Wednesday, May 12, 2010

How to Get Your Kid to Eat Vegetables

Maybe a better name for this entry is: "How We Got Our Kid to Eat Vegetables." While I am, in fact, rather excited about the fact that our daughter eats pretty much everything, I don't want people to think I am one of those smug parents who smirks at other parents when their kids throw food on the floor at restaurants, refuse to eat anything but french fries, or hit another kid on the playground. I mean, I am pretty confident that I have done a lot of things right with our kid so far. That said...yes, that was me today in aisle two at Trader Joe's with the kid screaming at the top of her lungs and writhing on the floor because I wouldn't let her eat a Lara Bar. Yes, that was my husband and me yelling at each other at Brennan's Shebeen last weekend after our daughter ran out the front door and down Fairfield Avenue, toward Ruby's II, no less. Yes, that was my kid who bit another baby twenty minutes into her first official playgroup.

But alas, this is about the one thing we have totally, infallibly, unquestionably done right with our kid--we have raised her to be a good eater. Not only does she like to eat, but she likes to eat things like asparagus and broccoli. She likes to eat blackberries and strawberries and blueberries. She LOVES to eat chicken. She'll eat almost any kind of fish if it's cooked well--which is more than I can say for myself. Like any health-conscious omnivore, she merely tolerates beef. No matter what you scramble with her eggs, she will eat it: mushrooms (if they're chopped up small enough), feta cheese, turkey, peas, carrots, spinach, tomatoes.
Oh yeah, tomatoes: she'll eat them whole, the way most people eat apples. Some weeks I wonder if she could possibly overdose on lycopene. (While there are no known reported incidents, there is no established upper limit for the chemical, so...)

So, how did we do it? Much as I would like to take credit, I have to give it all to Annabel Karmel. Actually, first I have to give credit to our good friends, Vince and Lara, who recommended we read Karmel's Top 100 Baby Purees when we were contemplating starting our daughter on solid foods.

At this point, I should probably mention that our daughter was exclusively breastfed for the first six months of her life. While I know this isn't possible for everyone, I strongly believe in the power of the breastfeeding relationship. I'll wax poetic on that sometime in the future. Because I was nursing, a well-worn copy of The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding had a permanent place on my nightstand. Even if you choose not to or are physically unable to nurse, the chapter on introducing solid foods has some great alternatives to the standard rice cereal as the first option. And I can't recommend this book enough for any woman who does want to breastfeed--despite the arcane and somewhat embarrassing title (breastfeeding, at least for me, might be more aptly called "a struggle" and I'm sorry, but there is nothing womanly about being hooked up to an electric pump 3-4 times a day when you go back to work).

But, I digress. Maybe. When it came time to introduce solid foods to my baby, I felt just as strongly about giving her whole, mostly organic, fresh foods as I had felt about breastfeeding. I knew I didn't want to feed my kid anything out of a jar, no matter how cute the Gerber baby is or how organic Earth's Best claims to be--bottom line, if I thought it looked/smelled/tasted yucky, then why would my kid want to eat it? And if it tasted much sugar/salt/artificial ingredients had to be added to make it good? So, I bought some freezing trays, dug out the Cuisinart Mini-Prep, bought a new blender, and started pureeing.

I think the key is introducing a variety of tastes early--we started with avocado, banana, apple; then quickly moved on to plantains, beans, tomatoes. We added spices like cinnamon to her pureed fruits. We were a bit reckless with the introductions at times--which I obviously wouldn't recommend--but it worked out well for us. Spinach gave her a slight rash around her mouth and bottom...but I read this was rather normal, so we held off for a month and then tried again. The key was--we kept introducing anything and everything that was age-appropriate. Karmel's book has some recipes for babies under a year that include ground up nuts and fish, which some pediatricians recommend waiting on--we went for it with some things, and if I wasn't sure, I waited. By the time this kid was a year old, she had eaten more strange and interesting foods than some of the rest of our extended family had eaten in twenty years.

As our daughter got older, we obviously needed to move on from purees. Karmel has a multitude of other books--and honestly, I found some of them a bit redundant. I did purchase a copy of her New Complete Baby and Toddler Meal Planner, and we inherited a copy of the Complete Family Meal Planner. What I like about them: the recipes are relatively simple, but include multiple vegetables in almost all. As our daughter grew, we simply went from blending to mashing to chopping and mixing up foods. What you should know about me: I don't cook. Or rather, I didn't cook, not until I started cooking for our daughter. Somehow, strangely, making baby food inspired me to make food for our family. Karmel's concoctions helped me figure out what foods taste good together, learn how to season vegetables and meats, and experiment with new combinations. So, thankfully, I'm no longer relegated to macaroni and cheese (yes, from a box, although now I buy Annie's instead of Kraft) when it's my night to cook.

Whereas you normally hear stories of kids who won't eat their food if different things on their plate are touching each other, our daughter won't eat certain foods if they aren't all mixed together in one glorious mash-up. I am pretty sure this is because of the way she was introduced to so many foods. For example, tonight's dinner: baked potato, broccoli, and bacon. If I had served these as separate items on a plate, my daughter would have eaten the following: bacon. She doesn't particularly like potatoes (she takes after my husband), and while I don't necessarily want to encourage a love of simple carbohydrates, especially after the article by David Edelberg my mother sent me, which warns of the link between women, carbohydrates, and heart disease, I do want her to enjoy balanced meals. Broccoli? Probably not, no matter how tasty it was (roasted with olive oil, salt, and pepper). (Asparagus is the only green vegetable she will not only eat plain, but also beg for more of.) But because I chopped up the broccoli, crumbled the bacon, and mixed everything together on her plate with a little cheddar cheese, she ate it with gusto.

In fact, I smugly watched as she picked around the potato to get to the broccoli.

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