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Children, Finicky Eating and Vegetables

Updated on November 19, 2010

When I was a little girl growing up in Rehovoth, Israel, there was a vegetable wagon that used to stop in our neighborhood, with an old tired horse to pull it, and a noisy vendor to hawk the greens. My mother would go out and pick out the best and freshest produce, and then she would prepare it in the most appetizing way imaginable, in order to get me to eat my vegetables. The only problem was: I didn't like vegetables. Or at least I didn't like the same vegetables my mother thought I should like. One time, after telling me that tomatoes were very expensive, she pureed fresh tomatoes and mixed them liberally with sugar. I ate the sauce she'd prepared just for me, but it didn't make me like tomatoes. As an adult, it took me years to discover their true flavor. (I have always hated ketchup.)

My mother did other tricky things to get me to eat what she thought was a healthy diet necessary for a growing child. To ensure I got enough protein, she would sometimes mix an egg into my chocolate milk.

We all want our children to eat healthy foods. In the name of good nutrition, many a parent has resorted to amazing ruses. Recently, I saw on Amazon.com that there was a new book out with lots of suggestions on how to dress up vegetables so that children will eat them.

The problem with this strategy is: if you dress the vegetables up so that they are unrecognizable, how will your children learn to like them? If they never get to taste vegetables in their natural form and only meet them in a heavy disguise, they may enjoy some short term nutritional benefits, but they won't become habituated to eating vegetables, and they won't choose to eat vegetables when the choice of menu is their own.

My nine year old daughter loves salad. Not salad dressing or croutons, but the actual lettuce and tomatoes that are at the heart of the salad. How did I achieve this? Quite by accident. I never eat salad myself. When she was a toddler, every time I ordered a steak, I let her have the salad. For some reason, she took to it naturally, and she still prefers salad to steak.

I have never pushed vegetables on my daughter, nor have I worked hard to make her like them. I offer vegetables with every meal, and if she doesn't like a particular type, it's not a big deal. I like peas, raw. She likes peas okay, but she prefers lettuce. If I serve up bite-sized carrots as a side-dish, she will chew on them absent-mindedly. Sometimes she finishes them all, and sometimes she doesn't. It's okay with me, either way. I prefer bell peppers and onions; she likes brussels sprouts and broccolli. We both like steamed cauliflower.

Many vegetables are crunchy and appetizing when they are fresh and raw, without condiments, and sauces. Others are best lightly steamed. No vegetable tastes good if you boil all the juices out of it, puree it, or douse it with sugar. Not coincidentally, they are also less nutritious when you do that. If you disguise vegetables too well, they can lose their nutritional identity.

In the long run, it is not so important whether a child eats a particular vegetable at any given meal. There's no reason to panic if they don't. The important thing is to allow your child to discover for himself which vegetables he likes. The best way to do that is to introduce them in their fresh, natural form. Leave off the disguise, and let your child make the choice of his favorite vegetables. Whatever he picks, it's bound to turn into a healthy habit.

(c) 2008 Aya Katz

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