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If You Lead a Student to Vegetables, Will They Eat Them?

Posted Apr 17 2013 2:26pm
"No! I won't taste it... I hate cauliflower!" She pushed the white vegetable away from the other foods on the plate. "But just try it," I urged. "It doesn't taste like the stuff you get in school. I roasted it with lots of spices."

My 22-year-old cousin then forked up a micro-piece of the vegetable and tasted it. "Not bad... maybe I will eat it."

I thought of this scenario when reading about the struggle schools are going through to get their students to eat vegetables from the school lunch menu. As part of a campaign to reduce childhood obesity, the federal government established new guidelines for school lunches. Corndogs and other deep-fried foods are now replaced by lean protein, and students are asked to eat a vegetable or fruit and drink fat-free milk rather than sodas and sugar-filled juices.

An article in the Miami Herald described the resistance and dismay of many students at seeing their beloved Pop-Tarts, potato chips and French fries replaced with salad bars, apple slices and brown rice. It is not clear who or what is getting filled up with these healthier choices of vegetables and fruits: the students or the trash cans. A student journalist from a high school in north Miami, for example, reported that the kids are eating the main course, but dumping the vegetables and fruits in the trash. As quoted in the newspaper, the student claimed that these foods are thrown away because they don't look appealing.

Not surprisingly, it is the older students who reject the vegetable and fruit. Perhaps, like my cousin, they once ate some of these vegetables and found the texture and the taste at best boring, and more likely revolting. One taste of an overcooked, under-seasoned vegetable will eliminate any desire to try it again; it is easier simply to throw it away. Indeed, according to the newspaper report, the younger students are the ones most willing to try the foods on the new school menu. Perhaps because they have never tried them before? Who knows? But what seems to work with them is to allow them to sample the salads, fruits and vegetables at the beginning of the school year.

It is important that at some point, before any of these kids grow up and have families of their own, vegetables and fruits become a basic component of their daily food intake. And if they are not eating these foods at home (many teens don't even eat meals at home, preferring to get their meals from fast-food franchises), then school is the first and last resort.Could the solution be to develop school lunch menus in which vegetables are concealed, or given more prominence and more taste?

Concealing vegetables and indeed fruit is easy; every mother with a child who won't eat carrots or peas knows how to cook these and other vegetables in a spaghetti sauce or pureed soup or slow-cooked stew. Muffins and breads are wonderful foods in which to hide vegetables and fruit. Carrot, apple, pumpkin, cranberry, zucchini bread or muffins could be added to the school lunch menu to meet the grain and vegetable or fruit requirements. Meatloaf and sloppy joes make good hiding places for vegetables, and smoothies are perfect for concealing any fruit that can be blended into yogurt. At home, my son used to call my baked breakfast treats Wonder Muffins, as he and his sister would wonder aloud what I concealed in the batter. I never told.

It is not always necessary to hide these essential food groups. If kids won't eat fresh fruit, they might eat it frozen. Frozen blueberries, thinly-sliced apples, pears, strawberries and peaches have a cold, crunchy, sweet flavor and are fun to eat. Bananas dipped in a fat-free chocolate sauce and then frozen are nutritious substitutes for ice cream, and frozen orange wedges taste as good as an orange popsicle.

Increasing the chances that vegetables will be eaten and not thrown away, it's important that they both taste good and are fun to eat. Here are some suggestions to make this goal a consumable reality, in that your teens might actually make the Herculean effort to try
Lettuce wrapped around a mixture of well-seasoned chicken, or beef and vegetables;

Thai or Chinese vegetables, meat, noodle vegetable dishes with appropriate spices;

Spicy dipping sauces (low-calorie) for vegetables normally ignored such as string beans, carrot sticks, and cauliflower;

Lasagna made with spinach and low-fat ricotta cheese;

Thin slivers of roasted sweet potatoes will taste like French fries without the fat and with more vitamins; and

Roasted cauliflower, broccoli, carrots, peppers and/or winter squash, when sprinkled with a small amount of melted cheese, are infinitely more appealing than the steamed or boiled variety. Indeed, almost every vegetable improves from roasting, including, I have been told, kale.

One device to improve the odds of a new vegetable dish being consumed and not thrown away is to have someone serve tiny samples of a new dish before the students go through the line. One look at the sample tables in the warehouse bulk stores reveals that tasting a tiny amount of anything hooks a prospective consumer far more than having it plopped on a plate. Perhaps the school lunch ladies will be willing to multitask in the name of vitamins and good health, cajoling with samples in an effort to improve a vegetable's chances of being eaten.

These techniques will hopefully work to change the food habits of many students. But even if a few students can stop eating Doritos for lunch and eat a lettuce wrap of chicken and vegetables instead, success will be achieved, one green at a time.
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