You’ve had the fight a thousand times: You serve up veggies with dinner, and your grandchild crosses her arms and says “no way.” Believe it or not, these struggles often don’t get kids to eat more healthfully. In fact, an Ohio State study of more than 6,000 kids and teens found that about a third of the vegetables kids ate was in the form of fried potatoes (as in potato chips and French fries). And almost 80% of high schoolers don’t eat five or more servings of fruits and vegetables per day, the guideline recommended in the food pyramid.
Kids may not gravitate to veggies, but there may also be something else going on. “Sometimes, in our efforts to get kids to like vegetables, we inadvertently bias kids against them,” explains Laura Jana, M.D., an Omaha-based pediatrician. She should know—she’s both a mother of three and author of the bookFood Fights. If the food fights are fraying your nerves, take heart. We’ve got the solutions to help you create kid-friendly meals.
Grandkids whine:“I hate the smell!” Reality:There may be something to this. According to researchers, although people say they don’t like the ‘taste’ of cruciferous vegetables like cauliflower and cabbage, what they’re most likely reacting to is the smell of those vegetables. In fact, the smell is so powerful that in tests, even animals ran the other way. Kid-friendly solution:Hide the offender inside kid-popular foods, like mac-and-cheese and even brownies. Missy Chase Lapine, author ofThe Sneaky Chef, has lots of helpful and ingenious recipes for hiding top offenders like spinach, cauliflower, and more.
Grandkids whine:“But you don’t like them, either!” Reality:Kids are impressionable. And if they see you make a face after eating a food, chances are they’ll make one, too. French researchers have shown that emotions on other people’s faces can have a powerful effect on our own desire to eat particular foods. When there’s positivity surrounding vegetables and other healthy foods like fruits and whole grains, children—who are like sponges—take that all in, says Elizabeth Ward, registered dietitian, mother of three, and author ofMyPlate for Moms, How to Feed Yourself and Your Family Better. Kid-friendly solution:Be conscious of that grimace you might be tempted to make when you spear your own Brussels sprout. Smile…and your grandchild will smile along with you.
Grandkids whine:“You can’t tell me what to do!” (Often not spoken, but implied with crossed arms, pursed lips, and a look of defiance.) Reality:Kids like to feel in control. Kid-friendly solution:Give your grandkids a choice, as in, “Do you want peas or broccoli with your chicken?” and they’ll be less likely to turn you down. “This gives children some power and authority over what they’re eating; even if they choose the same vegetable every time, they’re still getting a vegetable,” Ward says.
Grandkids whine:“I want soda/juice/milk with that!” Reality:Mixing the taste of vegetables with other flavors might succeed in tempering the unpleasant taste, but it won’t necessarily get the kids to eat more of them. Kid-friendly solution:Serve only water with meals. Taste preferences are highly influenced by repeated exposure to particular food and drink pairings. Based on this fact, new research has demonstrated that when preschoolers were given water as opposed to a sweetened beverage, they ate more raw vegetables (like carrots and red peppers). Why? Children have learned to associate sweet, highly caloric drinks like soda and fruit juices, with salty and fatty foods, like French fries.
Grandkids whine:“Vegetables are boring!” Reality:Next to things like chicken nuggets, hot dogs, and pasta (most kids’ foods of choice), broccoli and spinach can’t compete. Kid-friendly solution:Try combining veggies with foods you know your grandchild likes, suggests Bonnie Taub-Dix, R.D., a registered dietitian and author ofRead it Before You Eat It.“As a child, my son loved mandarin oranges, so I made him a salad with a bit of lettuce and lots of oranges,” she says. Over time, you can change the ratio until you end up with more greens on the plate than oranges. Taub-Dix also suggests playing a blindfolded, “taste-test” game of “name that veggie” as a way of exposing them to new tastes, while having fun doing it.