The only vegetables I ate as a child were frozen corn, raw carrots, and the occasional iceberg lettuce leaf. Although it is fair to say that my own children are more open minded with food, this is not really saying much. A year ago, they would eat frozen peas, green beans and sweet potato French fries in addition to my limited childhood list. Anything other than salt is still way too exotic, and sauces are out of the question. I know there are children out there who will eat almost anything, so a big high five (with a whopping dose of envy) to those parents. If this is you, you can stop reading here and get back to cooking that Moroccan Tagine that your entire family will enjoy together tonight. As for the rest of you, lean in. I have some serious intel from the front lines: shapes matter.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not the mom that makes Olaf-shaped pancakes and carves carrot slices into hearts, but I have discovered that changing the shape of a vegetable into something familiar completely changes children’s resistance to eating it. My children would never eat a stir-fried zucchini slice, finding it too watery and tasteless. Enter the julienne peeler. This contraption costs about $10, and creates thin, ‘noodle-like’ strips when scraped against the veggie of choice. When used on a zucchini (stop when you hit the seeds), these little strips sauté quickly, and are very tasty topped with olive oil and sea salt (or pesto). The ever-popular ‘spiralizer’ also capitalizes on the vegetable noodle trend. I like the spiralizer best for firm root vegetables such as sweet potatoes (think baked curly fries), but my favorite is with beets. My children would never touch a roasted beet, but when it is spiralized into tiny noodles, tossed with a little oil and salt and roasted, the beet noodles become chewy and caramelize in a way that converts any and all beet-haters.
Similarly, the ‘rice’ shape is familiar and meets little resistance. Most children (and many adults) want nothing to do with cauliflower, but when the flowerets are run through the shredder blade of a food processor, they look very similar to rice. Stir-fried in in a little oil until fully cooked then lightly salted, this creates a side dish that even picky eaters are surprisingly happy with. For the more adventurous, cauliflower rice lends very well to any ‘pilaf’ preparation.
Finally, I am convinced that if I cut an old shoe into the shape of a French fry and baked it, kids would eat it. Rutabagas? Turnips? No problem. Both have been eagerly consumed when peeled, cut to mimic French fries, tossed with oil and roasted. In addition, a peeled and seeded delicate squash that is sliced lengthwise and then chopped into half-moons is not quite a French fry shape, but the similar taste stands in any day, and is actually preferred in our house.
With summer and its bounty of vegetables rapidly approaching, I salute you, my fellow family cooks in the trenches, and wish you luck in the never ending quest to fill bellies, support health, and produce dinnertime smiles.