Hack for Getting Kids to Eat Greens

A few weeks ago, I heard a sound bite on the radio asking how to get kids to eat green vegetables. They discussed how it was impossible to get their own kids to eat healthy. I wanted to call in but had to get out of the car before radio listeners gave their advice. Since a young age, both of our daughters have ate their vegetables, fruits and berries with little to do.  My wife and I developed a strategy and it worked brilliantly. I thought I would share our process to help other parents in this challenging task.

The first step is to look inward. Are you cooking veggies that could be served in a highly rated restaurant or would Gordon Ramsey spit it out in disgust? Is your broccoli a puke green color, over cooked to the point it smells wretched?  Is your spinach from a frozen package and boiled until it is dark green mush? If so, start with a cooking lesson. I had to as well. Broccoli should be bright green and slightly crisp when cooked properly in salted water to bring out its natural favor. My kids regularly complain when greens are not salted properly because they have acquired Mom’s good taste.

Green beans same thing. If the color is putrid, you have over cooked it. Often, I would ask my wife, “how do I know it’s done?” Her reply, “you can smell it.” Okay this was challenging at first for me to grasp (although I get it now), but a good rule of thumb without smelling it is 2 – 4 minutes. Then experiment until you get it right.

For asparagus, try applying olive oil and salt and bake them for 8-12 min at 350 F. They should be bright green and slightly crisp. For spinach, sauté with olive oil, garlic and salt over medium heat.  Here are some examples.

After you have learned to cook vegetables well, it helps to incentivize the behavior you desire. Reward is far better at motivating desired behavior and new habits than punishment according to psychologist, David D. Burns, MD. In our family, an incentive that works is desert after the meal.  My wife developed a song to reinforce this concept when the kids were young.  Sing the song to the melody, “If You are Happy and You Know it Clap Your Hands.”

If you want a treat you have to eat your greens,

If you want a treat you have to eat your greens,

If you want a treat you have to,

If you want a treat you have to,

If you want a treat you have to eat your greens.

Maybe a desert is not an option for your family. Think about what motivates your children or moves them to adopt the behavior you want. Then create an environment that will help them succeed. Here is the deal; you cannot give in. No greens no incentive. When my oldest daughter struggled to eat her greens at first, we struggled enforcing the deal.  Sometimes we gave in when only half the greens were eaten. It’s best not to give in. Kids learn fast. They want the incentive and will eventually eat greens to get it. It only fair to do your part and cook vegetables properly to maximize taste.

Another tip is to vary the vegetables, fruits, berries and legumes you serve. There could be a few they just won’t eat. That’s okay. Think all colors of the rainbow. Here is a shopping list you can print and bring to the market of 90 different fruits, berries and vegetables. My kids hate salad, but they eat spinach, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, green beans, butternut squash, sweet potatoes, carrots, edamame, asparagus, broccoli (you get the point) and various fruits and berries.

Brussels sprouts are great roasted at 400°F for 8 – 12 min lightly coated in olive oil with a sprinkle of salt. We love cooking butternut squash and broccoli this way too. When roasting sweet or regular potatoes, coat the outside with olive oil first as this will prevent burning and poke a few small holes. Similarly, cauliflower can be roasted in the oven or sauteed in a couple of tablespoons of olive oil and then steamed by adding a small amount of water, covering and stirring occasionally. I love the browning and favor the sauteing provides.

Another tip is involving the kids in the process. My children (ages 8 and 11) enjoy baking cookies (all by themselves), cooking mash potatos, bushing olive oil on vegetables, pickling, making sandwiches, washing berries and fruits, breading chicken, measuring spices, and setting the table. We have taught them to use the blender, microwave, and knives safely.

Lastly pick your battles. They are meeting you more than halfway. We make sure to have vegetables at both lunch and dinner with berries and fruits for snacks. Now my kids ask this question if we don’t have greens because we ran out, “Daddy’s can I still have treat even though we didn’t have greens?”  I reply, “Sure but have a piece of fruit first.”  They are psyched and so am I.

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