Playing with your food

Getting kids to eat more vegetables can be a real challenge. Most vegetables aren’t naturally sweet or salty, two things that draw many of us to specific foods, and some have strong flavors that can take time to learn to appreciate. So, the best thing you can do to build a desire to eat more vegetables more often is to start early. People begin to develop food preferences during the first few years of life, and those preferences often last a lifetime. That’s why you want to make sure you’re offering a variety of vegetables to your very young children as often as possible.

If your children are a bit older, take a minute and think about what vegetables you want the children you love to eat more often. Then find ways to make those foods fun to eat. Who ever said mealtimes had to be serious? Let’s face it, one thing all kids love to do is play, so why not let your child play with food? There are loads of ways to do that.

Think about the success millions of parents have enjoyed by pretending the food on an infant spoon was an airplane as it zoomed into the child’s mouth. That sort of fun doesn’t have to end after children move out of high chairs. Why not do simple things like pretend it’s snowing (grated parmesan cheese) on your broccoli “trees”? Or arrange the food into a design. It could be as simple as an egg shape or a smiley face. It could also be more complex, like using mashed potatoes for the base of a landscape full of cauliflower or asparagus “trees” your children will need to cut down and then grind with their teeth. A spoon could also be a boat ferrying pea “pets” or “monster” carrots into their mouths.

If your child loves make believe, make why not make an adventure on a dinner plate? You can develop all sorts of stories for why those vegetables need to race off their plate and into their tummies. Make it a game and use characters they know and love. Think back to the days when kids wanted to eat spinach so they could be as strong as Popeye the Sailor.

However, while you might use several different vegetables in those designs and adventures, you’ll probably want to cook most of the vegetables separately before serving them, and you may want the child to help put the design together. That’s because many kids don’t like it when different foods touch, unless they decide the foods should touch.

If you don’t feel like playing games you can also try one of the quick and easy things that work with a lot of kids. Just let your child sprinkle vegetables with something, like shredded cheddar cheese, salsa or a chopped up herb. Or simply let your child dip raw vegetables into something. That doesn’t have to be ranch dressing, a common choice. Why not puree other vegetables and use that as a dip? Or use yogurt or hummus? These are very easy ways to encourage children to eat more vegetables.

However, probably the very best way to get kids to eat more vegetables is to teach them how to grow vegetables and then to use those vegetables in tasty recipes.

Gardens don’t have to be huge undertakings. You can start very small with a small container garden. Just let your child help select seeds, plant them, and then care for the plants throughout the growing season. Then make sure you and your child together harvest what you sowed.

Your children will probably be extremely excited to help prepare the vegetables they grew, so let them clean the vegetables they harvested and do as much of the rest of the food prep work as is reasonable for their ages and ability levels. Most young kids can scrub a carrot, husk corn, tear lettuce or snap beans with a just little help. Older kids can do more.

Just think about how proud they will be to serve the rest of the family a dish they not only helped grow, but also helped to prepare. Imagine how much more excited they will be to eat these vegetables.

Did you know that if your family receives SNAP benefits, you can purchase vegetable seeds with those benefits? Your food dollar will stretch much further if you grow your own. Did you also know that if you are struggling to make ends meet, but don’t currently receive SNAP benefits, you may be eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance program? SNAP helps low-income people buy nutritious food and beverages.To find out more about SNAP benefit eligibility call 1-800-342-3009, apply online for SNAP benefits at, or contact your local social services office.

Make mealtimes fun and involve the children you love in lots of positive experiences with vegetables – from growing, to preparing, serving and eating them. Before you know it, they’ll be clamoring to eat healthy, nutritious foods more often.

You can find lots more nutrition information at and for more ideas to improve your family’s health, call 664-9502 ext. 217 or visit to learn more about the Cornell University Cooperative Extension’s Eat Smart New York program.

You can bet the kids in your life will love assembling and eating pizza made with ingredients they grew or selected themselves. You can also easily modify this recipe to include more vegetables, like fresh tomatoes, onions, broccoli, spinach or other family favorites.

Patty Hammond leads Family and Consumer Science Programs at Cornell University Cooperative Extension of Chautauqua County. She writes for the OBSERVER?monthly. Comments on this article may be directed to

Mini Veggie Pizza

5 English muffins (or bagels)

1 small zucchini

1 green or red pepper

8-ounce package part-skim mozzarella cheese

8-ounce can of tomato sauce

1/2 teaspoon dry oregano


Slice English muffins in half. Place them on a baking sheet, and toast lightly in oven or toaster oven.

Wash zucchini and bell pepper. Grate zucchini. Chop pepper into small pieces.

Grate mozzarella cheese.

Top each muffin half with 1 tablespoon of tomato sauce. Add grated zucchini, chopped pepper, and grated cheese. Sprinkle with oregano.

Broil in oven until cheese is melted (about 2 minutes).

Yields about 10 servings

Nutrition Facts: Serving Size 1 pizza muffin (3.2 ounces), 140 Calories, 45 Calories from Fat, 5g Total Fat, 32.1% Calories from Fat, 3g Saturated Fat, 0g Trans Fat, 10mg Cholesterol, 350mg Sodium, 16g Total Carbohydrate, 2g Dietary Fiber, 2g Sugars, 9g Protein, 6% Vitamin A, 20% Calcium, 25% Vitamin C, 6% Iron

Source: Sisters in Health: A Nutrition Program for Women. Division of Nutritional Sciences, Cornell University and Cornell Cooperative Extension, 1999. Recipe adapted from Susan Kessler, Healthy Heart Snack Choices Resource Guide (Plainview, NY: Cornell Cooperative Extension of Nassau County, 1995)