Move over, boring “steamed broccoli.” You’re old news there, green smoothie.
There are other ways to serve vegetables so that kids will eat and enjoy them!
And there’s no need for cute bento boxes every time! (Although we do love our bento boxes at our house.)
There’s really not a very big difference between a picky eater who won’t let a tenth of an ounce of a vegetable past their lips or one who will always eat the one or two bites you put on their plate.
We don’t really want to raise our kids to be obligatory vegetable eaters, because as soon as they get a mind of their own and a kitchen of their own, all of that might stop.
I want to raise kids who are appreciative vegetable eaters.
Kids who eat vegetables for the enjoyment of it as well as the knowledge that their bodies will be nourished. It CAN be a both/and — no reason for vegetable eating and enjoying to be an either/or or a never/no way!
Well-intentioned books and posts across the internet are full of ideas to “hide vegetables” or use tricks to get those veggies into your children. That kind of makes me think of the biblical story of Leah, tricking her sister Rachel out of her husband and making Jacob work seven more years for the woman he actually loved.
Do we really want to dress up veggies and trick our children into eating them, hoping they will someday love them?
I’m firmly in camp vegetable – no tricks allowed!
Let’s talk about surprising ways to make veggies incredibly delicious.
Sometimes hidden, never lied about, no tricks needed.
I wish I could wave a magic wand to make your family members less picky so they’ll just eat what’s prepared. I can’t, but this is the next best thing!
These ideas for healthy food your kids will want to eat are as close to magic as we can get in the kitchen!
When it comes to cooking vegetables, most people understand the basics: baking, sautéing, and steaming.
Let’s supercharge each of those with a simple twist to make them extra special.
If you’ve heard me speak, you know I don’t love the term “picky eaters.”
We can all agree that some kids are just more selective than others, whether they have Sensory Processing Disorder, are just stubborn, or may have the highly sensitive trait that makes their palate more discerning than others, many kids don’t like a lot of seasoning or extra flavor.
What kids do like is sweetness because our human tongues are wired to appreciate sweet flavors. Don’t worry, I’m not going to tell you to add sugar. 😉 That’s not my jam.
But the good Lord has provided us with a natural way to add sweetness to vegetables: caramelization.
Adults appreciate this flavor with a lovely pile of caramelized onions and mushrooms on top of their burger, but I admit that many children aren’t that into onions.
Roasting vegetables so that they are just browning on the edge infuses them with a special sweetness that employs the same gift of science as sautéing those onions.
Roasted vegetables are rich in flavor, have that touch of sweetness but aren’t usually overly spicy to overwhelm kids’ palates, and roasting is easy! Just toss in some oil and some simple herbs or spices and tuck into the oven for about an hour at 400°-450°F.
If you need more information read this post for the best kid-friendly veggies!.
There are only two drawbacks to roasting vegetables:
That’s where sautéing comes in.
My husband grew up hating asparagus.
Well, at least he thought he hated it, but he was only ever served canned asparagus.
I sauté vegetables like asparagus, green beans (even from frozen), and halved Brussels sprouts in bacon grease, and it’s like a whole new vegetable! My husband now craves asparagus and will go back for thirds as long as they are lightly sauteed in bacon grease.
Some kids will prefer a heavy sauté so that the vegetables are brown and mushy, while others love the bit of crunch when they’re bright green after just three to five minutes.
Always save your bacon grease! Particularly if you source pastured bacon like you can get at Butcher Box, this is a necessary new habit. (If you use the code “ks10” you’ll get free bacon and $10 off!)
Not only is it a huge budget saver because it’s something most people throw away, but it’s also a vegetable saver. Bacon grease can reinvent boring green veggies into side dishes even the pickiest of eaters will at least taste.
I mean, hello, who doesn’t love the smell of bacon?
Okay, fine, you love steaming broccoli. You even own a separate appliance to steam or use your Instant Pot.
If your kids tend to grab the obligatory taste of your steamed broccoli, here are a couple of tips to see a whole serving go into their mouths.
When cheese sauce is served, the kids go back for seconds. Is this cheating? Is that a trick?
I don’t think so, because it’s not like we’re hiding the vegetables. We’re just dressing them up better!
I eat a lot more broccoli when there’s cheese sauce or superfluous butter and seasonings on them as well. 🙂
There’s nothing wrong with making vegetables taste great! And unless there’s a dairy sensitivity, I don’t see any problem with organic whole milk and cheese as nourishing food for your kids.
My first two kids were great eaters and always loved their vegetables. But when baby number three came along and turned two, he became a green-phobic child.
He would not let anything green past his lips!
We typically insisted on a “taster bite,” but it was always a bit of an ordeal. Definitely the obligation bite and not the enjoyment.
One summer when he was four, we visited a friend’s garden, and much to my surprise, I discovered him munching freshly picked green beans right off the vine as fast as he could.
Green beans, into my little John?
It turned out the kid simply didn’t like cooked vegetables; he loved them raw!
And that’s where this tip comes in. Sometimes we need to get out of the box of cooking a side vegetable and accept that our kids will like them in many different ways!
After the garden incident, we discovered that John also really liked Costco’s whole frozen green beans directly from the freezer.
They retain their fresh vegetable flavor, and I’m guessing he probably felt a little bit of the “popsicle-feel” when he ate them.
It was quite a few years before he would eat them cooked, and now at age eight generally he will have half a serving of cooked green beans (in bacon grease of course!) and half a serving of frozen green beans on his plate.
This is not a novel idea, but it’s always a good reminder. Serving raw vegetables with dips that kids enjoy increases the chances that those vegetables go into their mouths.
Plus our bodies assimilate some of the vitamins in vegetables better when they’re served with healthy fats!
In fact, most likely the more dips you serve at one meal, the more vegetables will go in because many kids like variety.
Some dips to consider include:
We generally rotate between hummus, guacamole, and ranch.
My kids are so used to guacamole as a veggie dip that I don’t even bat an eye to serve carrots and guac when friends are over or at a school party.
I’m reminded that our family is out of the mainstream when I see the looks on other kids’ faces.
“Where the chips?” they’re thinking, “I see guacamole, where are the chips?” For us, guac goes with carrots even more than it goes with tacos and chips, although we eat it there too, of course.
So there’s the magic in this tip: if you have a special dip that your family loves on chips, try it with vegetables!
Speaking of chips, if you have a dehydrator or the patience to leave your oven on low for most of the day, you can actually make homemade chips out of just about any vegetable.
Check this post for all the instructions, but suffice it to say that with the right ratio of oil and salt, these crunchy little snacks can be just as addicting (in a good way) as those chips in the can that you can’t stop popping.
There’s a fabulous technique that I call “bridging” that parents of selective eaters should employ when trying to widen their kids’ palates and expand the number of foods they’ll eat.
Bridging is all about starting with a recognizable liked food (think chicken nuggets or pizza) and slowly moving the child toward more healthy versions of that food, and then other foods that have similar tastes, flavors, or textures.
Here are a few options that work for vegetables.
The bridge here is about shape, texture, and ketchup. Think of all the vegetables you could cut into the shape of french fry sticks and either bake, or even deep fry, and then serve with a little cup of ketchup for dipping.
I’ve even seen people try zucchini in french fry shapes, and at our house, we recently tried both yucca and jicama. It turns out yucca fries are awesome – crispy on the outside and soft on the inside, with the perfect texture!
Jicama fries I reserve judgment on. I might have let my jicama get too old because I was afraid of trying a new recipe when I didn’t have enough time! So I’m willing to try it again, someday…but I’ve already bought more yucca because it was so good!
My kids go gaga over parsnip fries, whether I slice them in sticks, like real french fries, or use our crinkle cutter and make them into round circles.
When the ketchup (and mustard for my family) come out, the French-fry shaped vegetables go down the hatch.
Chicken nuggets seem to be the quintessential “kid food” and on every kids’ menu, whether you are in an American, Italian, or Mexican restaurant. Don’t get me started on kids’ menus…
I always find it funny when my little one says things like, “Hey, Mom – you know that stuff that’s kind of like chicken, but it’s all brown, and you get it at restaurants with barbecue sauce?”
Yeah, kid. Those are called chicken fingers.
Secretly inside I’m jumping for joy that my children have no idea what processed food is called, but I’m sure this will make their teenage lives a little more tricky since they won’t speak the vocabulary.
That aside, kids like to pick things up.
When I found a recipe in the cookbook Simple Green Meals by Jen Hansard for breaded cauliflower with a marinara dip, I knew I had to try it! The breading is almond flour, so no guilt about gluten or carbs or whatever the next evil thing coming down the road is (unless it’s nuts).
This recipe is definitely a bit more effort than steamed cauliflower. But it’s also really, really good – even for the adults.
Here are a few recipes for chicken-nugget-like vegetables:
Pizza gives chicken nuggets a run for their money when it comes to kid food and kids’ menus at restaurants.
It seems every celebration that is hosted for children includes the requisite pizza as a meal. I’ve noticed this even more now that my daughter is dairy-sensitive because she can never eat anything at kids’ parties or school celebrations.
It’s really frustrating for her! She loves pizza, as do most children.
Going right to pizza veggies isn’t an appropriate bridge for a very selective eater who only eats five things, so you’ll need a few more steps to get from an actual pizza obsession all the way to vegetables, but it’s a good goal.
The idea is to make vegetables taste like pizza.
If you’ve heard me speak about picky eating, you surely heard this strategy. I recommend that parents serve a blended soup as an appetizer. There are some keys to making this work.
We have some awesome soups on Kitchen Stewardship and you can find them here:
You’ll also find a new one using cauliflower in the upcoming Chef Junior cookbook coming out in May 2020!! Paul Kimball, my oldest, is one of the authors. 🙂
I told you we would have no tricks and no hiding of vegetables, and that’s not what this is about. You can tell your kids what veggies are in there and I never advocate lying if they ask.
This works because they can’t see the veggies and they can’t pick them out! So we can hope that between the straw and the faces, they’re enticed to drink up the whole bowl.
Here’s the thing. Kids have roughly 10,000 taste buds, and an older person may have only 5,000, since not all of them regenerate like when we were younger.
It’s a fact of life that a human being’s tastes will change. And it almost always is true that their palate will widen as they get older. It’s up to us as parents to serve them a variety and to make food both nutritious and delicious.
If it’s exciting and fun, just a little bit creative, and tastes great in the mouth, or at least does to some people, your kids will have a positive relationship with food.
That’s really what we’re trying to build even if you do all this work and you end up with only the obligatory tasting bite.
I can’t send you your greatest wish, which I’m predicting is someone to just cook for you and your family, or at least a dishes fairy to clean up afterward. But I do believe that you can make healthy food your kids will eat and that over time with perseverance and commitment, your family will become less picky and eat what you serve.
I can tell you that it’s never too late, so don’t give up hope! My husband started liking all sorts of foods after he turned 30, including that asparagus, sweet potatoes, spinach and salmon (tolerated with lots of hot sauce). He still won’t eat cucumbers, but he’s a good sport and keeps trying and he’s completely given up soda pop and candy.
There may be a correlation or even causation there between getting rid of the sweet and improving his palate for vegetables. Make this a long-term goal and don’t despair if one meal doesn’t go great. You have a lifetime to get your kids to eat and enjoy their vegetables!