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Finger Lickin' Good

A common quandary of parents at our clinic is “how can I get my kid to eat vegetables?” What makes children picky vs. voracious eaters may never be fully understood, but there are many ways to make eating a healthy diet less like torture for toddlers...and their parents.

Though most adults and their children who ask for our advice have already taken their first taste of solid food, a great way to get infants who are ready to be weaned used to healthy food is simply to give them vegetables! Babies get used to food by feeling it in their mouths, letting the spoonful loll around in their mouth, spitting it out, grabbing it, etc. Despite this annoying and messy adventure, this is how babies start to understand their world. If they are introduced to squash and beans and carrots, they will see these vegetables as food. If they are introduced to canned ravioli and goldfish crackers, then those tastes are what they will consider good nutrition. If a parent has grown up not liking vegetables, they will more than likely have a more difficult time encouraging their little one to eat vegetables.

Once a child has progressed into eating a multitude of foods, or maybe even eating a mostly adult diet, it may be harder to get a vegetable past their lips. Taste buds form on the tongue that are specific to sugars, preservatives and additives. We can actually become addicted to not only the flavors, but also to how our body reacts to the chemicals in the foods. If we have an inflammatory response to a preservative for instance, our system will then call for the production of endorphins, which are pain-reducing and anti-inflammatory mediators. In addition, we create emotional bonds to our food—the smell, the memories it produces, and the emotions that arise.

So, how do we get beyond the chemical, emotional, and habitual barriers in order for a child to eat AND enjoy a healthy meal? If we are lucky and can catch a willful child before too many emotional connections are made to foods, the young person will realize all by themselves just how much better they feel eating healthily. They become the ones to lead the campaign for their own healthy dinners!

Often, however, this is not the case. So, again, how do we get from unhealthy to healthy with the least amount of hurdles? First start with attitude. Not the child’s but the parent’s. If the parent plugs their nose in anticipation of vegetables, or merely shoves the spinach to the side of the plate, good luck getting your child to eat the green slimy stuff! Children see, hear, and intuit everything you don’t want them to. So, to get members of the plant family into a child’s mouth, it better go into yours first.

Second, young folks adore fun-to-eat food. Merely steaming broccoli to make it greener probably won’t peak their interest, but having broccoli sticking up like a forest from a casserole just might. Also, dips are great fun in general, but you can also slip vegetable matter into the bowl of goo as well. Look for recipes like sweet potato dip to put over vegetables or cashew sauce to put over fruit or pasta. You can even go as far as making a dip with tofu and dunking celery sticks into it. You can have a whole variety of dips on a platter, with some old favorites like humus and salsa to help keep it familiar. For dunking material, try raw vegetable sticks, baked tofu hunks, grilled chicken or turkey slices, etc. For more ideas, peruse the Internet under the subject of vegetarian or vegan recipes.

Thirdly, children love to create projects and have everyone appreciate them, so make dinner a project. Depending on the age of the child, there are many steps to creating a meal that they can take part in, such as planning, shopping, chopping, peeling, cooking and serving. If you have the time, space and know-how, have them help with growing vegetables so the young ones can appreciate where our food comes from, and just how much effort it takes to start from seed and go to feed.