Getting children to eat vegetables can be a pure challenge. During my experience working as an enrichment teacher in after-school and summer programs, I noticed that the children’s diet was far from ideal. They were very selective with the food on their lunch trays and ate processed cookies or crackers for snack. When offered either a fruit or sugar cookies; you guessed it, they would choose the cookie.
It’s evident that kids’ taste buds need to be dramatically transformed. From a young age, children grow accustomed to eating highly processed foods that are bland, sweet and salty; with textures that are creamy, crunchy, and bready. The richness and nutrition of whole foods are generally too expensive or not enticing enough to reach their plate.
There are many ways to navigate this difficult journey without having to get frustrated. This summer I chose an art project that would introduce fresh veggies to the kids. With my background in photography, I decided to incorporate the two. The kids got to be food stylists and photographers for a couple of days! They were really excited by this, which was definitely a great start.
The recipe for the day was zucchini pasta. I made a trip into Union Square in Manhattan, to the huge green market that takes place during the summer. With a cloth bag in hand, I gathered 4 zucchinis, a bundle of carrots, a basket of grape tomatoes, and a bunch of fresh basil.
Back in the school, as each class walked in, the first thing they saw was the spiralizer. If you don’t have one of these, I highly recommend it. This contraption gives your dishes pizazz! Using different blades, it allows you to shred and spiralize various veggies. Your kid doesn’t like zucchini or beets? With the spiralizer, you may peak their interest. I know this thing sure did for my students.
Naturally, I prepped the veggies. In a one on one situation, I would allow the child to help out during this process. I believe it’s important for them to be a part of prepping the food. Even though the zucchinis were peeled, the carrots were cut, the grape tomatoes halved, and the basil soaked, I made it a point to show the veggies as a whole. Their faces lit up and asked if we were going to be cooking. The idea of being a part of making their food excited them. This was another great sign. My other tactic was to find a sauce that was appealing and familiar. So I had organic tomato sauce at hand.
Once the kids were seated, one by one, they got a chance to spiralize the zucchini onto their plate. The amazement in their eyes was astounding. To see this veggie turn into “spaghetti” blew them away. There were plenty of times that I had to remind them to stop so they can give the other kids a chance (it was only a 45 minute class and I have three groups of 15 students).
When seated, they had their chance to decorate their food. At one point, a student said, “Wow, I’ve never been allowed to play with my food before. This is awesome!” I think most of us can remember a time when we were told by a family member to stop playing with our food. I disagree with this method. Children should be allowed to feel their food. It’s a way we become familiar with what we’re putting in our body. Tasting is not the only process to introducing certain “taboo foods” (in kid’s eyes).
Many of the children didn’t know what zucchini or basil was. They just associated the zucchini with a pickle and thought that the basil was an ordinary leaf. After explaining this to them, most asked if they could eat it. I didn’t want to force anybody to eat anything they didn’t want to. The idea that they were having fun with the food was enough. Many of them took notice of the aroma that filled the room. “These vegetables smell delicious,” some of the students said. The sound of these words was music to my ears. Something was accomplished without even having to put the food into their mouths.
Out of the 45 students I had, about 10 of them genuinely enjoyed their dish. Some even asked for seconds! One little girl told me that “I get to be a vegetarian today.” Others showed their satisfaction simply by showing off their sauce covered face. About 30 of the children either took a bite or didn’t even try it. It was either that they didn’t like tomato sauce, or weren’t used to eating these vegetables. Children’s palettes from an average American household may find vegetables to be too bitter. So this didn’t come as a surprise to me. The remaining 5 children had no interest in taking part in the activity. One little boy immediately yelled “Ewww, vegetables…disgusting!!” Despite this, they spent the class period watching the activity; which was a good sign.
My hope was that the exposure to fresh vegetables would open up a gateway to eating healthier. I know they could now identify the names of these different veggies and were able to do something fun with these nutritious foods. The last step of the project was to photograph and edit their food photos. This might have been their second favorite part, because they were able to take their creativity to another level. The end results were vibrant and colorful photographs that were displayed for their families to see on the last day. This was another positive reinforcement in that their families were able to see that either child likes vegetables or they were inspired to present vegetables in an innovative way.
The process of introducing healthy foods into a child’s diet can be tricky. However, if you make it fun and creative, yummy and inviting; kids really take to it. In my experience, small steps are more effective than large leaps. They say that it takes at least 8 – 10 times of trying something before children willingly accept new foods onto their plate.
My advice is to be patient, have fun, and stay healthy!