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What to do when your kids won't eat their veggies

Get your kids to eat their fruits and veggies

Ask most parents what the most popular vegetable is among children and the answer will most likely be French fries. Well, they are made with potatoes, right? Enticing kids to eat broccoli, lima beans and kale ranks right up there with potty training on the scale of parental challenges.

“She used to eat all types of veggies – carrots, peas, edamame – so it’s so frustrating for me now that she won’t,” says Beacon mom Aimee Brower of her 3-year-old daughter Isabella. “Now she’ll eat only some things, including mashed potatoes and French fries, but I don’t really consider those vegetables.”

Poor nutrition makes people more vulnerable to diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer, says Poughkeepsie-based nutritionist Lisa Appolonia, R.D., so teaching kids a healthy lifestyle should start as soon as possible.

“The key is not to tell your kids to eat vegetables and then not eat them yourself,” says Appolonia. “Children do as we do. If we can lead by example by eating fruits and vegetables every day, they will follow.”

The chances of a child having a healthy lifestyle are greater if exposure to whole foods, which have combinations of nutrients, happens early. The foods that are in season are typically what your body needs right now, says Appolonia. So, winter is the time to introduce root vegetables, while spring and summer mean the introduction of more water-filled veggies like tomatoes, celery, peas and beans.

As kids grow, they change physically and developmentally, and those changes can affect everything in their lives – including the way they eat. According to the USDA (My Plate), a healthy diet is one that emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fat-free or low-fat milk and milk products; includes lean meats, poultry, fish, beans, eggs and nuts; and is low in saturated fats, trans fats, cholesterol, salt and added sugars.

Parents can check the Baylor College of Medicine USDA/ARS Children's Nutrition Research Center, for information on food pyramids, calorie intake and more. On the site’s Healthy Eating Plan Calculator, you can enter your child's age, height and weight to get snapshot of their current Health Status. You can also find games and activities to encourage your little ones to eat healthy foods.

Making sure your child gets the recommended five daily servings of fruit and vegetables may sound impossible, but a little perseverance can go a long way. “Try a certain veggie a few times over two months, but don’t make a big deal about it,” says Appolonia. “If they truly don’t like it, let it go. They might not like it ever. Offer a variety and, eventually, they should catch up with their eating habits.”

READ MORE: Healthy bodies, healthy brains

Millions of taste buds mean vegetables taste different to everyone. Kids might not like the same fruits and vegetables that you like, and that needs to be honored, Appolonia adds. “But if you model good eating habits, your children are likely to follow and grow up with a healthy diet.”

Cold Spring mom Eileen Denehy and her husband eat vegetables and salad at every meal, but their 3-year-old son William won’t. Denehy doesn’t force vegetables on William since his pediatrician is satisfied with William’s diet and his height and weight. Unlike his 15-month-old sister Louise, who tries nearly anything, William is a picky eater and won’t eat foods that are “mixed.”

“There’s really no way to hide veggies in any of the things he eats,” says Denehy, who gives her son vegetable and fruit juice along with a multi-vitamin. “I can’t make special accommodations for his limited diet, so if he doesn’t want to try something, I don’t make him. I do always offer him what we are having in case, some day, he changes his mind!”

Brower and Denehy are like many parents whose children like “plain” food that isn’t mixed or touching another food. “She won’t eat veggies with cheese sauce or dips, macaroni and cheese, or pasta sauce that has vegetables,” says Brower, whose second child is due in June, “so I can’t hide purees in the sauces.”

So, the new wave of pureeing vegetables and hiding them in everything from spaghetti to brownies may not be an option in their kitchen. Cookbooks like The Sneaky Chef, by Missy Lapine, and Deceptively Delicious, by Jessica Seinfeld, teach parents to make purees to hide in breads, cakes, drinks, sauces, and more.

And, yes, Jessica Seinfield is comedian Jerry Seinfeld’s wife. But, in the long run, children need to learn to try new foods, since no one will be there in 20 years to make sure the cauliflower is hidden in the mashed potatoes. Isabella’s only concession – mushrooms and onions. As long as they’re combined with pepperoni and sausage on her favorite pizza!