My boys are now 7 and 3, and they’re pretty good eaters. Actually, they’re kind of awesome, but it wasn’t always that way. The big one ate everything until he was 18 months, then boycotted vegetables for almost two years. I freaked out about it, worried that he was going to be deprived of all essential vitamins, and experimented with sneaking vegetables into his diet. (Zucchini muffins were the only place I had any success.) But sure enough, by the time he was four he just started eating the vegetables that we had been putting on his plate night after night, year after year. I was of the mindset that I would rather offer the food and toss it (yes, wasteful in some eyes,) than give in to the notion that this toddler had control over what I served. He ate what we ate. Period. Or at least he was served what we ate, because he certainly didn’t always eat it. But you know something? I now have a second grader who is a very expensive dinner date. When we go to restaurants he gets insulted when he’s offered the kids’ menu, because he’d rather have the mussels with fries than chicken fingers, or seared ahi tuna with wasabi wonton chips instead of mac and cheese. Truthfully, he can be a bit of a snob about it, and we have to remind him that the the kids’ menu is not just dumbed down food but portions that are sized appropriately for his appetite. But he’s proud of himself for being adventurous, and that’s pretty cool.
And then there’s my little guy, who was a big pain in the rear end for the first year and a half of his life. He was a preemie, so it wasn’t really his fault, but let me tell you that doesn’t make it any easier when you’re the parent. The short story is that he was six weeks early and hadn’t had a chance to cook long enough, and so he had a whole bunch of delays. He was exhausted all the time, because he couldn’t self-soothe. Which meant that until he was 14 months old he only slept in stretches that were 45-90 minutes, and then he would wake and need help going back to sleep. He was constantly cranky, and so was I. He also had sensory issues, and one way they manifested was in a difficulty with textures, specifically foods. So while he nursed and had his formula, he had zero interest in solids. He barely ate anything for a very long time, and took teeny to a whole new level. And when he finally did start eating, he was picky. And for a while I indulged it in ways I hadn’t with his brother. He also pulled the whole “no vegetable” thing for a couple of years. (Maybe I could get spinach and carrots into him if they were in fruit smoothies encased in refillable solid plastic squeeze pouches so he wouldn’t see the dreaded green color, but that was about it.) But after a while with early intervention, and simply more time left on his own to develop, he started sleeping regularly, and everything started to get better. We all began to feel human again, because sleep deprivation is an unbearable form of torture (as any new parent can tell you.) Then sure enough, one day he said, “Mom, can I have that carrot?” A real, crunchy, orange carrot. And he ate it. Because he saw us eating them, and because that’s what’s normal for our family. And now he’s 3 and a half, and he doesn’t get any special treatment when it comes to food. I think I’ve finally even convinced his grandparents that they can stop prepping pasta as a backup every time they bring over chicken curry, because he may scrunch up his face and say it’s spicy, but he just reaches for his water, takes a sip, and keeps on eating.
Now I don’t write this to brag, because I’ve had more than my share of food headaches and fails when it comes to my kids. And I don’t have any magic advice, except to just keep putting the food you want them to eat onto their plates. We don’t force them to eat everything, but we are very insistent that they take at least one bite. Because maybe they didn’t like peppers last week, but this week their tastes may have changed. And yes, we resort to bribing. I’m not proud, but it’s true. And if there’s parents out there who don’t, I want to meet you because I don’t know how you do it. We absolutely pull the “there won’t be dessert” card, or the “you’re done with dinner then” line, and there can be crying and fussing, then I worry that I’m causing horrible food issues down the road. But really, I think it’s worked. And I think a big part of that is because the food is mostly home cooked, so they recognize the work that’s gone into preparing it. And for that I have to give credit to Brian, because he always reminds them, “You need to thank Mommy for making this for us.” Oh, and when we’re at a restaurant the line of choice is, “If you’re not going to try that, do you want me to go tell the chef you don’t like it?” That seems to work too somehow.
Which all goes to say, I’m not really one for tricking kids into thinking there’s no vegetables in a dish. But I am all for including them in unexpected ways that may make them more appealing, or just no big deal. So when I was paging through the cookbook “Jerusalem,” by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamini, and I saw a turkey burger recipe with shredded zucchini stuffed into it I knew I had to make it. Turkey burgers are our go-to weeknight dinner, but even though they make everyone happy time and again, they can get boring. And since everything these guys write about makes my mouth water, these hit the top of my to-make list….