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Kid-Friendly Veggie Secrets

Updated on February 7, 2013

It’s every parent’s dilemma. Moms and dads know kids need the fiber and nutrition found in vegetables, but young palates often find the flavors of vegetables disagreeable. And it's not just vegetables that cause the kiddies to cry out: other foods high in nutrition and low in fat can get the old heave-ho in favor of artificially colored and flavored snacks generously offered by a well-meaning classmate. How do you get the good foods kids so desperately need past their tempestuous taste buds? Here are some strategies for fast-tracking wholesome foods beyond the "ew!" factor and right into your child’s tummy.

The Fun Factor

Instead of bagging up the same boring sandwich, chips and soda lunch, try an approach suggested by Japanese cuisine: create a fun bento box. Bento boxes are meals served in compartmentalized food trays, presenting a meal in tidbit bites, often prepared with a bit of whimsy in design. With a modicum of creativity, your child's lunchbox will seem like a little treasure box filled with tempting "jewels" to eat!

Typical bento box as served in Japanese-style restaurants. (CCL C)
Typical bento box as served in Japanese-style restaurants. (CCL C) | Source
A more playful, homemade version of bento box fare. (CCL C)
A more playful, homemade version of bento box fare. (CCL C) | Source

Start off with a specially designed bento box, or mentally divide a simple, rectangular-shaped disposable food storage container into three to six sections. Gather foods you wish to include in your child’s lunch, minding a balance among grains, protein and vegetables, but keeping an eye toward opportunities to feature fruits and vegetables.

Lay down a bed of salad leaves in the container. Atop that, let a couple slices of lunch meat cut in a circular shape take center stage as the sun; slice yellow bell peppers into strips and arrange these around the sun to create sun rays. More chopped or sliced veggies adhered with a dab of mustard can form eyes and a smile to adorn the sun’s face. In the corners of the box, tuck in some fresh fruit, crackers, cheese and perhaps a healthy treat in the last corner. Provide a combination fruit/veggie juice to accompany the meal. Look online (search “bento ideas kids”) for ideas on slicing foods to make apple bunnies, hot dog penguins and other cute forms that take almost no prep time in the kitchen. Make the fruits and veggies cute, include favorite foods in the overall meal, and you’re likely to coax your child to health through the fun factor.

Many people get very artistic with their bento boxes, and that's wonderful for folks who have the time and patience to create works of art for their children every morning. But don't be scared off by these intricate triumphs de cuisine. You needn't be Michelangelo to add a little personality to your child's lunch. Let the food muse inspire you, and be as fanciful as you wish, but don't put pressure on yourself to create a masterpiece. Remember, the goal here is to make the meal fun for your kids in order to entice them to actually eat the foods provided. If creating the elements for your bento boxes becomes too demanding, you'll simply give up and fall back on the old stand-by of PB&J.

Reveal the secret star hidden inside each apple! RFL
Reveal the secret star hidden inside each apple! RFL | Source

Keep it simple, especially when starting out. Slice an apple in half across the middle, rather than from the stem down. This type of slice will reveal a pleasing star shape in the center of the apple. Cut a few slices like this from the mid section of the fruit to provide several pieces of star-centered apple slices. Use a cookie cutter or paring knife to trim the edges of the slices, creating star-shaped slices with star centers. Cut the remaining apple into chunks and tuck into a corner of your bento box, nestled next to a small capped plastic container of yogurt for dipping.

Your works of art will keep looking fresh with this quick step: after cutting or slicing your apples, soak the pieces for a few minutes in an acidic bath, then gently pat off the excess moisture with paper towels before packing the fruit in your bento. An acidic bath is simply cool water that has an acidic nature to combat the oxidation of the fruit's exposed flesh (oxidation--exposure to air--is what causes apples turn brown after being cut). Simply add your choice of a little apple cider vinegar, orange, pineapple, lemon or lime juice into the water, stir it up it and drop in your fruit. A salt water bath works well, too, as does simply sprinkling the sliced fruit with ascorbic acid (powdered Vitamin C).

When coaxing your offspring to eat foods that they have not historically been fond of, be careful not to overwhelm them. Don't stuff the box with foods you know they dislike. If all that's offered is a collection of foods they detest, no measure of cuteness will get the foods into your kids' mouths. Instead, offer one or two new or previously rejected foods along with items you know your kids enjoy. Focus the cute factor on the suspect items when possible to make them that much more attractive.

Use Color for Contrast

Instead of combining broccoli florets with green beans, pair cheerful yellow bell pepper slices with carrots, and accent those with a bright red cherry tomato or strawberry. You can tuck in greens around the edges to make your bento box appear to be a garden of crops! A quick blanching of veggies will retain color and nutrition, and can make some veggies more palatable than when left raw.

Compartmentalize with fun disposable printed paper cups. There are varieties especially made for bento boxes, but regular paper muffin cups can serve the same purpose. Use tiny paper cups intended for mini-muffins to hold smaller portions of food or to highlight a particularly prized nosh. Playful party picks add another element of fun, even when a pick is not necessary to hold the food together, and colorful plastic forks in adorable animal designs make eating little portions fun.

Here is one example of a fun bento box; several more examples can be found at the end of this article. Note that many of the food items shown in these pictures are traditional Japanese foods, which may or may not appeal to your youngsters. Don't feel bound to use unfamiliar ingredients. Bologna can be substituted for fish sausage, for example. And there's nothing wrong with cutting beloved and familiar sandwiches into fun and interesting shapes to add some delight to the meal. But also don't be afraid to try a few new things. You may make some pleasant discoveries of your own!

This sweet kitty (actually flaked salmon surrounded in rice) is dreaming of catching yummy little birdies in the garden.  (CCL B)
This sweet kitty (actually flaked salmon surrounded in rice) is dreaming of catching yummy little birdies in the garden. (CCL B) | Source

Hidden Nutrition

If they won’t snack it, sneak it. Yes, it's a twist on the old bait-and-switch, where someone expects one thing and you craftily slip in another, but in this case, your fussy eater won't even know it's been done. There are several ways to stealthily include nutritious vegetables in everyday recipes. Steam and purée vegetables, adding some purée into your kids’ favorite dishes. They’ll never notice the half-cup of butternut squash purée you added into their apple muffin batter, nor the portion of cauliflower purée you mixed into their kid-friendly mashed potatoes. Include a few tablespoons of canned pumpkin with eggs and cinnamon to coat some French toast for a rich flavor, and hide sweet potato and cauliflower purées into a tray of lasagna. You’ll never have to confess your cooking secrets!

An easy way to accomplish this is to make batches of vegetable purée in advance, and freeze measured portions for easy use when fixing meals. For example, start your pasta sauce and drop a cup of frozen purée right into the pot. As the mixture simmers, the puréed vegetables will thicken and enrich the sauce. Besides increasing nutritional value, incorporating purées adds body to your meals, allowing you to purchase thinner (i.e., less expensive) sauces and augmenting the ingredients of the cheaper brand with the richness of your homemade vegetable purée.

Steam and purée different vegetables separately, and once cooled, store in labeled freezer bags or containers. You may want store a large batch if you expect to be making a big family meal, and also freeze smaller portions for individual servings or to combine purées (a portion of summer squash combined with a portion of peas, for instance). Ice cube trays are the perfect vehicle for freezing small amounts of purée, and once frozen, you can toss cubes of the same purée into a freezer bag for easy storage, retrieval and use.

If you happen to have a blender with a built-in tap, filling ice cube trays with vegetable purée is a snap! Blend your veggies, position the tap right over one end of the ice cube tray, and smoothly move the tray along directly under the tap while dispensing. Within moments, you'll have perfectly proportioned purée cubes ready to pop into the freezer, without any spilled veggie mess on the kitchen counter. Certain types of blenders are designed with specific actions to continually force blended food down into the blades. This will keep your purée evenly mixed, so even the very last purée cube to be poured will have the same consistency as the first.

When sneaking foods into meals, also serve up a small portion of the surreptitious veggie in its regular non-puréed form right there on the plate alongside the deceptive meal. Keep these vegetables routinely visible on the nightly dinner plate, so kids get more and more accustomed to seeing them as a regular and expected part of a meal. Offering kids the repeated opportunity to try veggies gives them the chance to--gasp!--actually try them. Don't always expect children to turn down vegetables. They may accidentally discover that they suddenly like them after all.

Build on Established Preferences

Make a list of known food preferences and use them to your advantage. If your son likes bunch onions, seek out other varieties of onion for him to try. If your daughter eats just the inner beans of green beans, let her try some edamame (boiled soy beans)--steamed and topped with a little salt, they almost taste like French fries! Make connections wherever you can, linking foods your kids already like with foods they don't like (or think they don't like, because they've never tried them before).

Sometimes, it's all about the preparation. Kids who would run screaming from a mass of mushy cooked spinach may not even recognize a fresh spinach salad (with yummy bacon crumbles!) as featuring the very same vegetable. Experiment and try various forms of preparing and presenting foods. If you discover your youngster loves roasted carrots and potatoes, try offering roasted eggplant. If your kids get a kick out of kebabs, try adding a new veggie in between those chunks of chicken. And remember that dipping sauces can go a long way to pave the road of acceptance!

To get vegetables and other healthy foods into your kids, entice when you can and sneak when you must. However you accomplish the feat, always do your best to meet your child’s nutritional needs. In time, their unsophisticated taste buds will likely develop an appreciation for more varied tastes, and you'll no longer need to covertly conceal carrots or build bento bunnies.

But don't let that stop you.

© M.S. Ross - All Rights Reserved

Let Them Eat (Purée-filled) Cake

What sneaky strategies have you employed to get good nutrition into your kids? Have you had success with vegetable purées or whimsical food designs? Or, have you happened upon another clever solution to coax kids to get their five fruits and veggies a day? Share your experiences in the comments section below.


Bento Box Showcase

Colorful accessories add smiles to mealtime and also help to separate food elements. (CCL B)
Colorful accessories add smiles to mealtime and also help to separate food elements. (CCL B) | Source
Adorable egg bears welcome kids to lunchtime. (CCL B)
Adorable egg bears welcome kids to lunchtime. (CCL B) | Source
Perfect for a trip to Grandmother's house in the woods or for a delightful lunch at school. (CCL B)
Perfect for a trip to Grandmother's house in the woods or for a delightful lunch at school. (CCL B) | Source
Nori (seaweed) can be cut into all kinds of shapes to create designs. Here, it is used to form the hairdo on this little girl. (CCL A)
Nori (seaweed) can be cut into all kinds of shapes to create designs. Here, it is used to form the hairdo on this little girl. (CCL A) | Source
Halve hot dogs, slice partially up from the cut end to form legs, then drop dogs in boiling water. The tentacles will curl up to create OctoDogs! (CCL B)
Halve hot dogs, slice partially up from the cut end to form legs, then drop dogs in boiling water. The tentacles will curl up to create OctoDogs! (CCL B) | Source

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