When it comes to veggies, it’s usually hit or miss with my kiddos. Yeah, they'll occasionally lick the ranch dressing off a carrot stick, but that hardly counts as a serving of veggies. In an effort to avoid the dinner table stalemate that happens at our table at least two to three times a week, I have taken on a new ninja-like approach to feeding my children. No, I don’t drop down from the ceiling in a surprise attack stuffing cabbage into their mouths, although that does sound like the beginning of an awesome story that ends in an ambulance ride for Mommy. A friend of mine recognized the struggle going on in my house and gave me a recipe for Not Exactly Meatloaf. It’s mostly shredded veggies mixed in with a little ground turkey, breadcrumbs, and an egg. My girls loved it, and I felt like the mom of the year getting that much fiber into them in one sitting! Now that I have mastered the way of the kitchen ninja, I have compiled a list of must-know moves to get your little ones to eat their veggies.
This is not a new trick. Remember Ants on a Log? Kids love flashy names and are more likely to eat veggies with flashy names. Parents have been using this trick for centuries, so why not adopt this tried-and-true method at your house? In our Casa de Chaos, it's not broccoli—it's baby dinosaur trees. It's not carrots—it's giant X-ray vision pills. It's not asparagus—it’s a forest fairy wand (and the one time you are allowed to splat a vegetable against your sister's forehead at the table).
My girls love to tell stories using toys and
dolls, so why not veggies? Our favorite is the story of the Three Little Pigs using celery, carrot, and zucchini sticks as straw, sticks, and bricks. I tell the story, and the girls act it out on their plates. Black olives or cherry tomatoes work for the little pigs, and I like to use whole grain crackers nibbled into the shape of a big bad wolf. Sometimes, the story takes a shocking turn when a giant hungry dinosaur comes out of nowhere and eats the wolf and a couple of pigs in one bite. Mommy has to eat too, right?
Straight up camouflage.
I sneak fruit and veggies into every recipe I possibly can. My favorite thing in the world is being able to say "yes" when my kids ask for a cupcake for breakfast within earshot of other moms. What these dagger-eyed moms don’t know is that by "cupcake" my little ones mean the low-sugar zucchini bread muffins I made with whole wheat flour and applesauce instead of oil. The frosting is just low-fat cool whip, a spoonful of softened whipped cream cheese and a couple drops of vanilla extract whipped into a frosting-like texture. I keep these in the freezer for emergencies. Add a dash of sparkly sprinkles to complete the deceit and yes, honey, you can have another cupcake!
The art of the dip.
Just like crayons and finger paint, kids love having colorful options and a way to express their creativity. Using a puddle of ranch to encourage your kiddos to eat veggies doesn’t always work. But, offering a large white plate of pureed veggies of different colors and a broccoli floret or asparagus spear as a paintbrush, does. Use carrots for orange, tomatoes or tomato sauce for red, etc. I find that cauliflower or peeled zucchini puree works best as a base with a drop or two of food coloring for blue and purple. You can also use this to get creative with other dishes. Who could resist purple mashed potatoes?
Make it a contest and make the prize a veggie sabotage.
Sometimes, some friendly competition can help get the veggies down. My daughters are just getting to the age where they are refusing to share with each other. They closely watch me scoop ice cream and argue over which bowl has a bigger scoop than the other, and who gets it. I use this little bit of competitiveness to encourage a friendly game of “Who can eat more peas?" in which I have Evyn, my 4-year-old, help me count out a number of peas or corn kernels onto each plate. Then, at the end of dinner, we count out how many are left on each plate and declare a winner for the night. Usually, the winner gets to choose the dessert—and it’s usually a zucchini sabotage cupcake! Score: Mom-2, Kids-0.
When all else fails, agree with them.
Yes, steamed broccoli smells like, well, you know. No use arguing when they are right. So, have them help you conduct an experiment. Tell them you need their official opinion on which veggies are the yuckiest. Give them a small sample of two to three different kinds of new veggies and have them decide which is the most and least offensive. Let them decide which single veggie should never ever be served in your house again. The only rule is that they can't spit out anything they taste. Best case: they discover a couple of favorites. Worst case: you can never serve Brussels sprouts for dinner again (but you did get your kids to choke down a couple of extra bites before they were exiled from your kitchen). The key to this one is to follow through. Another small victory for Mommy.
Let them help cook.
Kids will try anything they made themselves. It's true. I've seen my girls attempt to eat “rock” candy, mud pies, and a "salad" made of grass clippings, leaves, and bugs. Luckily, I intervened just in time with the salad. But you get the point. Lots of fruit and veggies can be safely prepared with a butter knife or even ripped apart with freshly washed little fingers. So pull up a chair, tie an apron on them, and let them help you in the kitchen. The pride they feel seeing everyone eat the food they helped to prepare is good for their self-esteem and also encourages them to make healthier food choices as they get older. You may have just sparked a love for food in the next Todd English or Gordon Ramsey—how's that for contributing to your retirement, Mom?
Play with your food.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with letting your kids build a mashed potato snowman with celery arms and a little carrot nose. In fact, giving them a goal of eating all their vegetables and letting them go about it in their own way encourages them to think outside the box. This is an incredibly valuable skill that carries over into adulthood. I make it a point not to stifle creativity at home, however, I do not allow my children to play with their food at other people’s homes or at restaurants. This is mostly because we're working on learning the proper time and place for certain behaviors. If your children are younger, like mine, playing with your food can present a problem if you are also working on table manners. Other restaurant guests may not be very understanding when your 4-year-old creates an asparagus catapult and hurls a spoonful of corn at her sister across the table . . . even if she does catch most of it in her mouth.
Now that you know these secrets, use your newly discovered kitchen ninja skills to feed your family better. Don't hold back if you feel the urge to do a spinning jump kick in celebration of your seemingly impossible victory against the vegetable.