The daily battle usually begins with my little “angel” around 7 a.m. Droopy-eyed and half asleep, my 6-year-old wanders to the family table, and scoots into his chair.
When his head finally lifts from the table and his yawning subsides, the screeches of discontent ring out as inevitably as the deafening chirp of my alarm clock.
“Mommy, I don’t like bananas… and cantaloupe is yucky! I don’t want this diss-guss-teen stuff!” And with that, my loving act of providing a healthy start to his morning is shot down like a clay pigeon at a hunting convention. It is now that I resort to having “healthy foods vs. junk foods” conversation #789,491.
The clock, however, quickly reminds me that perpetuating this argument about “Popeye and his spinach” or “how Superman grew to be so big and strong” will make my little nutrient-starved complaint factory late for school, and so it ends, at least until dinner… sigh.
So, what’s a parent to do? On one side, my friends have told me that the reason they don’t have picky eaters is because they demand that their kids eat everything on their plate, or they will not leave the table.
Okay, I bought that theory for 5 minutes, and watched as my son gagged, choked, cried, and dragged out the ordeal for three and a half hours. (A miserable night for us both.)
On the flip side, parenting advice columns are ringing in my conscience that “forcing” my child to eat, and making mealtime a constant struggle, will only serve to make an anxious bulimic or emotional over-eater out of the little guy.
Clearly, a compromise between these two extremes is the answer. After all, I remember the childhood trauma of being forced to eat things I did not like (which were few) and the aversion those traumas gave me towards foods in my adult life (though I doubt I’d be a huge fan of cow tongue or liver and onions today anyways).
I also considered that maybe my son would eventually, like myself, grow to enjoy certain tastes – onions, mushrooms, and hopefully veggies – instead of being doomed to a bachelorhood highlighted by growing roots into his La-Z-Boy, and glistening from the trans fat on his potato chip-covered chin.
In the meantime, I decided that being a health food advocate would have to be a covert mission from here on out… Thus, “Operation Spinach Smuggle” was born. The following are some fabulously sneaky ways to deliver a nutritional sucker-punch to even the pickiest of eaters.
Whether you are making smoothies or spaghetti, soup or salad dressing, you can quietly sneak some fresh spinach in and your kids will be none the wiser. I like to buy fresh spinach in 3-pound packages at Costco (triple washed, ready-to-eat baby spinach) I then freeze the whole bag.
At meal time I add a cup or two of the frozen spinach leaves to my blender, and puree with a couple tablespoons of water. Then, I simply add some of the puree to whatever I am making – yes, even fruit smoothies.
You (and your kids) won’t taste the difference! Many of your child’s meals can be altered in this way, without the kids even batting an eye.
This puree method also works with carrots, blueberries, sweet potatoes, beets, squash, zucchini, bananas, and any non-starchy fruit or veggie that does not have a strong flavor.
You can sneak your purees into pancakes, breads, breakfast muffins, and brownies. Think zucchini bread: delicious and it’s made with – oh my gosh – a green vegetable! If you don’t already have a blender, you should really consider purchasing one… I absolutely love mine, and it really comes in handy here.
Tomatoes are often another foe for the finicky child. I love to take canned tomato products and add them to nearly everything I cook. The lycopene provided by these nutritional gems makes them a must-have in my child’s immunity-building culinary arsenal. So, I puree them, too.
Most children love the taste of tomato products (spaghetti, anyone?) but they tend to dislike the texture of chopped or stewed tomatoes in soups and other dishes.
Solution: A few seconds in the food processor, and voila! You have instantly eliminated the “gross-out factor” in tomatoes.
Another easy alteration to add some nutrients to your kiddo’s meal is to switch out your white rice for brown. This transition was painless for my kids once I discovered short grain brown rice. I buy “Farmer’s Select” brand, but this type of rice can also be bought in loose bulk at most whole foods markets. Kids love it – I just add a bit of soy sauce to the finished product.
Pump up the vitamin volume by buying only whole wheat bread. When kids do not have white bread as an option, the struggle ends. Get the smooth type, however (no wheat berries or chunky grains). Remember, kids tend to be more bothered by texture than taste.
Also buy whole wheat or supercharged pastas. Your homemade mac-n-cheese that they love so much will finally boast a wee bit of nutrition! (I like Barilla Plus – it has added omega 3s and as much protein per serving as 3 ounces of chicken!)
Now, think of foods your kids would jump up and down in the grocery store aisle begging you for (the ones for which they promise to be good forever, if you’ll just buy these).
Chances are, that list of fat-laden, artificially colored, sugary treats includes but is not limited to: popsicles, Cocoa Puffs, dinosaur-shaped fruit snacks, and snowy white powdered sugar donuts (or other equally worthless junk) Instead of your knee-jerk reaction of saying no, give ’em the next best thing!
For freeze pops, grab a can of frozen 100 percent juice concentrate (my kids like orange-banana), and a bag of frozen fruit (I love blueberries because of their “superfood” status).
Next, add some nonfat plain or vanilla yogurt, and blend until smooth and creamy. Pour into plastic popsicle molds ( If you don’t have these, use an ice tray sprayed with nonstick cooking spray and popsicle sticks.) Then freeze.
Your kids will love these refreshing, summer treats, and you’ll have packed some healthy stuff into them. Aren’t you clever? Juice may feel like the safe way to go, but yogurt is an excellent and healthy alternative (and we’ve got a delicious, kid-friendly recipe you can try).
Ok, what about the Cocoa Puffs? Well, a great substitute is to buy a healthier cereal, such as Grapenuts or Wheat Chex (whatever you think they will eat), and let them add a teaspoon or so of sugar.
Kids still get the sweet they desire, but with some natural fiber, and a handful of nutrients. Mine love this, and that teaspoon is still less sugar than many of the pre-sweetened varieties contain.
Now, onto the fruit snacks. Grrr… those misleading, gummy, cartoon-shaped, cavity-creators! They are shameless impostors, candy posing as fruit.
My alternative? Go to a health food or whole foods market and grab the fruit leather. These snacks are made of real fruit and definitely nutritionally superior to their gummy cousins. Better yet, you can make your own using a dehydrator.
What about the donut dilemma? Well, while nearly all donuts are nutritionally void and loaded with “empty calories” as my mom would say, you can improve on this old favorite and make your own homemade version!
Simply buy some ready-made whole wheat dough (I like Trader Joe’s whole wheat pizza dough), and roll to a 1″ thickness. Using a medium-sized biscuit cutter, stamp out your donuts. For the hole, punch it out using the cap from a plastic bottle, like your bottle of oil.
You can even make your own whole wheat dough, following our guide to baking with whole grains at home!
Next, add equal parts canola and extra-virgin olive oil to a medium frying pan. (the oil should fill up to about half and inch.) Then, fry your donuts on medium high heat until puffy and slightly golden (only takes a couple of minutes). Gently flip them over and repeat.
When finished, transfer directly from the pan into a bowl or zip-top bag of powdered sugar. Cool, serve, and take a bow. You have just made whole wheat donuts and fried them in healthy fat! KUDOS to you, Supermom! (Okay, they’re still fried, and they’re still coated in sugar – but they’re at least a little more nutrient rich!)
Virtually every food kids love can be altered with nutritionally sound alternative ingredients. Whenever you’re making cupcakes or a birthday cake, you can switch out the vegetable oil for applesauce, and add some ground flaxseed.
With chocolate cake, use extra-virgin olive oil instead of vegetable oil. This makes an exceptionally moist cake, and tastes exactly the same. Tomato or beat puree also make excellent substitutes for moist results.
For breakfast, switch out greasy pork bacon for the turkey version.
These new implementations have taken away the stress of preparing meals, while drastically changing the dynamics of dining with my persnickety food critics.
* A word to the wise: Do NOT let your kids see you making these items. Do not tell them of any healthy additions, switched ingredients, vegetable purees, and never mention spinach.
Your family doesn’t have to know that the tasty carrot bread you’ve been making recently has three kinds of seeds, carrot juice, and shredded veggies.
In fact, you may have to outright deny it if confronted (with crossed fingers, of course)! You are, after all, simply doing what is best for your unsuspecting little eating machines!
*Note to parents who have tried everything, and still cannot get that picky eater to try anything other than PB&J or hotdogs: take a deep breath and remember, most kids outgrow these preferences in adolescence and develop more “grown up” tastes.
So, unless your child is falling behind the normal height and weight range for their age (usually measured at annual well child visits with their pediatrician – it’s that percentile number they throw at you), chances are their bodies are growing just fine, and your kids will survive to become healthy adults.
If nothing else, buy some of those fabulous gummy vitamins for extra insurance, and let them chug milk like it’s going out of style! (Kids need obnoxious amounts of calcium throughout childhood.) Then, you can rest assured that most of their nutritional needs will be satisfied.
With some creativity and nutritional know-how, you can turn your children’s complaints into compliments, and bask in the glow of your new secret superpower. 007 would be so proud!
How do you get your kids to eat their veggies and other healthy foods? Share your wisdom with us in the comments!
About Lynne Jaques
Lynne is a stay-at-home mother of two boys. As a former US military officer and the spouse of an active duty US military member, Lynne enjoys traveling the world (although not the moving part!) and finding new cuisine and methods of preparing food. She also has the habit of using parenthesis way too much!