I came across an image of a chef using tweezers to garnish some ornate dish at a white tablecloth restaurant in Europe. Sweat glistened off the chef's face, his focus was unyielding, his precision inspiring.
My first thought? That looks like me
Not because I'm a Michelin-starred chef or even a chef at all. It looked like me because, up until recently, I too could be found hunched over a dish, typically a quesadilla, attempting to put nearly microscopic pieces of shredded kale into it.
Chef? No. Mom of a toddler? Yes.
This wasn't the first time I'd found myself eye-level with toddler food. Trying to disguise vegetables or transform them beyond recognition was a daily occurrence in my kitchen.
Adding kale to muffins and stuffing microgreens in cream cheese; the list of atrocious things I've done too food only gets worse from there.
After many months of contorting vegetables it occurred to me, after spending a solid 15 minutes trying to position supremely minced tomatoes into a pasta dish, that it was I who had created the very problem I was trying to avoid
Surely there was a better way.
There is a pervasive and misguided belief that young children don't eat vegetables. Thousands of websites are loaded with tips and tricks to encourage kids to eat their greens. Much of this advice requires additional thought, time and effort on the parent's part. It's no wonder that most toddlers don't get their recommended vegetable intake when so much extra effort is seemingly required.
With this in mind, it became very clear that disguising my toddler's vegetables was counterproductive and even harmful. I was indirectly telling him that vegetables are repulsive and should be followed with a chaser of cheese or rendered flavorless in baked goods. I was showing him that fresh produce shouldn't be an integral part of every meal and minimized to the margins of his plate or concealed altogether.
Not exactly a good strategy when trying to raise a well-rounded and healthy eater.
At what point was I going to stop hiding vegetables and when I finally did how was he going to react? I wagered that trying to convince a 4-year-old to eat his greens after years of clandestine vegetable activity was going to be harder than dealing with my then-18-month-old.
Food becomes an issue when you make it an issue. This I've learned the hard way. Normalizing a plant-focused and well-rounded diet means letting children come face-to-face with their greens and preparing them in way that honors the plant's essence.
I stopped hiding and gave vegetables their place at the table. I took him out to the garden and let him plant lettuce, radishes and beans. I encouraged him to eat the vegetables straight from the earth. We ventured into the kitchen to make broths, sauces, and salads. We minced, diced and chopped cucumbers, eggplants and tomatoes together. We massaged cabbage together for sauerkraut and talked.
We connected over food and it paid off. Not overnight and not without more than a few meals left untouched, but gradually it unfolded into something beautiful.
My son connected to his food in a real way and it makes sense for him. He can place what he eats into a larger system that intuitively he knows he is a part of. When you sow a radish seed, check on its growth, help out when it needs a little extra nudge, wait for weeks and then pull it from the earth in all its rooty glory you can't help but become overwhelmed with the desire to take a big bite; even if you're two.
Kids must be taught how to eat well. One must take the viewpoint that children will absolutely learn to eat well. If there is no alternative it will make it that much easier to weather the rough points that inevitably come with learning.
I no longer fret about meals, debating whether or not my kid will eat this or that. For the most part, he will. And if he doesn't, it's no big deal because he eats such a diverse range of fruits, vegetables and whole grains daily.
At our house, we eat what's been put in front of us, all of it good and wholesome and then we simply move onto other things.