Good Eating Can Be Fun!

I’ve been duped.

For years, I’ve read that if only parents would expose kids to more vegetables, they would eat them and like them. Veggies would be as desirable as candy, chips, and fast food. I’ve lamented my failure to present my own kids with enough healthy choices during their most impressionable years. That must explain why, as teenagers, they spend their hard-earned money on fast food when I’m not looking (I see those colorful wrappers and soda cups in the trash—I’m totally on to them!). If only I’d made more home cooked dinners in the early days! If only I’d filled their toddler plates more often with broccoli puree and rutabaga cubes! Then they would surely prefer carrots to French fries and Brussels sprouts to burgers.

It was a lie—at least, partially.

Every time I feed my granddaughter, I fill her plate with healthy foods: benign, lovely things like blueberries, sweet potato fries, carrot/pear puree, and tiny bits of avocado. Every time, with every food—even fruit!—she unceremoniously turns up her nose and pushes the plate away, as if she has been deeply offended by the mere suggestion of  foods other than grilled cheese or plain quesadillas. She won’t even try a bite. She won’t even let a bite get near her. Mealtime is the context in which she learned how to assert herself with her favorite word: “uh-uh,” accompanied by a head shake (seriously, what kid doesn’t like fruit?). Now that I have a chance to make an early impact, I’m realizing that exposure isn’t everything, as my granddaughter has proven to me too many times.

This got me thinking: if a preference for healthy foods isn’t as simple as exposure (even repeated exposure—forget that “seven tastes and they will like it” theory when a child won’t even try something once), then what’s the trick? What might inspire a child to be a little more adventurous, and start to develop that broader palate we all hope for in our children?

I think “fun” is the trick. I think the answer is to take a little more time to make the good food, the real food, more fun. Why does fast food get the reputation as the “fun” food? What’s so fun about chemicals and fake ingredients? It’s backwards, and I think we can do something about it, but we have to go further than offering a vegetable and hoping for the best. Children might not think they like squash or spinach, but if vegetables weren’t so darned serious, if eating healthful food actually meant having a good time, then kids might be more inspired to take a taste, and one taste might lead to another, and another.

Here are ten ideas for making food fun

1. Make babies.

Baby vegetables are cuter, sweeter, and less intimidating than “grown-up” vegetables. Baby peas, baby beets, real baby carrots (the kind with greenery attached), baby (new) potatoes, baby Brussels sprouts, and baby greens look like they were made for kids. Offer veggies with the “baby” prefix and kids might give them a try, if only out of solidarity (little things need to stick together!).

2. Add butter.

At least to kids, who are more sensitive to bitter tastes, most vegetables taste better with butter and a dash of salt, or even a sprinkle of cheese. When you offer “buttery beans” or “cheesy broccoli,” formerly suspicious foods can feel more familiar and approachable.

3. Let your food touch.

Some kids don’t want their food to touch, but don’t assume anything. Just the other day, I fried up some bacon and scrambled it with eggs and some chopped onions and spinach leaves. I topped it all with cheese, and guess what who ventured a few bites? (I pretended not to notice.)

4. Pilfer from pop culture.

Bright yellow summer squash might take on the name of a certain square yellow fellow of cartoon fame. Your kids love a particular pop star? Apply his or her name—Randy Kaplan carrots, anyone? Raffi red cabbage? In our house, a certain children’s show featuring British aliens in red, blue, yellow, and green suits used to inspire the names of wholegrain toast with fruit faces and homemade strawberry custard.

5. Use humor.

Who says food can’t be funny? A study from Cornell University demonstrated that kids are much more likely to help themselves to veggies if they have humorous names, like X-ray Vision Carrots, Silly Dilly Green Beans, or Power Punch Broccoli (vegetables with silly names had double the takers in the study).

6. Get artistic.

Make a plate into a “portrait” of your child made from vegetables (radish slices for eyes, a strip of yellow bell pepper or a nose, a tomato wedge for a smile, sprouts for hair?). What about a miniature nature scene with broccoli florets for trees over a bed of lettuce leaf “grass” with bits of shredded beets and red cabbage for flowers and a path of cucumber slices??

7. Go raw.

Roasting and stir-frying may make vegetables more appealing to grown-ups, but a lot of children prefer vegetables raw. Go beyond the old standards like carrots and celery. Try purple cauliflower florets, multi-colored bell pepper strips, cucumber half-moons, mild breakfast radishes, kohlrabi cut into sticks, shredded beets, and small tomatoes speared with toothpicks (different varieties come in yellow, orange, and green). A few raw veggies on the side in place of chips or fries might inspire some experimental crunching.

8. Get dippy.

As long as you’ve got out the raw vegetables, add something to dip them in. Dipping is fun! Ranch dressing is the old standby, but also try hummus, guacamole, mild salsa, French onion dip, even peanut butter. Or make your own in a rainbow of colors by mixing sour cream and sea salt with different vegetable purees (beets for pink, spinach for green, pumpkin for orange).

9. Play games.

The Tasting Game is fun and encourages bravery in the face of palate teasing.  At snack time, cover your child’s eyes and feed her small bites of different foods. Her job is to guess what they are. Kids get so distracted by the guessing, they forget to notice they are eating foods they might push away at the table. As kids get older make the guessing game harder. String beans: yellow, green, or purple? Bell peppers:  green, purple, red, or orange? Tomatoes: red, orange, yellow, or green?

10. Make it an event.

Healthful foods can be an adventure. Steam an artichoke, put out individual bowls of lemon butter, and make a family ritual out of pulling off the leaves and sliding them through your teeth, then peeling and cutting the heart and dividing it up between everyone. Who can collect the biggest pile of leaves? Grow cherry tomatoes in a planter or green peas on a trellis, then harvest the veggies with your child. Put on some calypso music and crack open a coconut together. Share the water and chunks of coconut meat. Take a weekly family field trip to the co-op and farmer’s market and let each child choose a veggie to serve with dinner. These are the traditions your children will remember, and the fun will rub off on your child’s perception of healthful food.

We all get rushed and life is busy, but if we take time for anything, it should be to bring more joy to the table. There’s nothing inherently serious about vegetables and other healthful foods, so slow down, get creative, and lighten up. Good eating really can be fun!