Kids are notoriously finicky, but it's not entirely their fault. We humans are naturally inclined to dislike unfamiliar flavors. Imagine for a moment that you have to forage for food in the wild rather than at the Safeway. If you've eaten it before and lived to tell the tale, chances are good that it's not poisonous. Eating some berry or mushroom you've never had before is considerably riskier. So, if your kids wrinkle their noses at new foods, it may just be a hold-over from the old poisonous berry days.
#1. Don't Wait to Train Your Kids to Eat Healthy Foods
One tip is to have a house rule that kids have to try a new food on three different occasions before they decide they don't like it. Often, as a food becomes more familiar, kids are less resistant to it. It also helps to introduce them to a wide variety of foods and flavors from an early age.
See also: Want Your Babies to Love Vegetables?
There's no reason that small children need to eat a bland diet. Try adding a little curry powder to the tuna salad; toss some arugula in the macaroni-and-cheese; or try almond or cashew butter once in a while instead of peanut butter. Kids who learn to appreciate -- or at least tolerate -- a wider palette of flavors will be less put-off by a vegetable or herb with a strong or unfamiliar taste.
Now, if your kids are already older, that particular ship may have sailed. But all is not lost. There are still ways to get your kids to expand their repertoire to include, yes, even vegetables.
#2. Get Their Buy-in
Teaching kids about nutrition can make them more enthusiastic about eating healthy foods. As you've probably already figured out, just telling kids that sugar is bad for them doesn't seem to hold much sway. But you can get them fired up about the fact that antioxidants neutralize "bad guy" free radicals, for example. Then, you can make a game out of guessing which vegetables have the most antioxidants.
See also: A Surprising Source of Antioxidants
You can find suggestions for how to teach your kids basic nutrition concepts with games and other fun activities, and find materials for improving nutrition programs in your school and community at TeamNutrition.usda.gov.
Kids are also much more likely to eat foods that they had a hand in bringing to the table. If your child is with you when you do the grocery shopping, let him or her pick out some fresh vegetables. Kids love farmer's markets by the way -- which also eliminates those arguments in the cereal and candy aisles. You know the ones I mean.
Most kids also enjoy cooking and are a lot more interested in eating things they made themselves. Teach your kids how to make a salad dressing from scratch and they'll be more willing to eat their salad. (Here's a quick video demonstration on how to make the perfect vinaigrette.) Or, let them thread vegetables onto a skewer for the grill and paint them with a marinade or some olive oil.
Perhaps the most effective way to get kids invested in a vegetable is to turn them into gardeners if possible. You want to see a kid excited about squash? Give them a corner of the vegetable garden and a packet of seeds. Beans, peas, and lettuce are particularly child-friendly because the time to harvest is relatively short. Kidsgardening.org has some great resources to help you introduce your kids to the pleasures and rewards of gardening.
#3. Be Sneaky (Too)
There's another school of thought that says the best way to get your kids to eat more vegetables is to trick them into it. You might remember a cookbook by Jessica Seinfeld called Deceptively Delicious. It's full of sneaky recipes like chocolate cake made with pureed beets and macaroni and cheese made with a stealth helping of cauliflower.
I wouldn't base my entire game plan on this approach, however. While you might sneak some extra vegetables into your kids, you run the risk that at the end of the day, you'll still have kids who will only eat chocolate cake and macaroni and cheese. You're improving their nutrition status, but not their eating habits. And, let's face it: Most of the chocolate cake and macaroni and cheese that they're going to encounter throughout their lives is not going to include pureed vegetables!
I think there's a lot to be said for bringing up kids that appreciate the color, texture, and flavor of vegetables. However, if grating zucchini into the pancakes and carrots into the hamburgers helps you get a few extra servings of vegetables into them (and you!), no-one loses.
#4. Walk the Talk
Finally, kids have an uncanny -- and irritating -- ability to detect hypocrisy. It does not escape them when you deliver that sanctimonious lecture about how important it is to have a good breakfast, and then grab half a toaster pastry on your way out the door. You have to walk the talk here. If you want your kids to grow up with healthy eating habits, show them how it's done.
Follow Monica Reinagel, MS, LDN, CNS on Twitter: www.twitter.com/NutritionDiva