It wasn't until I'd heard about Jessica Seinfeld's book that shares the secrets of how to hide vegetables in children's food , that I became aware that it was something I did for my own kids instinctively. When I started giving my babies solids, I vowed to feed them the best way that I could, and this meant freezing ice cubes of pureed fruit and vegetables and lovingly-dicing meat into tiny little pieces so that each meal was a sensation for their developing palates. Little did I know that my idea of a flavour bomb was not the same as theirs. Children's palates differ from ours because they have double the amount of taste buds. They gradually lose half of their 10,000 taste buds as they grow, to end up with about 5000, which explains how as adults, we come to enjoy stronger flavours. Kids have little tolerance for bitter flavours which can get in the way of their vegetable consumption, particularly the green ones. And as most mothers know - that list of what they don't like seems endless sometimes.
So how can we address the infant and toddler question of taste? Like Jessica Seinfeld says, "hide pureed vegetables and other healthful ingredients – “food that my kids wouldn’t touch in their natural form” – in proven kid-pleasing dishes". This is a great way to improve nutrition but it's only half the battle. If we continue to feed our children food with hidden nutrition, how will they ever learn to enjoy eating vegetables? That's why a two-pronged attack and inhuman levels of persistence will triumph in the struggle of toddler vs. vegetable.
Strategy 1 - the enemy within; veg by stealth
• Frozen portions of spinach are a fabulous and really easy way to add rich, greenery to a meal. Because the flavour is mild, they won't taste it, and with long cooking the colour will become less green, and therefore less obvious to suspicious little eyes. Broccoli and zucchini are also great, as they're mild in flavour and will cook down to become almost invisible.
• Grated vegetables. If it can be grated it can be slipped in with almost any meal. Try grating carrot and zucchini into your bolognaise, and make the sauce using a can of tomatoes and not just concentrate - that way they're getting the benefit of tomatoes as well. Try grating butternut squash or pumpkin into a creamy cheese sauce, it will add colour but they won't suspect it at all.
• If time is frequently not on your side, have a supply of blanched and pureed mixed vegetables on hand (freeze small portions in an ice-cube tray) and simply throw a few into every meal, whether it's a risotto or a roast. Puree can be added to gravy and go undetected. Use vegetables like carrot, broccoli, cauliflower, pumpkin, green beans, celery, corn and beetroot. The key is stealth, so don't use pureed beets in a white sauce or risotto or it's sure to be queried.
• Roll it into a ball, crumb and fry and serve with ketchup. Works every time. Using a boiled and mashed potato base, using a little egg and breadcrumbs to bind, you can include anything from mashed broccoli cauliflower, pumpkin and carrot, finely sliced beans, tinned tuna or salmon and cheese. Avoid watery vegetables like zucchini or tomato, as this will just make it mushy.
Strategy 2 - Hiding in plain site; veg on the plate
• Choose meals that lend themselves to vegetables like saucy pasta meals, stir-fries, risottos and fritters.
• As they get older, place emphasis on the colour of mixed vegetables. Call a risotto made with celery, red capsicum, carrot, beans, peas and corn Rainbow Rice.
• Fight a battle you can win by starting small and nailing your technique. Place three perfectly cooked green beans and carrots batons on their plate and insist they're eaten. You could try salting them lightly and drizzling with a little olive oil or butter. Make sure they're cooked to perfection, so that they taste the best they possibly can, sweet and with a little crunch.
• Keep it simple. Broccoli and potato, mixed with salt and olive oil. Try it. It might not be their favourite meal but it can become one of those healthy sides that you can serve up with protein like salmon, pork or a lovely piece of steak.
• Serve sliced vegetables like red pepper, celery and carrot sticks on a plate with some hummus and some raisins and sticks of cheese. Presenting vegetables as a snack is an excellent way to build up their enjoyment of raw produce.
• To the French, food is important. The quality and the way the food is cooked plays a key role in their culinary education and cultural inclination from a very young age. By regularly serving up good-tasting, nicely-cooked vegetables they will develop a taste for them. Once they've got used to beans and carrots, try serving up a sweet, crunchy corn on the cob. Buy corn in the husk when you can and simply wrap in foil and cook in a moderate oven for about 30-40 minutes for the sweetest, juiciest corn you'll ever taste. Introduce broccoli, cauliflower, and use baby spinach on sandwiches instead of lettuce.
The important thing is not to be too hard on yourself or your child. With such sensitive little taste buds, it's likely they're not supposed to be eating as wide a variety of food as adults. Nature tends to have things pretty sorted out when it comes to health and this is one instance where I think going slow and introducing new foods occasionally with their developing palate is the best route when it comes to kids and vegetables.
By Lara Cory, Food Writer and author of Feedingtimeblog.com