'Vegetables' is not a dirty word Getting kids to eat what's good for them

April 19, 1995|By Deborah S. Hartz | Deborah S. Hartz,Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel

Steve Petusevsky got quite a surprise when he recently looked for a lost sock behind the washer and dryer. Instead of his sock, he found a pile of vegetables -- broccoli florets, carrot coins and "dry-aged" zucchini rounds.

"There was an abundance of them back there," says Mr. Petusevsky, a chef who writes a nationally distributed vegetarian cooking column as well as a magazine parenting column.

Clearly his children, ages 6 and 9, had discovered a way to make those veggies on their dinner plates disappear.

Getting children to eat vegetables is a problem shared by many parents. In fact, a National Cancer Institute study published in 1993 found that at least one in four children in elementary and high school do not eat even one serving of vegetables (not counting french fries) each day.

Also, a 1993 survey by MRCA Information Services found that children 4 to 10 years of age eat only 1.3 servings of vegetables a day.

The Food Guide Pyramid recommends at least three. That's because vegetables are a good source of vitamins A and C and fiber. And, in the long term, they may help prevent cancer.

Thus, getting your child to eat vegetables is important. "If children develop the mind-set to eat vegetables, they establish this behavior for life," says Janice Stuff, a pediatric dietitian who works at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Children's Nutrition Research Center in Houston.

But it's not always easy to get Tommy to eat his tomatoes or Betty to chow down on beets.

In fact, the problem surfaces when the child reaches 6 months and vegetables are introduced to his or her diet.

It happens because vegetables have a slightly stronger flavor and different texture from the food the child has been eating until then, Ms. Stuff says. She suggests you accustom your child to eating vegetables by feeding straight peas or carrots, not mixtures.

And introduce unfamiliar vegetables when the infant is very hungry. "Then they'll swallow anything you put in their mouths," she says.

Once infants are used to eating vegetables, they probably won't give you too much problem again until they are about 2 years old.

"Food jags begin about then," says Suzanne Havala, nutrition adviser for the Vegetarian Research Group, based in Baltimore.

At that age, children are looking for ways to assert their independence. And eschewing vegetables is often the rebellion of choice.

So the first piece of advice the experts give is to avoid making the eating of vegetables a struggle of wills.

"You can lead a child to vegetables but you shouldn't make them eat," says Mollie Katzen, author of three cookbooks including "Pretend Soup and Other Real Recipes: A Cookbook for

Preschoolers and Up" (Tricycle Press, $14.95).

Get kids involved

Instead of force-feeding, begin by involving your child in shopping for and preparing those vegetables.

When you are shopping, let your child decide whether to buy the green beans or broccoli. "Giving them a choice makes it more likely children will eat their vegetables," says Ms. Havala.

Ms. Katzen, whose children are 10 and 3 1/2 , adds that when children help you cook the vegetables, they develop an attitude toward the food. Since they made it themselves, they want to like it. But if an adult prepares the vegetable, liking it becomes a power struggle.

"The more a child feels a part of preparation, the less refusing to eat those vegetables becomes a way to rebel," Ms. Katzen adds.

She recalls when her daughter used to come home every afternoon and watch television while eating a sweet snack. One afternoon, Ms. Katzen had an electric skillet set up on the table and a plate of zucchini nearby. Her daughter got so involved in helping her saute the zucchini that she forgot about television. And she ate the zucchini instead of a sweet, says Ms. Katzen.

But letting your child help in the kitchen takes patience. Don't try to cook with your child if you are in a rush or if someone is really hungry, says Ms. Katzen.

When you are harried and hurried, she recommends giving your child a small task. Mushrooms or carrots can be scrubbed with a tiny brush. "Children love to work over a little bowl of water," she says.

To ensure that your children eat vegetables, you must be a role model. You can't just tell them to eat broccoli; you must eat it too.

Carol Wiley Lorent, food editor of Vegetarian Times magazine published in Oak Park, Ill., says her children, 13 and 11, have always liked vegetables. "I think that's because I have always eaten them," she says.

Ms. Havala adds, "If Dad hates broccoli, your child will model himself after Dad and not eat it. Parents should set a good example and pro- ject a positive attitude toward vegetables. They should make them a prominent part of meals."

What kind of vegetables are recommended for the picky eater depends upon whom you talk to.

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