ll eat the whole bunch. Correcting you child’s thinking on the concept of food dislikes is important because if they try a food once and don’t like it they’ll assume that the food, no matter what form it takes, will also be unpleasant. Also a child’s taste buds change over time and explaining this to them will not be a waste of time. Even go as far as showing them their taste buds in the mirror and teach them what areas of their tongue have the most receptors for certain flavors(front of the tongue is sweet, back of the tongue is bitter, etc.)
Take Advantage of Growth Spurts
Growth spurts are those times when a child seems to have a giant hole in their stomach, which tends to happen every few months. Be prepared for this by what you offer for snacks, etc. Because they’re so ravenous, they’ll be more inclined to try some new things out or just have more of the same, no matter what it is so make sure it’s what their body needs.
Sneaking vegetables in might have a place in certain situations but it shouldn’t be an ongoing habit for caregivers. Perhaps you think it’s easier to do it this way but it doesn’t ultimately set your child up well to make their own choices as they grow older. Keep the big picture in mind. You want them instead to choose vegetables because they have a long history of enjoyment with them.
by Melissa Sanborn of Nutritional Brands, PureVegan