It's meal time at your home and you're planning the menu. You lovingly prepare the meal for your family and place the food on the table. You all proceed to sit down and dish up. You are secretly praying inside that maybe, just maybe, this time your child is going to take some vegetables. If your prayers are answered, maybe they will even try them. Some of you might be saying, "Oh well... My child has always loved their vegetables." Congratulations! You have a magical unicorn! For the other 99% of us, getting your kids to eat, let alone "like" vegetables can seem like a daunting task.
As a chef for over 18 years, I have seen every kind of kid eater there is out there. While I don't have a magical recipe that will make your kids love their vegetables overnight, I am, however, going to explain some things about this most very important part of your child’s diet. I'll shed some light on the rainbow of vegetables, and how they benefit your child, and maybe even share a trick or two that can help you out, mama.
In June 2011, the United States of Agriculture (USDA) replaced the tried and true Food Pyramid that we knew growing up, with My Plate. Just like its predecessor, My Plate puts a big emphasis on vegetables for your child’s diet. It encourages you to make your child’s plate a rainbow of vegetables. Why would they now start to emphasize this, you may ask? Well, believe it or not, every color and type of vegetable comes with its own health benefits for that growing body of your child. Vegetables are broken down into 5 categories: dark green, red/orange, beans/peas, starchy and other. I am even going to do one better for you, mamas. I am going to identify each group and their health benefits:
1) Dark Green: This includes broccoli, collard greens, dark green leafy lettuce, romaine and spinach. This category brings along with it the benefits of strong bones and teeth; vision health, and lowers the risk of some cancers.
2) Red/Orange: This includes acorn and butternut squash; carrots, pumpkin, red peppers, sweet potatoes and tomatoes. This category brings along with it the benefits of boosting the immune system (Vitamin A), heart and blood health (red veggies); vision and teeth health (Beta keratin) and lowers the risk of some cancers.
3) Beans/Peas (legumes): This includes black beans, black-eyes peas, garbanzo beans (chickpeas), pinto beans, red beans and white beans. This category brings along with it the benefits of helping digestion (good ol’ fiber), lowers cholesterol and lowers the risk of some cancers.
4) Starchy (everyone’s favorite category of them all!): This includes corn, green peas, green lima beans, jicama, plantains and white potatoes. This category brings along with it the benefits of extra carbohydrates that feed working muscles. The brain can only use carbohydrates as fuel for your body. In this category moderation really is key.
5) Other vegetables: Includes asparagus, avocado (yes it counts as a veggie), cabbage, cauliflower, celery, cucumbers or pickles; green beans, green peppers, mushrooms, onions, radishes and zucchini. This category brings along with it the benefits of providing color and nutrient variety, healthy heart (white vegetables), and memory health and aging (purple/blue vegetables), and lowers the risk of some cancers.
While this might seem all well and good, the question I know you must have is, "Just how many servings a day or week does my child need?" Well, this all depends on the age, and, yes, even the gender of your child. The USDA recommends these daily servings:
2-3 years: 1-1 1⁄2 cups
4-8 years; 1 1⁄2- 2 1⁄2 cups
9-13 years (girls): 2-4 cups
9-13 years (boys): 2 1⁄2-4 cups
14-18 years (girls): 2 1⁄2-4 cups
14-18 years (boys): 3-4 cups
Now, you might ask, why such a big range at each age? Like most other foods, how many vegetables your child should eat has a lot to do with your child’s activity level. An active child burning more calories will need more vegetables than an inactive child.
And what counts as one serving of vegetables for a child? According to the USDA, one serving is equal to 1⁄2 cup of raw or cooked vegetables, 1 cup raw, leafy vegetables and 1⁄2 cup cooked or canned peas or beans. So, looking at a weekly goal for your child’s vegetable intake incorporating the 5 categories of vegetables could look like this:
1) Dark greens: 1⁄2 cup each week
2) Red/orange: 1 1⁄4 cups each week
3) Beans/peas: 1⁄2 cup each week
4) Starchy: 1⁄2 cup each week
5) Other vegetables: 3⁄4 cup each week
And now that you have all this knowledge, I am sure you are asking yourself, "Well this is all fine and good, Jennifer, but how do I get my child to actually eat said healthy vegetables?” As I mentioned earlier I do not have a magical way for your child to eat their vegetables. I do, however, have some suggestions and tricks to help you to get them to try and eat them.
A love of vegetables can be started at a very early age. Most experts recommend starting early by offering your older infant and toddler a large variety of fruits and vegetables. Examples of how you can start this love of vegetables at any age for your child:
-Set a good example by eating vegetables yourself. Like they say “monkey see, monkey do.” You need to make sure your own choices are in line with the foods you want your child to eat.
-Prepare meals together. By having a hand in making the meal increases the chances your child will want to taste his/her creation.
-Avoid showing disinterest or disgust when trying new foods. A study found that mothers who showed that they didn’t want to try a new food had a child that also tended to refuse new foods.
-Mix in vegetables with foods that your child already loves. Examples of this could be as easy as an extra topping on pizza, extra veggies pureed in spaghetti sauce or mixed into a casserole or soup.
-Visit a farmer’s market to buy fresh vegetables and let your child pick them. If you're feeling hands on and have time, let your child start their own vegetable garden.
-Offer low fat dressing or dip as a side for vegetables. Let's face it most kids have a slight obsession to dip their food.
-Provide raw vegetables as a snack. Good examples of this are baby carrots, sliced cucumbers, sliced bell peppers, cherry tomatoes or celery sticks. Remember provide a rainbow.
-Offer your child A LOT of choices. At first, provide smaller servings, and then increase. Remember and keep in mind most children, especially our picky eaters, will not try a new vegetable until they see it on their plate at least 10 times. So don't give up hope easily, mama.
At the end of the day, we always say, “Fed is best.” Every family is different when it comes to how they will incorporate various foods into their child’s diet. I hope the knowledge, advice and tips I have provided you can help start a love of vegetables in your child. Whether they know it or not, the eating habits they start now at a young age affect their health as an adult. So let's start our children on the right foot towards a healthier future.
Author: Jennifer Beckom is a twin mom to four year olds, Clara and Elizabeth. She is a wife, chef and child nutritionist. She has served as Secretary and Programs VP for FWMOM.