Getting children to eat vegetables — especially those notoriously kid-repellent dark green leafy ones — can be harder than saying “arugula” three times fast. For families attempting to eat local produce in season and trying not to fall back on baby carrots from California or corn on the cob in winter, the difficulty intensifies in spring and autumn, when local farm markets and community-supported agriculture (CSA) boxes overflow with spinach, kale, Swiss chard and arugula. It’s enough to perplex the most committed locavore. I mean, what can one do with a five-year-old and a heap of collards?
Even local farmers admit it’s not easy. “Getting my kids to eat dark green leafy vegetables is harder than one might expect, me being a farmer and all,” says Kirsten Reinford, farm manager at Joshua Farm in Harrisburg. “People need to know the truth: They’re not alone in this.” Jon Weaver-Kreider of Goldfinch Farm in eastern York County says there was a time when his three-year-old would eat almost any vegetable. “That time has ended,” Weaver-Kreider states bluntly. “Now he’s very sensitive to green things in casseroles and soups, and he makes us pull them out.”
But the nutritional benefits of spinach and its lesser-known cousins suggest the effort is worth it. Dark green leafies such as kale, collards, arugula, bok choy, cabbage, beet and turnip greens and chard are “some of the most nutrient-rich vegetables,” according to registered dietitian Audrey Hess from Gettysburg. (Nutritional powerhouses such as broccoli and Brussels sprouts are in the same family as collards and kale, and are often considered dark green leafies, even though people normally eat the flower rather than the leaf.) The nutrients these vegetables contain — such as fiber, folate, Vitamin C, beta carotene, Vitamin K, magnesium, iron, calcium, phytochemicals and antioxidants — provide a host of health benefits, including cancer prevention, weight management and cardiovascular, bone and immune-system health.
Hess, coordinator of the Adams County Local Foods Network, says dark green leafy vegetables are also quite versatile: Tender young leaves can be used in salads, and most can be simply sautéed in a little olive oil and garlic. Some parents report luck getting greens into children by adding sautéed raisins, and Hess says her son has been known to eat collard greens if they’re splashed with balsamic vinegar right before serving.
Hess says she generally avoids the “hide it or disguise it” school of child nourishment, popularized by Jessica Seinfeld’s cookbook Deceptively Delicious. Strategies such as sneaking puréed spinach into spaghetti sauce or puréed cauliflower into macaroni and cheese may get nutrients into children’s bodies, but they do little in terms of exposing kids to different tastes and textures. “I want my kids to know what they’re eating, and to know their tastes,” says Hess. “It’s important to expose children to a wide variety of flavors, and also to respect that they have taste preferences.”
This second philosophy — simply serving greens to children undisguised — might prove less successful in the short run, but in the long run may help children diversify their tastes. Reinford says a recent volunteer at Joshua Farm joked that he taught his kids “to eat their vegetables naked”: without cheese or dip or seasonings. And then there’s always the “play with your food” option, she says, like making edible vegetable “faces” with spinach hair and carrot eyes. Weaver-Kreider says he grows one variety of Swiss chard specifically for its visual appeal, and that the yellow, purple, pink and bright red stems might convince some children to at least taste them. For many parents, whatever happens to work on a particular day with a particular child is the best strategy.
Although typically grown in Central PA in spring and fall, leafy greens can be available all year round. Hearty varieties like spinach and collards and kale can be grown in a cold frame over winter — Reinford says many greens actually taste better after there’s been frost — and chard and certain lettuces can stand up to summer heat. As autumn approaches, however, stacks of dark leafy greens begin making a more pronounced appearance at local markets and in CSA shares. And parents across the midstate stand at their kitchen counters, holding spears of kale or bunches of spinach and wondering, “What in the world can I make with this that my kids will eat?”
The recipes below offer a few kid-friendly suggestions. And parents who have tried and tried and tried again should give themselves a break: Hess suggests there is a place for finding ways to work with children’s taste preferences. “If broccoli is the outstanding favorite in our house — well then, we try to make sure that there’s plenty of broccoli in the garden,” she says.
1. Look for small, tender leaves of any of the dark green leafy vegetables — they tend to be sweeter and better-tasting.
2. Save any water used for cooking dark green leafy vegetables and use it later as the base for soup broth.
3. Chop the leaves finely, which makes them easier for little mouths to chew.
4. Try pairing sautéed greens with something sweet, like raisins or dried cranberries.
5. If you decide to go the “hide it or disguise it” route, you can add puréed or finely chopped greens to almost anything: casseroles, soups, sauces and even fruit smoothies.
Recipes from Simply in Season: A World Community Cookbook by Mary Beth Lind and Cathleen Hockman-Wert. ©2005 by Herald Press, Scottdale, PA 15683. Used by permission.
GREEN SURPRISE DIP
1 cup steamed kale, Swiss chard or spinach
1 cup plain yogurt
1 cup cooked chickpeas
¼ cup mayonnaise
2 cloves garlic
½ onion (chopped)
1 Tablespoon lemon juice or to taste
½ teaspoon salt or to taste
Purée in blender or food processor. Serve with vegetables, crackers or tortilla chips.
VEGGIE BURRITO BAKE
1 large clove garlic (minced)
1 medium onion (minced)
¾ cup uncooked rice
¾ teaspoon ground turmeric
Sauté in saucepan in 1 tablespoon oil until onion is tender. Stir often.
1½ cups chicken or vegetable broth
Add and mix well. Simmer, covered, until liquid is absorbed, about 15 minutes for white rice, 40 minutes for brown rice. Remove from heat, let stand 5 minutes, fluff with fork.
16 cups fresh spinach (loosely packed)
1½ teaspoons garlic (minced)
Salt and pepper to taste
While rice cooks, heat 1 Tablespoon oil in frypan on high heat. Add garlic and spinach, one handful at a time as it wilts, adding a little water as needed to prevent sticking. Spinach should be moist, with loose leaves, not clumped together.
2 cups cooked black beans
1 Tablespoon chili powder
Mix in a bowl. Layer ingredients as follows in 2-quart casserole: half of spinach, all of the rice, all of the beans, remaining spinach.
1 cup Monterey Jack cheese (shredded)
Sprinkle on top. (At this point, casserole may be tightly covered and refrigerated.) Cover and bake at 375°F until sizzling, 45 minutes. Or heat in microwave about 10 minutes and then let stand 5 minutes. Serve by spooning into warm flour tortillas. Optional garnishes: salsa, avocados, guacamole, sour cream, Tabasco pepper sauce, chopped fresh cilantro, lime wedges.
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