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The Age-Old Battle of the Super Veggies

By Jan Gangsei

Back when we were kids, my brother, Greg, like most 5 year olds, was not a big fan of eating his vegetables. In particular, Greg was not a big fan of eating his green beans, something he ranked right up there with stacking wood and putting away his "Star Wars" toys.

As his older sister, like most 8-year-old girls, I possessed more than a touch of mother hen-ness. I was very protective of my baby brother, even if during my spare time, like any good sibling, I was busy hatching plans to get him into trouble (and generally out of my hair). But, I digress.

In any case, in my self-appointed role of mother hen/tormentor, I decided it was up to me to cure Greg of his bean phobia. And one day, inspiration quite literally *hit* -- and the "bop-in-the-head" bean was born. As I explained it to my bean-leery brother -- a "bop-in-the-head" bean was no ordinary bean! Nosiree! In fact, it was so good, with every bite you'd feel compelled to shout out with delight and "bop" yourself wildly in the head. Now, my brother was, shall we say, an exuberant child, and the opportunity to create a parent-sanctioned, vegetable-induced ruckus at the dinner table was enough to make green beans the best tasting and most requested item on his plate. And so, an evening ritual was born: With each serving of beans first presented to big sister, once I verified their bop-worthiness (after careful inspection, of course), the eating, bopping and exclaiming would commence. An occasional chair may have been toppled in the commotion, but there was never a bean left on the plate.

Now as we got older (and Greg grew wiser), he realized bop-in-the-head beans were a work of fiction. He also began to suspect my motives. And I can't say I blame him much. I did, after all, once invent a "song" about him that when hummed by me would guarantee he'd lose his cool, attempt to wallop me and be shipped off to his room in a huff. Then I'd get the Atari all to myself. There were also the unfortunate milkshake "races," where I'd trick poor Greg into chugging down his treat to "win," while I slyly sipped mine. After which, of course, I would gleefully, and with much animation, savor my frappé -- while the poor kid recovered from an ice cream headache. Like I said, while I really, truly just wanted my brother to eat his beans -- not suffer from a self-induced concussion, it's easy to see why as the years passed he wasn't exactly buying the story anymore.

So last month, I felt vindicated to see the results of this study showing that young kids are more apt to eat their vegetables when given a fun name, like "x-ray vision carrots." Or, if I may so humbly suggest: "bop-in-the-head" beans.

I immediately e-mailed the article to my mother and brother. Greg, who is expecting his first child in days, enthusiastically wrote back that he'd have to try the technique with his own kids, remembering (possibly with a slight headache), how well it worked with him.

And therein lies the rub -- for all my success getting my little brother to eat his vegetables, I've had virtually none with my own two kids. My 7 year old regards anything leafy, green or otherwise a color actually found in nature, to be revolting enough to bring on nausea. My 16-month-old simply hurls anything vegetable-like off her tray and can pick a pea out of a casserole like a cat working around a pill camouflaged in its dinner dish. I've tried everything I can think of, from cool names to special sauces, dips and I'll admit it -- even bribery. On occasion, I've successfully hidden vegetables, but I don't have the patience to hang out in the kitchen all day, a la Mrs. Jerry Seinfeld, pureeing squash and spinach to sneak into the mac 'n cheese. I do my darndest, but those two have got me -- yes me, victor of the milkshake races and inventor of the best dang convulsion-inducing beans in history -- both outwitted and outmaneuvered.

So, maybe it's karma I'm failing in this department. Or maybe it's just I'm no longer such a trusted source on this matter. I am now "Mom," of course. Clearly, I would only be advocating that which is good for you, which can't possibly be any good, whatsoever! I can see now why my parents were happy to let my brother knock himself senseless over dinner. The kid was finally eating his beans.

So, provided you don't have those perfect eaters who think Brussel sprouts are delightful and eat salads on purpose, how do you deal with the veggie battle? I am up for suggestions. Really. And it won't be hard to find me. I'll be the Mom sitting at the dinner table, flying carrot airplanes, picking flung beans off the carpet, and bopping myself wildly in the head.

Jan is a stay-at-home mother who lives in Northern Virginia. In her previous work incarnations she was a journalist and a corporate communications writer. If you are interested in sharing your own parenting story, please e-mail

By Stacey Garfinkle |  April 13, 2009; 7:00 AM ET  | Category:  Elementary Schoolers , Guest Blogs , Preschoolers
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It's vegetables. Sheesh.

Posted by: jezebel3 | April 13, 2009 8:01 AM | Report abuse

It's Jezebel, sheesh!

Posted by: anonymous_one | April 13, 2009 8:18 AM | Report abuse

What a great guest post! It's nice to see a common challenge handled with humor.

How about instead of using the 'carrot' approach, you try the 'stick' approach? You know the terrible green goop smoothies that are made out of kale or whatever? Keep those available in the fridge, and give your kids the option of a cup of that OR the vegetables with dinner!

Do you think it would work?

My kid's only 7 months, so we're not quite to this battle yet...we're still on the sleeping-longer-than-2-hours-in-a-row-at-night-is-GOOD battle. :)

Posted by: newslinks1 | April 13, 2009 8:23 AM | Report abuse

I"ve been finding lately that if I present my 3-year-old with veggies with no fanfare at all, she'll actually eat them. By this I mean, she asks for a snack, and instead of asking her if she wants carrot sticks, I simply cut then up and put then in front of her (with ample ranch dip, of course), and she makes them disappear. Same at meals -- if I serve her spinach, she'll eat it, but if I ask her beforehand whether she, say, wants to eat spinach or broccoli or peas, she'll tell me she doesn't want any veggies and will put up a fuss when they appear on her plate anyway.

I know this probably sounds terribly basic, but I was surprised at how well it worked.

And also, if you really, really want to try "hiding" veggies, there's no need to puree your own when the grocery store has them already done. If the idea of buying jarred baby food grosses you out, you can always look for the fancy-shmancy frozen stuff that's all organic and farmed by puppy dogs or something.

Posted by: newsahm | April 13, 2009 8:40 AM | Report abuse

Assuming you're more able bodied than your seven year old, you presumably have the physical ability to deny her things she might find pleasing (e.g. sweets, tv, a favorite toy). I would humbly suggest you employ a true stick approach - "if you don't eat x, you will not get y".

Names, dips and bribery are rather weak negotiating tactics given your mental and physical advantages.

For the younger child, one completely physically unable to provide themselves with substitutes, I would suggest you consider not giving it any choice. I have yet to see a toddler stage a successful hunger strike.

Posted by: 06902 | April 13, 2009 8:44 AM | Report abuse

I started offering 3-4 veggies with dinner every night and asking the kids to choose which 2 they'd like to eat. I also serve vegetables first while waiting for my main course to finish up. They seem to eat them better if there aren't other things on their plates to fill up with first.

I also have been telling them for years that fairies grow asparagus and Bell peppers are from the garden at Princess Belle's castle. This really only seems to work with 3-4 year old girls, but hopefully they acquire enough of a taste for them that the effects are lasting.

Posted by: thosewilsongirls | April 13, 2009 8:51 AM | Report abuse

"I have yet to see a toddler stage a successful hunger strike."

When the kid pulls the ol' reversable stomach move, it's game over and the parent chalks another one up in the loss column...

then gets to clean up the barf!

Posted by: WhackyWeasel | April 13, 2009 9:22 AM | Report abuse

What a great way to handle the vegetable-battle! As an older sister myself, I can relate to the kid-brother tricks. As a mother, one thing that seems to help with my 2 year old twins is letting them eat with their favorite baby spoon or fork. We recently acquired some Elmo and Mickey Mouse fork and spoons and for some reason, this makes eating ANYTHING more fun for them. They've been eating more vegetables just so they can use their new spoon & fork.

Loved the article! I can totally relate!

Posted by: Twinkie1 | April 13, 2009 9:49 AM | Report abuse

I serve vegetables. They eat them or they don't. Even with my kids who are 7 and 4, well, it DOES take several (and it could be 10) times before they try something. But they do.
When they ask for something about an hour before dinner, I do as suggested above - put out carrot sticks (or fruit). If they don't want it (they will many times ask for cheese) I tell them, well, you must not be hungry, wait for dinner.
They get angry, but hey, that's the way it goes.
I also think that having them help cook helps as well. My son kept telling me he didn't like onions. For months, probably. Then one day, well, he tried them and said he likes them. Since I put onions in just about everything, well, it was good for him. My younger one asks me to pick them off - and i do sometimes, okay, most times.
And do as mentioned above, serve veggies first.
If you think of vegetables as the 'main course' it might be easier, too - everyone should be eating healthier, I think (this said as a vegetarian, we have pasta way too much - but the kids seem to LOVE fish, so I need to make it more).
This week is Passover. Instead of making heavy kugels (basically, veggies with matzo meal (think breadcrumbs) and eggs...mostly NOT veggies, though) - I just made vegetables for the seder, and made too many so we're eating them every night (we had fish and eggs as well). The kids are eating it.
Basically, don't give them choices. I don't know if I would go so far as to take away stuff they like, but I definitely see that as an option. We talk with my 7 YO re: carrots help your eyes, broccoli helps your bones and skin, etc. He gets that if he eats healthier, he will be healthier. And we don't all like all vegetables, and the kids see that, and that's fine (I don't like mushrooms, hubbie doesn't like asparagus, etc). So we do allow the kids to say no, I don't like that...

Posted by: atlmom1234 | April 13, 2009 9:50 AM | Report abuse

A few thoughts.

My daughter used to call her broccoli "trees". When cooked, a sprinkle of parmesan cheese made it not so bad to eat. Now we call the container of grated parmesan "tree cheese". - Pass the tree cheese, please!

Green beans have been renamed "sneak beans". They got their name when my son, after helping me plant and grow the stalks, plucked a few off and "sneaked" them when he was still in the garden.

Q: How do you get a kid to eat a kidney bean?
A: Get him to pretend he's a cannibal. (Ugh)

Food is fun. I say let them put ketchup on their succotash if they want.

My son used to proclaimed his distaste for tomatoes. After the pizza arrived, the family tried to convince him that he wouldn't want a slice because it had that awful, disgusting tomato paste in it that he doesn't like. Funny how fast kids can change their tune.

Unlike siblings that try to get their younger ones to eat their vegetables, my kids have a different mode of operation. They try to gross out the little ones in hopes of getting his/her portion. Pistachio pudding is a "glob of snot", shrimp are gigantic ocean maggots, stir fry is a dish of greasy grimy gopher guts, and there's bunny poop in the carrot-raisin cake.

Posted by: WhackyWeasel | April 13, 2009 10:29 AM | Report abuse

When my SS first got to our house he was a VERY picky eater. Picky is being generous. What changed the tide for us was reading 'Green eggs and ham' over and over again as it happened to be his favourite book. One day when he was being his picky self, I asked him what Sam-I-am would do. When confronted with new things he would say... I am going to be Sam-I-am. After bringing up Sam-I-am a few times, he now willingly tries most new things.

The things he totally and completely detests, we let him spit it out. Otherwise, a spoonful must be forced down. Some things he still hates - like tomatoes and other things he will eat more willingly - like lettuce in sandwiches. More and more, he is accepting foods that he formerly wouldn't touch and trying most everything.

This is a pretty specific thing and might not work for most kids but it certainly worked to get our SS over the initial hump.

Posted by: Billie_R | April 13, 2009 10:35 AM | Report abuse

Grandmothers-It is also fun to make up a book about your attempts to get children to eat. After I heard about Bop in the Head Beans from my daughter, I put it in story form with pictures of the family to read to my grandson. Family stories are a treasure and so easy to do now with computers.

Posted by: wmccorm | April 13, 2009 10:44 AM | Report abuse

Well Jan, you might try what I did for (to?!) your cousins: trickery. Milkshakes made with mashed potatoes. Pureed veggies added to chocolate pudding, meatloaf, chili, lasagna and used instead of eggs prior to breadcrumbs when frying chicken or pork. A few spoonfuls of pureed wax beans can be so easily added to a bowl of oatmeal. Just think outside the veggie box! Lastly, make some veggies out of their reach because they're "too young" ... this may be why all 5 of your Vermont cousins love artichokes and avocados; they were not permitted to even try them until we deemed them old enough. And one by one the older kids would gain permission and the younger ones could only watch in awe. Some of your cousins wouldn't touch a tomato, others anything green, others something that looked strange ... little knowing at the time that they were happily digesting them anyway. Parenting can be a shifty business!

Posted by: m3site | April 13, 2009 11:32 AM | Report abuse

A few spoonfuls of pureed wax beans can be so easily added to a bowl of oatmeal.

Posted by: m3site | April 13, 2009 11:32 AM | Report abuse

Disgusting! Yuck!

Posted by: jezebel3 | April 13, 2009 11:40 AM | Report abuse

Hiding veggies in their food might get them their veggies but I don't see how it helps them learn to try new veggies/food and appreciate the food for itself.

Posted by: Billie_R | April 13, 2009 11:50 AM | Report abuse

Disgusting! Yuck!

Talking about yourself again, Jezebel?

BTW, peas are UNFIT for human consumption. I don't blame anyone of any age for not eating those disgusting things!

Posted by: anonymous_one | April 13, 2009 11:55 AM | Report abuse

Reverse psychology. You may NOT eat those green beans, period. Don't even think about trying that brussel sprout.

Posted by: StrollerMomma | April 13, 2009 12:00 PM | Report abuse

Since some of the old-school parents obviously missed the memo, I'll come right out and say it:

Unless it is medically necessary, forcing a kid to consume something against their will is child abuse.

And, by definition, hiding or disguising nutrient in your child's meal is deceitful.

So now you know.
K, I'll come right out and say it:

Posted by: WhackyWeasel | April 13, 2009 12:26 PM | Report abuse

"Hiding veggies in their food might get them their veggies but I don't see how it helps them learn to try new veggies/food and appreciate the food for itself."

Agreed. Forcing them to eat something doesn't work either. I remember when my father forced me to eat ham. My mother warned him, but he made me do it, and he found himself cleaning up the ham and the rest of my dinner.

Provide plenty of the healthy, non-processed foods that they like. Eventually they'll expand their diet. Not everyone is born with a developed palate, so some seemingly harmless food may taste awful to some kids.

Posted by: MzFitz | April 13, 2009 12:58 PM | Report abuse

Hiding veggies is indeed deceitful nor do I think it accomplishes the ultimate goal of having a child that will willingly eat something other than candy and bread with jam.

But I am not willing to go quite so far as to say that forcing a child to eat a spoonful of food is child abuse. Children don't always know what is good for them and are not capable of making all the choices that are necessary for them to grow up healthy and strong.

We force the children to brush their teeth. If it was left up to them, they would never do it. And we won't discuss the extensive work that has been done on their teeth starting within a few months of their arrival. Child abuse? or making an executive decision so they will actually have teeth left in their head by the time they figure this out on their own.

As I have discovered, you force your child to do many things that are in their best interest that they want no part of.

Posted by: Billie_R | April 13, 2009 1:00 PM | Report abuse

We grow our own vegetables, and that makes a difference in veggie consumption in our house. Both kids love the taste of the homegrown ones, and harvesting them turns into an impromptu snack session with my older daughter-more than once when we're harvesting sugar snap peas, I've found the level in the basket going down slightly because she's snacking out of it! I don't complain; I used to "graze" on my parents' green beans and sugar peas in their vegetable garden too. Cutting up potatoes for homemade fries is always fun too; I'll find a little hand sneaking into the bowl to snatch a raw fry every time, or hear a giggle and turn around to see the older daughter chowing down on one. If you mention homegrown corn, collard greens, sugar snap peas, stir-fry involving our homegrown snow peas, or fried green tomatoes in our house, you're liable to start a stampede-they're among the favorites of both kidlets. My 2-year-old likes her veggies too, but sometimes I have to coax her to eat by putting some ketchup on her plate to dip them into. By the time she's done, the plate looks like a war zone, but at least the veggies are undergoing digestion. With my older daughter, the key to some veggies is cheese. Sprinkle a little shredded cheese on some veggies, and it's down the hatch!

WhackyWeasel, you'd like my mom-she likes to get the tapioca for pudding at the Asian stores, where they have those huge tapioca beads instead of those little pebbles you find in the instant mix. She called it "fish-eye pudding" because the big tapioca beads looked like eyeballs. Gross, but fun, especially with raisins in it too!

Now why am I remembering a "Calvin & Hobbes" weekday strip when his mom told him the rice in his soup was actually maggots? Gross, but it got him to eat it!

Anonymous_one, I beg to differ on the subject of peas. Homegrown ones taste great! If you're talking about canned peas, that's another story though-those things are tasteless little globs of nasty.

Posted by: dragondancer1814 | April 13, 2009 4:53 PM | Report abuse

I too have despaired at getting veggies into the kids (now three year old twins). One of the two got very stubborn about vegetables a year or so ago. Our savior? Spinach! Spinach-ricotta pie turned out to be an unexpected hit. Spinach ravioli also go down well. My additional advice would be to keep trying!

Incidentally, the other book (you know, the one NOT written by Jerry's wife) is pretty good. [For the record, it's the Sneaky Chef.] I do a lot of cooking and there's a lot of good advice in there that doesn't require hanging out in the kitchen all day. Mind you, I am going to make a couple of purees. One of these is a combination of sweet potato and carrots.

anonymous_one gets my vote for post of the day (the first one, that is). Anyone who writes for this blog should be warned that jezebel will be there to post something snarky, preferably the first post. It's like the blog has a cyber stalker.


Posted by: FairlingtonBlade | April 13, 2009 5:05 PM | Report abuse

Billie_R: I disagree completely. The ultimate goal is to get the child to eat a balanced diet without resorting to coercion or bribery. I expect that my kids will gradually become open to more foods. Meantime, development waits for no one and I'd rather the dinner table not be a battlefield.

I occasionally make a spinach risotto in which the spinach has been cooked and pureed. Flavorful, but with a texture that appeals to the little ones. It also makes great fritters! Would you consider that deceitful? Yes, I'd like to make occasionally a stir fry like I did before one of my two became a pickier eater. However, I'm happy to make a roasted red pepper sauce and serve it over pasta.

Same ingredient, more appealing presentation. Education can wait.


Posted by: FairlingtonBlade | April 13, 2009 5:13 PM | Report abuse

I am stepmom to two small ones, both picky eaters. I am doing a combination Sneaky Chef and forcing stuff they may or may not like. I have a huge batch of purees I made and froze, and I sneak those into foods in such a way as they don't taste, see or smell them, but as the author of that book advises, it's all about BALANCE---I also present at least two vegetables with every meal, and in our house the rule is "four bites to be polite". The kids actually came up with this themselves, they have to take four bites of something before they can say they don't like it or decide not to finish it. Most of the time, four bites is about half or more of one serving anyway, so I feel good that not only are they getting the good stuff I'm sneaking in, but we're also teaching them about eating good vegetables and trying new things. We talk about it all the time--we even grow a lot of our own vegetables and the kids LOVE to garden, so that helps. Very rarely will I serve a vegetable that I know they HATE, and I actually enjoy cooking so it's fun for me to try new things. The Sneaky Chef mode isn't for everyone and I agree with critics about some of its drawbacks, but in my house it's been a relief to not battle at dinnertime, knowing that even if they refuse the actual veggies I'm putting on their plate, they are still getting some nutrients, and I can focus on the gajillion other challenges of being a stepmom.

They are with their mom half the time, and she doesn't cook and pretty much only eats out (lots of fast food), so I hope that I'm making up for that in our house.

BTW, I've tried them both extensively and I vastly prefer Missy Chase Lapine's book to Jessica Seinfeld's. I learned a lot about nutrients in general as well as the sneaking technique.

Posted by: auntieW | April 13, 2009 5:51 PM | Report abuse

Weasel - Many, many recipes "hide" an ingredient. I'm not a fan of anchovies straight up. A few added early add a nice flavor note to some sauces. You'd never know they're there, so it's deceitful in a sense.

So, you think adding the green puree is deceitful. When I make spinach risotto, I do the same thing. And that's a classic Italian recipe. I had some leftover risotto tonight and made some fritters (flattened balls of risotto, rolled in bread crumbs and fried in a bit of olive oil). The kids loved (loved loved loved) it. Presumably, I'm a deceitful parent for having some greens in them there fritters.

Books such as Sneaky Chef as giving some ideas to parents for recipes that INTEGRATE healthy ingredients. So I'll come right out and say it. That's not deceitful. You are wrong.

"And, by definition, hiding or disguising nutrient in your child's meal is deceitful.

So now you know. K, I'll come right out and say it:"

Posted by: FairlingtonBlade | April 13, 2009 8:28 PM | Report abuse

As a child nutritionist and a parent, I will echo what some of your readers have commented on and know I'll have future business from some of the other commenter's children.

The biggest trick is to remember that teaching your child to eat well is a long term goal, not a short term "get those two bites of broccoli down the gullet." Vegetables, while important, aren't the only nutritious thing a child eats. If your child eats a variety of plant foods, fruits, whole grains, legumes, etc. just don't worry about the lack of green veggies.

Keep serving vegetables and eating and enjoying them yourself, but don't pay any attention to whether or not they are eaten by your child. Eventually your children are likely to eat what you eat. Serve veggies with fat and in an appealing manner, but remember children are more sensitive to taste, texture, and smell and vegetables are strong in all of those.

To those of you in the "eat your vegetables or else" club, please re-think your position to what it means long term to making your children like vegetables and being a well balanced eater, and the SUCH little nutrition the few mouthfuls of greens forced down do for a growing child.

Posted by: NutritionistMom | April 14, 2009 1:47 PM | Report abuse

My child-of-eating-age is still pretty young so we're just implementing rules. We started off by offering a wide range of foods, and still do. We take zir out to eat a lot (once or twice a week sometimes) and offer zir a wide range. We'd give zir a bit of whatever - tofu, miso soup, rice, zucchini, chicken, whatever we were eating - and see what happened. Zir first raw fish sushi happened when ze stole some off my spouse's plate! (My experience is that casual Asian and Latin restaurants are the most kid-friendly.)

I think it helps that the grownups eat a lot of produce. Our child sees us eating stir-fries, and chard, and romaine, and fruit by the truckload, and tomatoes, and so on. Ze loves to dip foods into dip; I can only assume ze got it from us since, again, this is something we do all the time. The kid LOVES hummus. Ze also loves "helping" me cook dinner, which increases the chances ze will try the results. We're growing veggies this year in the same hopes.

So far there are two rules. One is that ze can't have chocolate or ice cream unless ze's eaten reasonably well as defined by a parent (since ze likes fruit a lot, usually this means enough protein). We're starting with "You don't have to like it but you do have to take a taste" but enforcement depends on circumstance. Enforcement will get stricter as ze gets older.

An enticement that works well is that "You need to eat (whatever) to keep growing big and strong, so your baby sibling doesn't catch up with you." My child enjoys knowing how a food is good for zir, so new foods are often an educational experience. Ze likes the idea of growing up big and strong.

This all said, we don't insist ze eat and if a meal ends up being all crackers or only a mini pizza bagel, we go with it. We really want to avoid setting up our kids to be weird about food. It's not an easy balance sometimes and we won't know the final outcome for a decade or more. Keep your fingers crossed for us.

Posted by: fitday19550 | April 14, 2009 2:14 PM | Report abuse

No Fairlington, I don't think you are being deceitful for adding an "Ancient Chinese Secret" to your culinary platters,... As long as it tastes a little bit like chicken, you're in the clear. Ha!

Seriously though, I don't think anybody can *TRICK* a kid into eating a well-balanced diet through hidden ingredience, nor do I see the point of trying to do so.

Posted by: WhackyWeasel | April 14, 2009 3:20 PM | Report abuse

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