We don’t need more stats to tell us that vegetables are a crucial part of a boy’s diet. They’re full of fiber, antioxidants, and pretty much every awesome vitamin and mineral a growing kid needs.
But getting your son to eat a plate full of salad or sauteed beet greens may be another matter. None of us intend to raise a picky eater, but sometimes it’s easier to cave to complaints than have a daily battle over the dinner plate.
Why are boys picky? For one thing, kids have twice to three times as many tastebuds as adults, and those tastebuds are amped up, which means young people taste flavors more intensely. This might explain why you hated tomatoes as a kid and now you can’t wait for that first tomato to come off the vine in the garden.
Second, a lot of Americans stink at exposing their kids to a variety of flavors and textures, starting when they’re babies. We exacerbate the problem by continuing to limit their choices as they grow older. Just look at the so-called kid menus in restaurants across the country. Most standard fare includes a variation on burgers, fries, pizza, pasta in white sauce and chicken fingers, with a side of chocolate milk or soda for good measure. It’s no wonder our boys turn up their noses at anything green.
However, none of this is good excuse to clear the picky eater’s plate of vegetables or give up on your son, no matter his age. We know from looking at a global diet that pickiness is not a world-wide epidemic, but a Western (and mostly American) one. Asian kids regularly eat seafood and kimchi, and as the author Pamela Druckerman writes in her book Bringing up Bebe, French kids routinely tuck in to pungent cheese platters and complex vegetable dishes. Which is all to say, there’s hope for the pickiest eater at your dinner table.
1. Start them young
Baby food is quick and convenient, and has become even easier with all the squeezable food options. However, it's not the only, or best option. In the book Hungry Monkey: A Food-Loving Father's Quest to Raise an Adventurous Eater, author and food critic Matthew Amster-Burton debunks the idea that young children should be fed bland, jarred food. Instead, he encourages parents to introduce all sorts of table food, including spicy, adventurous dishes. This will get young children used to not only a variety of tastes, but also textures.
2. Serve veggies first
"Life is short, eat dessert first." Well, not if you want your boys to eat their vegetables. Serve the vegetables first, and serve them alone. Given the choice between pizza or peas, kids will always reach for pizza. However, when kids are hungry, they more open to trying a variety of flavors. So start with a bowl of peas, a dish of cooked carrots or steamed broccoli, or a small plate of salad, as you would in a restaurant.
3. Think beyond the Goldfish crackers
Instead of loading the pantry with pretzels and other processed snacks, make vegetables or fruit the de facto snack. Keep a plate of carrots and dip in the fridge, or pull out a platter of snap peas, celery and nut butter, or other finger-food vegetables. The bonus to this tactic is that boys won’t fill up as readily on snack food and will be hungrier when the real meal rolls around.
4. Cook them right
I didn’t think I liked Brussel sprouts, spinach, or beets until I was well into my twenties because I only had them one way growing up: boiled to near-death limpness. Any vegetable can taste good when cooked the right way, just like any vegetable can taste nasty when reduced to mush. Root vegetables taste great roasted, as do Brussel sprouts, cauliflower, broccoli, and beets. Other vegetables, like green beans or corn-on-the-cob, taste great lightly steamed.
Don’t be afraid to add butter, garlic salt, cheese or other flavorings. Kosher salt adds a great pop of flavor. Herbs can also notch up the flavor of almost any vegetables. As for green salad, which we have with almost every meal, vary up the lettuce type, dressing flavors, and toppings. Add candied pecans, craisins, chopped apples or slivered almonds. Fresh produce will always taste the best and have the most nutrients, but frozen vegetables are a good alternative. Try to avoid canned vegetables, which not only taste gross, they have very little nutritional value.
5. Grow them
Kids are more likely to eat vegetables they’ve grown and harvested themselves. I’ve seen my non-tomato lovers eat garden tomatoes like apples. The same goes with garden green beans and broccoli. When they own it, they’ll eat it. After all, they’re not going to waste something they’ve nurtured all summer long. Let them pick out their own seeds and tend them. Be realistic and do your research: beans, carrots, tomatoes, and zucchini are fairly easy to grow. Vegetables like corn or pumpkins require a larger space and have a much longer growing period. Set your son up for success.
If you don’t have access to a garden space, take your son to the farmer’s market or grocery store and make a big to-do about letting him pick out a vegetables for the week.
6. Bring him into the kitchen
Invite your son into the kitchen for prep time. Have him peel the carrots, trim the artichokes, chop the tomatoes, and spin the salad. Young kids especially take great pride in helping, and are more likely to eat a dish they've had a hand in creating.
7. Follow the rule of 12
Experts say you need to try something 12 times before you learn to like it. I'm not sure it's true, but I preach it like scripture. So don’t give up on those beet greens the first time around. We have a rule in our house: everyone dishes up a little bit of everything on the table, but you only have to take three polite bites. (The polite part is to discourage the gagging sounds.) Mealtime doesn’t have to be a battle, but parents can set clear expectations about manners and guidelines. Besides, it makes for important practice when your kids are invited as dinner guests in another person’s home.
Make your son a part of trying new vegetables and new methods. Roast kale chips in the oven. Make sweet potato fries or steamed artichokes. Applaud the effort and laugh at the failures. If you call the new dish an adventure, your son is more likely to get excited too.
8. Ignore the kiddie menu
When you do go out to eat, encourage your kids to order something off the adult menu and split it with you or a sibling. Don’t allow them to opt for the standard hamburger and fry fare. After all, you’re the one paying. Set a precedent that your family likes to try new and unusual things.
9. Tell the truth
There are all sorts of books on how to “hide” vegetables in muffins and cakes and puddings, but the minute you hide a vegetable, you signal that it’s something to be feared or avoided. Talk about vegetables: why you like them or don’t like them. Tell your kids what they’re eating. If your son asks if a dish has onions, tell him the truth. We love our green smoothies around here, and my boys see me packing in the spinach or kale. Don't be afraid to show your kids what they're eating.
The other day my son dished himself a big plate of salad. He announced to me, “You know Mom, I actually like this stuff. I guess that’s because you make me try it every day.” That right there is what I call success, one salad at at time!
There are so many good books and resources to get your family on a healthy eating path. In addition to the two books mentioned above, here are some good starters:
—Mad Hungry: Feeding Men and Boys by Lucia Scala Quinn
—The Gastrokid Cookbook by Matthew Yeomans and Hugh Garvey
—Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver
—Real Food for Mother and Baby by Nina Planck
—Also, a fascinating post for the whole family to look at, discuss, and gain perspective, is from TIME a few years ago: What the World Eats