Getting kids to love their veggies

As a longtime health reporter, I’ve interviewed plenty of nutrition experts who recommend “hiding” extra vegetables in unexpected dishes. It’s a smart way to boost the vitamin, mineral and fiber content of everything from spaghetti sauce and casseroles to cookies and banana bread. But is it the best way to get reluctant young eaters to embrace produce?

The question can spark a food fight. Plenty of children’s health experts say it’s better for kids to be aware of the veggies they’re eating – otherwise how will they ever learn to like broccoli and carrots and even Brussels sprouts and start choosing them on their own? Of course, that can launch its own food fight in your house.  “Eat the green beans.” “NO.” “Eat one – come on, just one.”

With less than 30 percent of kids and teens eating the recommended five servings of fruit and veggies a day, the “hide it or show it” question matters. A brand-new Columbia University study of elementary schoolers managed to test the two approaches with some unusual food pairings. The kids sampled gingerbread–broccoli spice cake, chickpea chocolate-chip cookies and zucchini chocolate-chip bread. Half were told about the unusual vegetable addition, half weren’t. After munching, researchers asked them how they liked the treats. The interesting thing was, kids thought the broccoli-laced cake and zucchini-infused bread were just fine. They weren’t too happy about the chickpeas in the cookies – kids who knew they were there gave them much lower ratings than kids who didn’t know there was a legume in their dessert.

The lessons for parents? Kids probably won’t notice hidden veggies. And when they’re familiar with a veggie, they don’t mind knowing they’re eating it. In the study, kids were already at home eating broccoli and zucchini, but most hadn’t had  chickpeas very often. The Columbia University say its proof that familiarity makes the palate grow fonder.

Several years ago I interviewed David Ludwig, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Optimal Weight for Life (OWL) Clinic at Childrens Hospital Boston and author of Ending the Food Fight: Guide Your Child to a Healthy Weight in a Fast Food/Fake Food World.  His advice for helping kids grow accustomed to vegetables and other healthy foods? Just keep offering them – but don’t pressure them to eat.  Studies show it can take a dozen or more ‘introductions’ before a child or even a teen begins to like a new food. And the last thing you want to do is turn healthy food into a battle ground. Serve broccoli and carrots at dinner. If your kids don’t eat them, no problem. Serve vegetables again tomorrow. Pack some in their lunch, too. I tried this with my own child, who had loved vegetables as a toddler and then broke off the romance in elementary school. I kept on sending a couple of baby carrots in her lunch, but never mentioned them – even when she confessed that she threw them away sometimes. (I know, it hurt.) But I suspected that one day she’d mindlessly crunch on them while chatting at the lunch table … and then do it again … and again.

It worked.  When she packs her own lunch these days before school, she always includes a vegetable. Lunch, she says, isn’t the same without one.