I started parenthood with a pretty high bar when it came to vegetables. My son was going to love them as much as I do. In as many varieties as I do. In as many ways as I do.
And he seemed on such a great path. Until he was about 3, he ate anything. What were all those parents of picky eaters whining about? Getting kids to love vegetables is easy.
And then, of course, reality set in. I don’t need to tell you the rest of the story. Chances are you live it every day.
So I’ve spent a lot of time struggling with how to get my kid to once again embrace vegetables. Some folks advocate hiding the vegetables, but I’m not a big fan of mixing pureed produce into brownies and mac and cheese.
I don’t like the message it sends. I don’t like teaching kids that vegetables — and therefore healthy foods — are something to be hidden, to be eaten only when deceived. I’d rather my kid reject broccoli on the plate than eat it pureed into a cookie.
There is a middle ground. But you have to give up the idea of kids loving their veggies. Someday, perhaps. For now, they just need to tolerate them. As I say to my son all too often, “You don’t have to like it. You just have to eat it.”
My trick? I call it partnering. As in, partnering vegetables with foods they like. This is different from hiding. The veg is there, full-frontal. But it is paired up with something they won’t just eat, but actually crave.
That’s what sets this apart from that old standby of trying to entice kids to eat baby carrots by letting them dip them in ranch dressing. Sure, kids like the dip, but few would list it among their favorite foods. It just isn’t enough of an enticement.
The foods you need to enlist in your fight are the ones they love. Particularly if you hope to get your kids to eat vegetables at lunch, when you aren’t there to model good behavior (or threaten).
So here are 10 lunch box-friendly ideas for partnering vegetables with foods your kids actually like.
1. Wrap it
A sandwich wrap is a fine place to stash foods they love. And hate. Greens or shredded carrots (don’t push your luck by doing both) are naturals here. Pair them with their favorite meat or cheese (or both) and a splash of a coveted condiment.
2. Chop it
As in, a chopped salad. I know, veg averse kids don’t generally care for salads. But think beyond traditional and find a way to work with the foods your kid loves. My little guy craves steak. So I made him a salad of lean (cold) bison steak, chopped mango, diced onion and a few finely chopped greens. I gave it a savory vinaigrette dressing and he didn’t mind the veggies.
3. Sushi it
This is a variation of the wrap, but kids love the novelty of it. I slather cream cheese or peanut sauce on a whole-wheat tortilla, then top it with greens, deli meat and cheese, then roll it into a tight log. Then just cut it into sushi-like bites. You also could use strips of red bell pepper instead of the greens.
4. Soup it
Not, vegetable soup. That’s asking for failure. But what about chili with chunks of butternut squash or chopped tomato? Or even chicken soup with celery or sweet potato? Easy dinners that make thermos-perfect leftovers.
5. Sauce it
Sad, but true — cheese sauce (with crumbled bacon, if you are so inclined) really does make everything more appealing. Nuke some leftover roasted or steamed veggies, pop them in a thermos, add cheese (or cheese sauce). You’re good.
6. Spud it
Baked potatoes don’t really count as a healthy veg, but they love being topped by them. Nuke a potato, then pop it piping hot in a thermos. Accompany with cheese, salsa and a chopped veg.
7. Quiche it
When you’re eating something as amazing as a cheesy (bacony?) quiche, you don’t care that there are onions or asparagus or mushrooms in it. And quiche is the world’s most perfect lunch food. It packs great hot or cold.
8. Noodle it
Whether hot or cold, pasta always helps the medicine go down. Toss chopped cooked (leftover) veggies with pasta. Then nuke it and toss with cheese in a thermos. Or do the same blend cold with vinaigrette or bottled peanut sauce.
9. Nacho it
Assemble a variety of nacho toppings — some meats, cheeses, sour cream, a packet of guacamole, and of course salsa and a chopped veg. Accompany with tortilla chips and let kids build their own nachos as lunch. Easy for you, too.
10. Sushi it, Take 2
This time, for real. Most grocers these days have sushi counters and can make to order. So grab a package of brown rice sushi with avocado and whatever veg your kid likes. Effortless for you. Delicious for the kid. Don’t forget the soy sauce.
Looking for more lunch tips? Try these:
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 cookbook, Beating the Lunch Box Blues, is 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.