This is a guest post by Parents staffer Brooke Bunce.
As Melissa d'Arabian, host of Food Network's Ten Dollar Dinners, preps a row of different dishes for an ogling panel of onlookers (myself included), she whips out information and facts about vegetables faster than you can say "picky eater."
"Only 28 percent of dinners have vegetables in them," she explains while shaking a sizzling skillet of orange chicken. This statistic came as a bit of a shock to me, until I tried racking my brain for the last time I had a dinner that contained an abundance of veggies. Do the onions and garlic in pasta sauce count? I wondered ruefully.
Melissa, the winner of the fifth season of Food Network Star and a mother of four daughters from ages 7 to 9, is a resident expert when it comes to getting kids to try new foods. Along with her web series, The Picky Eaters Project, Melissa has also teamed up with Bird's Eye Vegetables for the Step Up To The Plate campaign, a movement to push kids (and parents) to incorporate more veggies into their daily diet.
According to a report from The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 9 out of 10 children don't eat the recommended amount of vegetables. And we all know how tough it can be to make a plate of steamed carrots and cauliflower look appealing to kids, the toughest food critics of all. Sometimes pretending those broccoli florets are "trees" just doesn't cut it.
So what's the solution? Melissa is equipped with a full set of straightforward strategies and tricks to ease your child into unfamiliar veggie territory.
Add the familiar to the unfamiliar
To round out her plate of orange chicken, Melissa used a bag of stir-fry veggie mix, which contains veggies that her kids know and love, such as carrots and peas, to introduce other, more unfamiliar choices too, like water chestnuts and mushrooms.
"If you piggyback the new with something familiar, it makes kids more willing to try something out," she says. "If it's on the plate, chances are that they'll try it eventually, maybe without even knowing it!" Plus, the chicken dish includes a sauce that uses fresh orange juice to create a flavor profile that kids recognize and enjoy.
Develop positive relationships with vegetables (and food in general)
As a celebrity chef, Melissa is used to explaining what's in the dish she's serving. The same goes for her daughters, who "present" each dish before the family digs in. "If we have our kids just saying the words, talking about the food, they feel like they own part of it," she says.
Moreover, Melissa has her kids help with dinner prep whenever possible. Even if they don't eat everything that's on their plate, it's still worthwhile for them to gain positive memories in the kitchen, she explains. Her oldest daughter Valentine loves to prepare salads but still isn't too keen on actually eating them. "This is OK though, because once she decides to try eating salad, she'll be way more likely to actually enjoy it since she'll remember always helping me make it," Melissa says.
Help kids overcome their "fear" of certain vegetables
A major factor that contributes to picky eating is the fear of the unknown, Melissa says. "Always have something kids know and like on the table so they don't get so freaked out about new foods," she advises. "The victory is that there's something on the plate they don't like and they're not freaking out!"
If they don't eat something one day, the chance that eventually your kids will try it is significantly higher if they see it over and over again.
Recognize the small victories
Conquering the great vegetable challenge is all about recognizing the tiny successes, even if they seem insignificant at the time. All veggies are good veggies, as Melissa puts it, and it's important not to gloss over those times when your kid takes a nibble of something new, even if he doesn't instantly gobble it up.
Keep at it!
Most importantly, don't think that change will happen overnight, Melissa says. The best strategy is to just remain patient and calm. "It's a continuous work in progress," she says. "It's a balance between feeling good about vegetables and actually eating vegetables daily."