Raising our children as vegans offers a lot of obvious benefits. They’ll avoid the naturally occurring hormones found in all dairy; they’ll never be exposed to the carcinogens and saturated animal fats present in meat; their food will be full of fiber, healthy plant fats, and protective antioxidants. And since vegan parents tend more towards home-cooked and whole-foods-based meals, vegan children often accept a wider range of foods and flavors than their omnivorous, mac-n-cheese munching counterparts.
However, that doesn’t mean the wee vegans are immune to developmentally appropriate phases . . . such as the many incarnations of “food fussiness.” So if your pint-sized plant-eater has become a picky eater, or if even if you’re just looking for ways to incorporate more fruits and vegetables into your child’s diet, here are five surefire techniques to get them interested – dare I say even enthusiastic – about eating plants.
1. Grow It
There is nothing quite like the pleasure of watching your child work in their garden. The delight on their face as they uncover berries, snap off snow peas, and pluck perfectly ripe tomatoes, warm with summer sunlight, is enough to melt a mother’s heart. Gardening is an abundant teaching opportunity too, with lessons about the life cycle (and death), nurturing, consistency, planning ahead, long-term rewards, and so much more. And of course, your child will feel ownership and satisfaction for the food they’ve grown. A spoonful of sugar may help with the medicine, but a spadefull of pride works a certain magic in helping the kale go down. And for all you apartment-dwellers, you can grow so much on a patio or a windowsill. Look into container gardening!
2. Learn It
As parents we understand: there’s a lesson in everything. Keep this is mind as you navigate your way through mealtime and meal prep. Children love to learn and they enjoy things more when they understand them. For the tiniest tots, use food to teach simple concepts: “What color is the tomato?” “What shape is the orange?” “Can we put all the different colors on your plate?” “Okay, now taste the green one!” And so on. For older tykes, tell them about each vegetable, try counting games and age-appropriate math, and add plenty of fun facts and trivia: “Beets are roots that grow underground, and berries are fruits that grow on bushes. Both are colored because of their pigments, which actually keep us healthy when we eat them!” “There are 5 carrots on your plate. Can you eat two? Now how many are left?” “Did you know that broccoli are actually little flowers? Look closely at them and see. Edible flowers!” Allow yourself to get creative and really have fun with it.
3. Shop It
Involve your kids in the buying process, and watch them perk up and take interest. The grocery store produce aisle is fine and fun, but your local Farmer’s Market will really get them excited. The hustle and bustle and energy and enthusiasm of a Farmer’s Market is simply contagious. Wherever you end up going, frame it as a fun family outing, not as a “shopping trip”. Let them look over all the fruits and veggies, explaining to them about how food will change with the seasons and about the hundreds of varieties that exist for each species. We like to make a game: find a brand new food each time we visit the market. Lemon cucumbers, ramps, wild mushrooms, purple carrots, garlic scapes . . . there are so many amazing heirloom varieties out there to try. Let your children do the choosing. You may just be surprised by their healthy selections!
4. Make It
Along the same lines as gardening, preparing their own food gives children a sense of control, which is empowering and exciting. They’ll be much more likely to try a dish that they’ve had a hand in creating. And there’s a “helpful” task for every age. You’ve probably figured out by now that a set of measuring cups is the bestest, most funnest, most interesting baby toy ever, right? Nesting bowls, measuring spoons, and other kitchen utensils spread out on the floor will keep the littlest ones present and engaged while you cook around them. This sort of exposure may seem unimportant, but growing up “in the kitchen” is invaluable for forming positive associations with real, healthy food. As they age you can involve them more. My toddler loves to push the button on the coffee grinder (we use it for flax seeds and spices) and to work the salad spinner and to steal celery stalks when I’m not looking. When he’s a bit older I’ll give him produce to wash, corn to shuck, peas to shell, and batter to stir. Eventually your kids can help you chop and blend, knead dough and stir stovetop dishes. The kitchen is a perfect place to get in some good, quality time with your family.
5. Gift It
Sharing is caring! And whether they’ll admit it or not, children take their leads from the adults around them. When they see the genuine joy cross the face of someone who’s just received a gift of food, they’ll want to eat that food as well – just you watch and see! So get them in the kitchen helping you pickle your cucumbers, ferment your cabbage into sauerkraut, create a spicy kimchi, and can some sugar-free fruit preserves. Then package them all up pretty and present them to your friends and family. It’s a wonderful way to teach generosity and to show that healthy food can be just as celebratory as the junky stuff.
By incorporating these five ideas into your daily life, your kids will learn healthy eating habits while developing a deep sense of joy and appreciation for real, home-cooked, whole plant foods. But this is just the beginning! I’m sure you’ve all got your own great tricks, so share them in the comments. We could all use a few extra tips!