Kids Versus Veggies: Tricks and Tips From a Pro
By Bill Telepan, aka ChefBillT, the chef-owner of Telepan restaurant in New York
I'm going to share a little secret: No matter what anyone tells you, getting kids to eat unprocessed, healthy food is a challenge for every parent...even me. You might think that a chef who has cooked professionally for a quarter of a century would find it easy to raise his own daughter to embrace all forms of vegetables. But that simply hasn't been the case.
Through my work with Wellness in the Schools, a nonprofit organization that helps public schools feed and teach thousands of kids across the country about healthier food, I've heard and witnessed the "kids versus veggies" battle over and over again. In school cafeterias, in government circles, and even in my own household, the adults shake their heads and say, "When we were kids, we ate whatever our parents put on the table."
Clearly, things are different these days. In many homes, both parents hold down one or more jobs besides parenting. Working parents often don't have the time or know-how to create or sustain healthy eating habits. And convenience foods—from grocery stores, fast-food chains, delis, food trucks, and vending machines—are available at every turn.
But as a chef, a dad, and a school leader, I've come to believe that we might be overthinking the battle—and perhaps even contributing to its overall longevity. It seems to me that the real hurdle is time: finding the time to provide healthy options and allowing kids enough time to warm up to them.
Here are some tricks I've found to beat the clock in my own home and make headway in the vegetable crusade.
First, set aside a few minutes once a week to map out what you're going to eat the following week. Make it a recurring appointment on your calendar so you don't forget, and keep it simple. Just write down some things you'd like to make and a list of ingredients you need to buy. It's fine to incorporate a take-out night or a fun family outing that gets you out of the kitchen, but eventually you'll be cooking more often than not. At the very least, having a plan takes away the anxiety of deciding what to make at the last minute. With practice, you'll be creating weekly menus that get your kids familiar with healthy foods while saving you time.
Second, make good choices available and set an example by choosing them for yourself. No matter the dish or day of the week, always put vegetables on the table. If you are having spaghetti and meatballs, make some roasted broccoli or a salad, too (at least for yourself), and offer it to your kids. They may not eat it at first—on average it takes 10 or more attempts over several months to get children to try new foods. But with a little encouragement (no bribing!), kids will try vegetables at their own pace.
Now comes the part that makes or breaks the plan: prepping. As chefs know, a little advance work easily turns a 90-minute chore of a recipe into something that's on the table in less than 30 minutes. Throw the chicken in a marinade in the fridge in the morning, and you're ready to grill when you get home. While you've got the cutting board and knife out for tonight's dish, chop up tomorrow night's onions and celery, too—or use my trick (the "weekly bag of veg," below) of prepping one big bag of veggies that will carry you through the week. On days when you need to tackle all the prep work right before you cook, set out some raw vegetables or fruit for snacking—especially if your children are hungry. And encourage your family to get in on the action. My wife doesn't cook often, but when she and my daughter help or even just hang out with me in the kitchen, the cooking goes faster and is more enjoyable.
In my experience, there's one more thing that's really important: compromise, for both parents and children. Parents aren't short-order cooks. You shouldn't feel guilty about serving dishes to your children that you and your spouse enjoy. But you also have to realize that your kids' palates are still evolving and may legitimately differ from yours. A study in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association found that 70 percent of children tested were sensitive to bitter foods. Translation: Foods like broccoli and cucumber can be truly unpleasant to them, and you may get several wrinkled-nose rejections before your kids develop a taste for certain vegetables. Rather than hiding or forcing veggies, try partnering them with foods your kids already like: For a child who loves mac and cheese, make a version with veggies mixed in. (FYI: Cauliflower is a great addition.) Or at least be sure to serve some on the side. Kids might start out hating a certain type of vegetable, and then move to tolerating it before actually loving it.
Most importantly, remember it's not about parents versus kids—or kids versus veggies. It's a process. And it simply takes time.
The Weekly Bag of Veg
Here's a trick I use to get some fresh, seasonal vegetables in every meal without buying too many (and wasting them) or doing separate prep sessions every night:
- Buy a few kinds of vegetables. My family typically uses a bunch of broccoli, a head of cauliflower, five carrots, 1⁄2 pound green beans, 1⁄2 pound Brussels sprouts, and about half a head of cabbage in a week—usually no more than will fill a small grocery bag.
- Wash and drain all the vegetables together.
- Trim the vegetables, peel any that need peeling, and cut them all into similarly sized pieces (small florets, 1-inch cubes, 1⁄2-inch coins, or 1⁄2x2-inch strips, depending on the vegetable).
- Put them all together in one or two large zip-top plastic bags with a paper towel in each to absorb excess moisture. Store in the fridge up to one week.
- Use them to cook with and snack on all week long.
Many kids love fresh peas. And why not? They're fun to shell and naturally sweet. My daughter used to call them "green candy." Try them in this simple side dish, which goes with pretty much everything—chicken, beef, or fish.
Put 2 cups shelled peas (from 2 pounds fresh peas or a 10-ounce package frozen peas) in a bowl. Cut 3⁄4 pound new or red potatoes (skins on) into 1⁄2-inch cubes. Bring potatoes to a boil in a pot with lightly salted cold water to cover; cook until crisp-tender, 1 to 2 minutes. Drain potatoes, pouring enough hot cooking liquid over peas to cover. Let peas soak 30 seconds, then drain and rinse. Melt 2 tablespoons unsalted butter in a large skillet over high heat. Add peas, potatoes, 1⁄2 cup low-sodium vegetable or chicken broth, and 1⁄2 teaspoon salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, until liquid reduces to a glaze, 5 to 7 minutes. Stir in 1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley and 1 tablespoon thinly sliced fresh mint. Serves 8.
Check out these bonus recipes that are sure to please everyone at the table:
About the Writer
Bill Telepan, aka ChefBillT, is chef-owner of Telepan restaurant in New York, author of the cookbook Inspired by Ingredients, father of a reformed picky eater, and executive chef of Wellness in the Schools, a national nonprofit group that partners with public schools to serve students nutritious, from-scratch meals and inspire lifelong healthy eating habits.