Steve Petusevsky got quite a surprise when he recently looked for a lost sock behind the washer and dryer. Instead of his sock, he found a pile of vegetables -- broccoli florets, carrot coins and "dry-aged" zucchini rounds.
"There was an abundance of them back there," says Mr. Petusevsky, a chef who writes a nationally distributed vegetarian cooking column as well as a magazine parenting column.
Clearly his children, ages 6 and 9, had discovered a way to make those veggies on their dinner plates disappear.
Getting children to eat vegetables is a problem shared by many parents. In fact, a National Cancer Institute study published in 1993 found that at least one in four children in elementary and high school do not eat even one serving of vegetables (not counting french fries) each day.
Also, a 1993 survey by MRCA Information Services found that children 4 to 10 years of age eat only 1.3 servings of vegetables a day.
The Food Guide Pyramid recommends at least three. That's because vegetables are a good source of vitamins A and C and fiber. And, in the long term, they may help prevent cancer.
Thus, getting your child to eat vegetables is important. "If children develop the mind-set to eat vegetables, they establish this behavior for life," says Janice Stuff, a pediatric dietitian who works at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Children's Nutrition Research Center in Houston.
But it's not always easy to get Tommy to eat his tomatoes or Betty to chow down on beets.
In fact, the problem surfaces when the child reaches 6 months and vegetables are introduced to his or her diet.
It happens because vegetables have a slightly stronger flavor and different texture from the food the child has been eating until then, Ms. Stuff says. She suggests you accustom your child to eating vegetables by feeding straight peas or carrots, not mixtures.
And introduce unfamiliar vegetables when the infant is very hungry. "Then they'll swallow anything you put in their mouths," she says.
Once infants are used to eating vegetables, they probably won't give you too much problem again until they are about 2 years old.
"Food jags begin about then," says Suzanne Havala, nutrition adviser for the Vegetarian Research Group, based in Baltimore.
At that age, children are looking for ways to assert their independence. And eschewing vegetables is often the rebellion of choice.
So the first piece of advice the experts give is to avoid making the eating of vegetables a struggle of wills.
"You can lead a child to vegetables but you shouldn't make them eat," says Mollie Katzen, author of three cookbooks including "Pretend Soup and Other Real Recipes: A Cookbook for
Preschoolers and Up" (Tricycle Press, $14.95).
Get kids involved
Instead of force-feeding, begin by involving your child in shopping for and preparing those vegetables.
When you are shopping, let your child decide whether to buy the green beans or broccoli. "Giving them a choice makes it more likely children will eat their vegetables," says Ms. Havala.
Ms. Katzen, whose children are 10 and 3 1/2 , adds that when children help you cook the vegetables, they develop an attitude toward the food. Since they made it themselves, they want to like it. But if an adult prepares the vegetable, liking it becomes a power struggle.
"The more a child feels a part of preparation, the less refusing to eat those vegetables becomes a way to rebel," Ms. Katzen adds.
She recalls when her daughter used to come home every afternoon and watch television while eating a sweet snack. One afternoon, Ms. Katzen had an electric skillet set up on the table and a plate of zucchini nearby. Her daughter got so involved in helping her saute the zucchini that she forgot about television. And she ate the zucchini instead of a sweet, says Ms. Katzen.
But letting your child help in the kitchen takes patience. Don't try to cook with your child if you are in a rush or if someone is really hungry, says Ms. Katzen.
When you are harried and hurried, she recommends giving your child a small task. Mushrooms or carrots can be scrubbed with a tiny brush. "Children love to work over a little bowl of water," she says.
To ensure that your children eat vegetables, you must be a role model. You can't just tell them to eat broccoli; you must eat it too.
Carol Wiley Lorent, food editor of Vegetarian Times magazine published in Oak Park, Ill., says her children, 13 and 11, have always liked vegetables. "I think that's because I have always eaten them," she says.
Ms. Havala adds, "If Dad hates broccoli, your child will model himself after Dad and not eat it. Parents should set a good example and pro- ject a positive attitude toward vegetables. They should make them a prominent part of meals."
What kind of vegetables are recommended for the picky eater depends upon whom you talk to.
Mr. Petusevsky says his children like things with natural handles that can be picked up with small hands. This might be carrot or celery sticks, broccoli or cauliflower florets or pepper rings. They dunk perfectly into low-fat but nutritious things like hummus or salsa, says Ms. Havala.
Although some people will tell you children don't like strongly flavored vegetables such as cabbage or broccoli, Ms. Katzen says her kids go for "full flavors." In fact, her son wouldn't eat vegetables until he encountered everything chock-full of garlic at a Chinese restaurant. He fell in love with the broccoli.
In her cookbook research, she found children particularly like the crisp textures, bright colors and seasoned taste of vegetables that have been stir-fried with a sauce.
Mr. Petusevsky agrees: "Kids do not like vegetables limp and gooshy."
The American Dietetic Association's spokeswoman Sheah Rarback suggests that if your child doesn't like a vegetable cooked, try serving it raw, and vice versa.
But whatever you do, don't force or bribe your child to eat vegetables. "The old adage 'you must eat your vegetables' just doesn't work," says Mr. Petusevsky.
And Ms. Rarback, who is a pediatric dietitian in Miami, says kids can see through bribes. "They know that if vegetables were really good, they wouldn't be bribed to eat them. So, you are reinforcing that vegetables do not inherently taste good."
And, don't give up.
"Children's tastes change as they get older. It may take some time before they try a vegetable," says Ms. Stuff. It can take up to 10 tries before a child really learns to enjoy it.
Perhaps the best advice is from Ms. Havala: "Be optimistic, hang loose and take a relaxed attitude."
And, if all else fails, your children can get the same nutrients from eating fruit as they do vegetables. For example, peaches have vitamin A, oranges vitamin C, and there's fiber in apples and bananas.
And you rarely find strawberries or orange sections stashed behind the washing machine.
The following vegetable recipes are from "Pretend Soup and Other Real Recipes, A Cookbook for Preschoolers and Up" by Ms. Katzen and Ann Henderson. They are designed for children to prepare with the help of an adult. The first recipe is all about spreading cream cheese and decorating bagels. And it's a wonderful opportunity to introduce children to raw vegetables whether they choose to eat them or not. Set the vegetables out in separate bowls and let your youngster pick and choose.
Makes 2 to 4 bagel faces
1 medium-long, thin carrot, sliced into thin rounds or grated
1/2 pint tiny cherry tomatoes, whole or sliced in half
1 (2 1/4 -ounce) can sliced black olives, drained
2 small bell peppers, seeded and thinly sliced into strips
1 cup alfalfa sprouts
1 very small cucumber, sliced into thin rounds
1 8-ounce container soft cream cheese, softened
1 or 2 bagels, cut in half
Arrange the vegetables and other toppings in small bowls on a table. Spread cream cheese on the bagel halves with a butter knife. Decorate with toppings and eat.
Cooking hints: If you are working with younger children, do the chopping, slicing and grating yourself. But let the children help wash the vegetables. Older children can help slice the peppers (carrots and cucumbers are too difficult) with a serrated dinner knife.
Whipped cream cheese is easier to use than regular cream cheese. Spreading is harder for small children and beginners may need guidance. It helps to tell them to "push down and pull out" with the knife. Remind youngsters to cover the entire open side of the bagel so toppings stick better.
Per bagel face without decorative toppings: 324 calories, 9 g protein, 23 g fat, 24 g carbohydrates, 62 mg cholesterol, 452 mg sodium
Zucchini is popular with the preschool set. These squash cook quickly, so children don't have to wait to eat them. Zucchini are relatively easy for small children to cut with a knife, if closely supervised. Select squash according to the age of your child. Experienced 5- and 6-year-olds can cut a 6-inch zucchini, but a 3- or 4-year-old will have an easier time with a smaller baby squash.
Makes 2 to 3 small servings
2 small zucchini
1 teaspoon butter
2 tablespoons water
2 teaspoons grated Parmesan cheese, or to taste
Cut the zucchini into 1/4 -inch-thick rounds. Heat an electric skillet to medium-hot. Place zucchini, butter and water in the pan. Add salt and pepper. Stir and cook until zucchini is tender crisp, about 5 minutes. Sprinkle with cheese (children love this part).
Cooking hints: If the children will be cutting, they should use only a serrated dinner knife or plastic picnic knife. Never let a child use an adult knife. Put a piece of colored tape on the handle of the knife to mark the safe end.
If your youngster has a hard time cutting, try removing a thin slice lengthwise off each zucchini to keep it from rolling around on the cutting board. If it is still difficult, let your child cut large pieces, then you can slice them smaller.
Use electric skillet on a table, if you can, to keep cooking at a child-safe level. When the skillet is hot, stay near it at all times. Remind younger kids not to touch the pan.
Per serving: 45 calories, 2 g protein, 2 g fat, 7 g carbohydrates, 4 mg cholesterol, 114 mg sodium.