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How many people set square meals before their toddlers, then wait, trying to pretend they’re not watching, to see if the vegetables get eaten? That little green sector of the plate is the gold ring of well-intentioned parenting for so many of us. I rarely fail to mention to someone—or everyone—if Leo consumes an actual green thing. “Leo ate asparagus” I’ll proclaim. Never mind that he could—and happily would—eat himself sick on grapes, whole wheat toast, yogurt, or tons of other fairly nutritious real foods; I fixate on the unattainable.
Experts maintain that the way to help a kid love vegetables is to procure, prepare and eat them with him. And we sort of do this. Leo sits in the cart munching a bagel while I buy veggies at our food coop. Then he whines while I cook them. Then he painstakingly removes traces of spinach from his pasta while I eat my vegetables. “Here, mommy,” he says, handing me a shriveled cherry tomato from his bowl. “Eat, mommy,” he commands, thrusting a lima bean at my face. Maybe this will all pay off, and he’ll be a better eater because he’s been offered a variety of nicely prepared veggies in his tender years. Or he’ll become a devout herbivore as an adolescent just to get back at me. Or perhaps he’ll just develop normal healthy eating habits no matter what I do or don’t manage to feed him now.
Generations of parents have been trying to get their children to eat more vegetables. As soon as a family can afford the milk, bread and other protein they need, they start worrying about whether their kids are eating enough of the watery, calorie-deprived little leaves and stems that contain mysteriously wondrous nutrients. I’m not saying this is silly; I most certainly participate. I’m just observing that this is a phenomenon. And I wonder whether our concerns make a difference. Leo probably derives most of his nutritional needs from the foods he willingly eats, yet I worry about the foods he snubs, and feel victory if he accidentally consumes a leaf he overlooked in his spinach-removal efforts.
Basically, the kid eats grains, dairy, meat, fish, eggs and fruit. No juice, not too many sweets at home (at school, ugh, it’s probably all-cookies all the time). For a snack, he’ll chow down on cucumbers (any vitamins in there?) or avocado (yes, I know it’s a fruit). When he’s going through a growth spurt he’ll eat anything (escarole!), but the rest of the time, well, the veggies are there to make me feel better, and you know, it works. I’m staying on my diet, focusing on produce, eating smaller, earlier dinners, and feeling pretty healthy. And I’d be happy to eat that lima bean, kid, pass it over!
Zoe Singer is a freelance food writer and cookbook editor and co-author of The Flexitarian Table. Food Editor and blogger for The Faster Times, she tries not to eat for two now that her son is a toddler.