Can’t get your children to eat fresh fruit and veg? Don’t despair – Diana Noonan has some ideas to help get them on the right track.
The reality is that switching kids onto fresh produce requires you to have a few tricks up your sleeve – and to use those tricks consistently for however long it takes for behaviours to change (and research shows children need to be introduced to new foods several times before they show a lasting interest in them). The following tips are ones I’ve used in my own home, with very positive results. As you read them, remind yourself that you won’t have to use them forever. Once children are comfortable with “eating fresh”, they’ll head to healthy produce as a matter of choice.
FOR LITTLE ONES
Playtime on a plate
Your aim with this trick is to hold your tongue when Playtime on a plate it comes to the “don’t-play-with-your-food” command. In fact, playing with food is what you want to encourage as you let your little ones plant broccoli tree florets into a field of creamy mashed potatoes or build a salad-man sandwich with bean sprout hair, radish-round eyes, a beetroot stick nose, and a tomato smile, all held in place with a swipe of peanut butter or hummus. Let them build towers with carrot sticks, thread a necklace of berries or fashion a cucumber animal with celery legs. And best (and most important) of all, laugh with them as they eat whatever they’ve made. When next time you serve the broccoli without the mashed potatoes, you can remind the kids to “Eat your trees!”
Ever find yourself retaliating when you’re made to do something? It’s the same with children – especially when it comes to food. The more perceived choices you can give them, the more likely they are to eat healthy. Snack time is the perfect opportunity to put this into practice. Fill small bowls with cubes of fresh fruit and vegetables (a different bowl for each food). Add a small bowl of marshmallow pieces. Arm the children with some kebab sticks, and let them select and skewer their own fresh kebab before eating. They may even like to make kebabs for each other. In no time at all, the food will have been devoured. And although this is a perfect snack time activity, it can also be part of meal time.
FOR BIG KIDS
Harness the hunger
Tweens and teens need fresh food more than any of us– if only to counter the junk food they consume when out of our sight! The secret to getting them eating fresh produce is to hit them with it when they’re at their hungriest, which is usually right after school or just before dinner. Aim to provide them with what they’d most like to munch on (shakes and wedges, for instance) but with a barely noticeable healthy twist. So crack open a bag of Agria spuds, slice them into wedges, microwave until tender, toss around in a roasting dish with a minimum of oil (a teaspoon goes a long, long way) and pop them in a hot oven to brown. You’ll be amazed at how fast they disappear. If you’re worried your kids won’t then want dinner, just serve them their meal minus the spuds which they’ve already eaten as their afternoon snack. If you’re not at home after school, remember that homemade wedges heat up well in the microwave (just leave a note reminding the kids where to find them!). Homemade shakes are a breeze, too, and there’s no need to invest in a special machine to make them. Smash up some ice in a plastic bag and toss it into the blender. Add a handful of berries, some leafy greens, milk (or tofu), and a teaspoon of stevia (or honey), and blast it into an icy shake. Wide straws are something even big kids enjoy, so keep a packet handy. If your big kids can’t wait to get home to snack, send them to school with fresh or dried fruit, carrot and beetroot sticks, and nuts for the homeward journey – and limit their access to money!
Dabble in disguise
It can be hard to turn older children on to fresh produce when they haven’t grown up with these foods as part of their diet. In cases like this, disguise may be your only ally. Believe it or not, when the likes of mashed carrot and whizzed silverbeet are added to burger or bolognaise mince, they are undetectable (and also make for cheap bulk additives). Fresh green salad is more palatable when served in a wrap or taco shell with shredded meat and grated cheese, or added to a burger bun. Leftover veges such as broccoli florets and spinach go well on pizza toppings (the cheese on top is a perfect disguise), sautéed leek virtually disappears when added to nachos, and grated courgette added to a rich tomato pasta sauce will go unnoticed. Don’t sweat the hard stuff when disguise is at your fingertips. Instead, make “build it in” your motto as you pile the freshness into already favoured foods.
FOR ANY AGE
Regardless of age, most of us are lazy when it comes to eating, especially when we’re hungry. So if the crackers are in a hard-to-open container on the very top shelf of the pantry, and the cheese is well wrapped at the very back of the fridge, we’ll very likely go for the snack that’s on the
table instead. Keep vegetable sticks and fresh fruit (peeled in the case of oranges, and chopped if your children are little) plus cubes of cold, cooked kumara and pumpkin in an easy-access container on the table after school (a quick dip in lemon juice will stop fruit from browning). Keep
healthy hummus and vege dips on display at eye-level in the fridge. Make lazy eating your tool for changing snacking habits, and you’ll soon find fresh foods disappear more quickly than you ever imagined possible.
Whether you’re striving to influence the eating behaviours of toddlers, or making the best of it with older children, research assures us of one undisputable fact: Children do as their parents do – but not always right away. So keep serving those fruits and vegetables with every meal, and make sure
your family sees you eating them – not just once or twice, but over and over again.
Catlins author Diana Noonan is one of New Zealand’s best-known writers for children. A former editor of the iconic School Journal, she writes for a wide range of educational resources, and takes a strong interest in the New Zealand curriculum.