It’s an age-old argument: “I don’t want to eat my greens.”
When we were young, many of us fought with our parents over them (or hid the offending veg in a napkin)—and now it’s our turn to deal with the ‘green tantrums’.
Perhaps today we understand our elders’ pain: if our children have their way, we fear they’ll be malnourished and develop poor eating habits.
Yet if we persist, we might create negative food associations and turn every family dinner into a battle of wills. What’s a parent to do?
Are Greens Such a Big Deal?
While all vegetables are good for you, dark leafy greens have long been touted as the holy grail of the vegetable world. They are some of the most nutrient-dense foods available.
If our kids are cutting out the entire food group, there are lots of vitamins and minerals they could be missing out on.
Hong Kong school kids who don’t like fruit and veg are 13 times more likely to be constipated, a study by the University of Singapore has found.
Parents are advised to provide lots of water, veg and fruit in their diet and schools told to reduce access to crisps and sweets.
In Asia—taking China as an example—multiple studies show young people are becoming more and more malnourished, as eating habits shift towards snacks and fried foods that are high in fat and low in carbs and fiber.
Vitamin E and calcium are two of the biggest nutrients our children are missing out on, according to the latest stats from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.
In the U.S. a whopping 65% of children under eight are getting less than the average amount of Vitamin E, and 23% are not getting enough calcium.
If our kids are cutting out the entire food group of green vegetables, there are lots of vitamins and minerals they could be missing out on.
And as Vitamin E is found in green leafy vegetables and calcium is found in cruciferous vegetables like bok choy, broccoli and kale, kids’ aversion to these veggies might be partly to blame for the notable nutritional shortfall.
Understanding the Problems
Don’t dismiss your child out of hand—they may actually be biologically predisposed to dislike vegetables.
Many children have a greater sensitivity to bitterness than adults, a study by the University of Naples discovered, making food groups like greens more difficult to enjoy.
Secondly, infants will not instinctively like a food on first taste. As you’re introducing solids, it’s recommended to try a food several times over a few days—because as a new food becomes more familiar, children’s palates become less averse to it.
In Papua New Guinea, the Kitava tribe subsist on a diet of sweet potato, coconut and some fish—with no green vegetables. Yet they are healthy and virtually free from conditions such as obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular issues or blood pressure problems.
How Do We Change Their Minds?
Before you panic and start force-feeding greens to your children, you can rest assured that they’ll probably be just fine.
Here are some ways you can help improve their diet:
Serve Other Food
While greens are great bang for your nutritional buck, you can also find these nutrients in a wide range of other foods such as meat, fish, beans, or lentils, as well as other fruits and vegetables.
As well as serving up more varied meals, you can sneak vegetables into food. They can be blended in a smoothie, puréed in soups, hidden in pasta sauces, or even baked into tasty treats.
Sweeten the Deal
If your child finds veg too bitter, first offer them with sweeter flavors. Try roasting Brussels sprouts with maple syrup and bacon, blending broccoli with a cheese sauce, creating a Japanese-inspired salad with sesame dressing, or making it fun with the classic “ants on a log” (celery with peanut butter and raisins).
Try, try and try again. Before you give up on a certain green, have your child try it several times. By the sixth or seventh time, they might be singing a different tune.
Letting your child have a choice at mealtimes will make the experience more fun for them. We don’t mean offering three different options: you can use fun placemats that portion out food, so they get used to seeing fruit and veg with each meal and can pick and choose from each nutritious food group.
Employ Little Hands
Let your little ones help pick out fruit and veg at the market, or help out in the kitchen. You’re more likely to find a willing eater if they’ve had a hand in the meal prep too!
As a last resort, you can always fill your children’s nutritional gaps with supplements. Nothing can replace all the compounds found in fruits and vegetables, nor the nutrient interactions found in real food, but supplements are a viable addition to a healthy diet.
Finally, Don’t Worry!
Be assured that all is not lost. If your children are eating a varied diet of whole foods while supplementing to fill the gaps, there’s no reason to worry.
Green vegetables are so nutritionally dense and beneficial to our bodies, that you shouldn’t give up, but food also shouldn’t be a cause of anxiety.
Hopefully it’s something to all enjoy together as a family—even though this may seem like a long way off right now!