I’m not a big believer in the “hidden produce” approach to getting kids to eat veggies. You know what I’m talking about — those clever recipes that spike brownies with bits of beet or lace pancakes with parsnip puree.
Aside from the gross out factor, I just think this sort of culinary dishonesty defeats the point.
It’s not that I’m above lying to my son (“Why yes! I’d love to discuss the nuances of Star Wars Legos for the 1,353rd time today!”). It’s that I don’t like the lesson these particular lies teach him about food.
That lesson, of course, is that healthy foods are something that are so unappealing by nature that they must be hidden in yummier, less healthy foods in order to be tolerated.
And I write this as the dad of a veggie-phobic 8-year-old boy.
When Parker was a toddler, he eagerly gobbled anything, veg or otherwise. The otherwise part never changed. He still will eat just about anything. Except veggies. Those he soured on about three years ago.
I rolled with it as best I could for as long as I coud, filling him instead with fruit. I even enlisted a roster of Food Network stars, including Rachael, to see if they could get him to embrace veggies again. Not so much.
Last summer, I decided I’d had enough. So I put Parker through a two-week veg boot camp during which he needed to eat two vegetables every lunch and every dinner. It was as pleasant as it sounds.
But it got him over the hump and today he — albeit begrudgingly and with some huffing and puffing — will eat mostly whatever vegetables I put in front of him.
He eats them not because they are hidden, and certainly not because he likes them. He eats them because he knows he is supposed to. Even if he doesn’t love them.
And the wonderful part? Sometimes he does love them. And even though those moments are few and far, they are the tiny building blocks for a lifetime of healthy eating habits.
Relatively speaking, dinner is easy. I’m there to enforce the veg rule. Lunch? Not so much. So I need to work a little harder to make the vegetables appealing.
So here are some of my (or rather, Parker’s) favorite (or at least more tolerable) lunch vegetable items:
- Creamy corn salad — Cut the kernels from a raw ear of corn (Yes, raw! It’s delicious that way.) and toss with a chopped carrot and a blend of low-fat sour cream and non-fat plain Greek yogurt. Season with salt, pepper, garlic powder and a splash of hot sauce. The hot sauce won’t add any heat, but it heightens the other flavors. And while fresh corn is best, there’s no reason you can’t use canned or frozen.
- Tzatziki — Traditional versions are a yogurt dip made with cucumber and garlic. But I make it as more of a salad. Season non-fat plain Greek yogurt with garlic, lemon juice, salt, pepper and dill, then stir in a chopped cucumber. Aim for just enough yogurt sauce to coat the cucumber. The goal is a well-dressed salad, not a chip-worthy dip.
- Bacon-roasted carrots — Seriously. If you’re making bacon — or even just sausage — for breakfast, don’t wipe out the skillet when you’re done. Instead, toss in some baby carrots and saute over medium heat in the tasty juices (and fat) left behind. Even cooked in bacon fat, these carrots still are a healthier choice. Pack them cold or warm in a thermos. And if you have leftover bacon or sausage, add that, too.
- Spicy peanut veggies — Mix together peanut butter, soy sauce, vinegar (anything but balsamic is fine), and a splash of hot sauce. You have instant spicy peanut sauce. Now nuke whatever veggies (leftover or fresh) you have and toss with the sauce. Pop it in a thermos and you’re done. Don’t want to do it hot? Pack the veggies (raw is fine) on their own and put the peanut sauce in a small container for dipping. Peanuts not an option? The sauce recipe works with sunflower seed butter, too.
- Endive it! — Belgian endive looks like tiny torpedos. Trim off the bottoms, then separate the leaves, which resemble small, crunchy cups. These cups are perfect for scooping anything your little lunch monster likes — hummus, tabbouleh, yogurt dips, pesto, olive spread, whatever.
- Roasted tomatoes — Sort of. Dump a carton of cherry tomatoes in a nonstick skillet over medium heat with a splash of olive oil, salt and pepper. Stir it now and then, maybe mash them with a fork, but mostly just walk away and ignore it. Pretty soon it will be a delicious fresh sauce. Pack it warm in a thermos and add some bread for dunking. Cheese would be nice, too. Fresh pizza!
J.M. Hirsch is the national food editor for The Associated Press. He blogs about the trials and tribulations of his son’s lunches at LunchBoxBlues.com. His upcoming cookbook, Beating the Lunch Box Blues, will be the first to be released by Rachael’s new publishing venture, Rachael Ray Books. Hirsch’s previous books include High Flavor, Low Labor: Reinventing Weeknight Cooking and Venturesome Vegan Cooking. He lives in New Hampshire with his son, wife, and too many cats.