Tuesday, June 2, 2009

5 tips for getting your toddler to love veggies.

Okay, you've done all the groundwork. You've slowly introduced cereals, then pureed veggies, then pureed fruits to your baby over the course of weeks and months. Now your little chomp-tastic eating machine has cut her first set of molars and she is ready for more complicated food mixtures and textures. I usually tell parents to be as slow and steady with the introduction of textures as they were with the introduction of flavors, too many textures too quickly can be overwhelming and can lead to strong textural aversions which are difficult to overcome. The introduction of textures should only take about a month or two, then your toddler is ready to tackle the world of big-kid food. This is the perfect time to instill a life-long love of vegetables in your little one. Some kids will just naturally gravitate to vegetables, but most need a little nudge to really develop the veg-love that can last a lifetime and help you avoid the pitfalls of picky eating later. These are a few little tips for inspiring your toddler's veggie-tooth.

1. Explore different kinds of seasoning.
Every culture and ethnicity has struggled with the "picky eater" issue since the dawn of time, and many flavor combinations were probably originally designed to make eating veggies more appealing to toddlers. My own son rejected spinach very firmly until he had it in palak paneer. Now he will eat it in lasagna, stir fry, and quesedilla's. Eventually I will give the steamed or sauteed spinach another try, when I come across a recipe that I think he will like. This strategy holds true for many vegetables which are traditionally rejected by the picky young eater. Broccoli is yucky, but broccoli in chili is delicious, string beans are slimy, but string beans and angel hair pasta with a creamy garlic sauce is delightful and asparagus=disgusting, but asparagus sushi rolls=fun. Contrary to a commonly held belief, garlic is not associated with giving children gas (or any other health problems) in fact there are many health benefits associated with this and almost every other classic herb. You should go easy on the salt and butter (try substituting olive oil for butter and Parmesan, or another hard cheese, for salt whenever you have the chance) to promote healthy habits later in life, but a little now and then won't hurt.

2. Use high quality fresh veggies.
My good friend didn't know how green beans were supposed to taste until she was an adult. Her mother had always popped open a can when preparing them for dinner. It wasn't that they couldn't afford fresh veggies it was simply a different time. Now that she has tried fresh plump sweet green beans fresh from the farmers market, she loves the veggie that she thought of as culinary torture in her youth. My own mom, who was pretty good about the fresh veggie thing, still would grab cans of creamed corn or packages of frozen broccoli florets. I fully admit that these things, canned and frozen goods, are huge time and money savers, however if your mission is to get your toddler to love his veggies, some fresh sweet peas will win him over much faster than the mealy grey-green peas that come out of a can. Planting and growing some veggies yourself, if you have the space, can be a great way to get cheap, organic, fresh produce, not to mention that it is educational and fun for kids.

3. Prepare veggies as the sweet desert.
Some veggies make a great dessert, like sweet potatoes (spoon bread), beets (tart) and corn (pudding) among others. The way your toddler first experiences a vegetable has a big impact on whether they will be likely to try them again in the future. The Sneaky Chef has some great free recipe's here: http://www.thesneakychef.com/free_sneaky_chef_recipes.php though make sure you tell your toddler all of the delicious veggies that are in the dessert that they are eating. The Sneaky Chef's hiding techniques are really meant for older picky eaters who have already decided that they hate nearly every vegetable.

4. Wait until they are really hungry.
Ever notice that the food you eat when you are starving is the best tasting food in the whole world? That is one of our bodies quirks that can be put to good use. On a day that you are introducing (or reintroducing, if they rejected it as a baby) a new vegetable, wait for an hour, or even two, past the time when you usually feed your toddler. If they ask for a drink during this time, only give them water then when they are just about to completely have a melt-down, present them with some delightfully seasoned fresh veggies that they have never tasted before. As they eat repeat the name of the veggie ("This is a parsnip. Can you say parsnip?) and reiterate that it is a yummy vegetable.

5. Eat veggies your self.
The best learning tool your toddler has is your example. Modeling a love of vegetables for your toddler will have more of an impact than anything else. In nature, baby animals often learn what kinds of foods are good to eat and which ones to stay away from by smelling their parents breath. Watching you eating healthful nourishing veggies with enthusiasm and gusto will inspire a desire to experience that same joy in your child.

Trick: Hide and go seek.
Anyone can play this game with their children, you hide veggies in a delicious meal, then ask if they can figure out which veggies are in it. This is a fun game to do with baked Root Vegetable Lasagna, and Ripe Olive and Avocado Quesadillas (yes, I know those are both technically fruits, but they taste like vegetables).

Now you are armed with some great tips and a trick to inspire a life long love of vegetables, the picky-eating fairy will hopefully pass over your house and you will be blessed with a child who grins from ear to ear when you say that you are having veggies for dinner! Of course every child is different, and if your toddler is particularly resistant to a certain food, there is a possibility that they might have an allergy. Keep your eyes peeled for any type of hives, or diarrhea after certain foods so you can get your little wiggle-monster tested for allergies at your next check-up. If you find these tips helpful, please pass them on to any new or expecting parents (or parents of toddlers) you might know, and don't hesitate to leave a question or comment on any of my tips or tricks. Happy parenting!

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