How Many Vegetables Do Children Really Need?

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When my two-year-old preferred cheese and croutons to peas and cauliflower, I tried to get creative. First, I recreated the artful approach to vegetables that I remembered from my childhood, starting with the classic ants on a tree trunk and then moving on to cucumber caterpillars and hummus monsters with carrot teeth. My toddler was only mildly amused. Then I turned to persuasion, repeating how delicious bok choy is and how strong spinach would make it. On most days I was lucky enough to get a single bite of something green within an inch of her mouth.

So I turned to Instagram and TikTok, where I quickly noticed that one vegetable trick triumphed above all others: hide the vegetables your child doesn’t like in the dishes he or she loves. Does your child like pancakes? Mix in a little spinach powder. Mac and cheese? That striking orange color could come from carrots. You can even disguise cauliflower and broccoli in pizza sauce.

The sneak-it-in strategy predates social media. Authors of parenting cookbooks, such as Deceptively delicious And The Sneaky Chef: Simple Strategies to Hide Healthy Foods in Kids’ Favorite Mealsmade the rounds on TV shows like The Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today show in the late s. The fact that stealth cooking has remained so popular is astonishing considering how much work it is. You could spend an extra hour cooking, say, chicken nuggets from scratch with pureed beets in them, instead of buying a bag of regular chicken nuggets at the grocery store. But if it helps your toddler get the recommended cup or one and a half cups of vegetables every day, it’s worth it, right?

The nutritionists I spoke to say this is not the case. “For children, we generally don’t need to put so much effort into getting vegetables in,” Laura Thomas, a nutritionist who runs the London Center for Intuitive Eating, told me.

Vegetables obviously have many health benefits. Some studies have linked eating vegetables to a reduced risk of several chronic diseases, including heart disease. But these studies look at vegetable consumption over many years, and not strictly at what you eat as a toddler. And even though many children in the U.S. don’t meet dietary guidelines for vegetables, Thomas says that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re malnourished. A major national study published in 2018 found that, despite their reputation for hating vegetables, toddlers get enough calcium, vitamin A and iron on average. They’re usually low in potassium and fiber, but kids (and adults, for that matter) can get such crucial nutrients from meats, nuts, beans, whole grains, and other non-green foods. “There’s almost nothing inherent in a vegetable that you can’t get in other foods,” Thomas said.

Ignoring vegetables is not an ideal long-term solution, as many of the foods we eat instead are high in calories and low in fiber. But in the short term, accepting alternatives can help your toddler survive the fussiest stages without developing scurvy. And crucially, hiding vegetables in bread, meat or sugar-rich foods still means your child is eating a lot of bread, meat or sugar. No amount of vegetables can counteract the harmful effects of too much sugar.

Prominent nutritionists and child development specialists have been telling parents for years to stop pressuring and misleading children into eating vegetables. Yet health-conscious parents can’t seem to put down the blender — which may say less about fussy kids and more about the years of health messages and fad diets their elders have endured. “All these millennials who grew up eating clean haven’t really shed that baggage,” Thomas said. Ellyn Satter, who has been an expert on feeding and raising healthy children for decades, puts it bluntly: “The belief is that if you hide vegetables in your child’s food, they won’t get fat and will forever will live. .”

It’s not just pointless to crush beets into meatballs and shove pureed vegetables into our children’s mouths with cream chasers, Satter and other nutritionists say. The approach can even be counterproductive. “The goal of child nutrition is not to get children to eat everything they should eat today. It is intended to help them learn to enjoy a variety of healthy foods for a lifetime,” Satter told me. And everything scientists know about how to do that contrasts with grinding vegetables into an indistinguishable pulp and masking them with other flavors.

Experts told me that if you consistently prepare and eat meals with your children that contain a variety of foods, including vegetables that they don’t like, without pressuring them to taste or swallow anything, they will eventually learn to eat most of them. to eat what is offered. Satter originally outlined this approach in the 1980s and told me that it works mainly because it builds trust between parent and child. “The child must be able to trust that his parents will determine what he will or will not eat, based on what the parents offer,” she says. If your child discovers that you have hidden cauliflower in their tater tots or told them that small pieces of broccoli are actually green sprinkles, you could be breaking that trust, and your child may become more wary of the foods you serve or develop. negative associations with vegetables.

Nearly four decades after Satter laid out her feeding method, child nutritionists remain wary of the confidence-wrecking potential of veggie sneaking. Rafael Pérez-Escamilla, a professor of public health at Yale, told me that even if your child is going through a mac-and-cheese phase (as his son did for years in the ’90s), he would never advise hiding vegetables. in other foods. “Surround your child with healthy food, but let the child decide for himself. Let the child touch the food, smell the food; let the child learn to eat when he or she is hungry and stop eating when he or she knows he or she is full,” he said. “It’s easier said than done, but it works.”

The hands-off approach certainly requires less physical work, but Pérez-Escamilla is right when he says it can be a real emotional struggle. As a parent, I’m still tempted to soothe my anxiety by putting kale in a smoothie, and hesitate to cook creamed spinach for my toddler over and over again, only to be rejected every time. But I’ve learned to find some comfort in acting as a role model rather than a micromanager.

In recent months I stopped using broccoli in pasta sauce and started offering it as part of dinner. Sometimes my toddler will take a bite; sometimes she doesn’t. I’ve noticed that the less I show that I care, the more she experiments on her own.

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