How do I get my kids to eat more green vegetables?

Dear Sue:

I have a preschooler and a 15-month-old toddler and I would like to make sure I am serving a variety of green vegetables. But what "counts" as a green veggie?

  • Are peas a vegetable or a bean?
  • Are green beans a green vegetable?

I have not given my toddler raw leafy greens because I am afraid that it may cause choking, but I have tried cooked broccoli and spinach. What other greens should I be serving, and do you have some child-friendly serving suggestions?
Thank you.
-- Mary

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ABOUT THE EXPERT

Sue Gilbert

Sue Gilbert works as a consulting nutritionist. For many years she worked with Earth's Best Organic Baby Food, integrating nutrition and... Read more

Dear Mary:
When nutritionists recommend that you increase your intake of green vegetables, generally they are referring to those that are deep green. The deeper the green, the more nutritious it is. Broccoli and spinach, for example, contain more beta carotene (a potent antioxidant and precursor to vitamin A) and more vitamin C than the lighter green vegetables, such as string beans.

All greens offer some nutritional value and, to ensure balance, it is best to include as much variety as possible to the diet of your entire family, including yourself. Make a point of incorporating a deep-green vegetable into your diet at least three times a week. You can add the other greens periodically throughout the week. Below are some different green vegetables you can have fun adding to your family's meals.

  1. Green peas: Green peas are legumes. They're just like dried peas except they are eaten in their immature state. They don't have the same nutritional value of dark-green vegetables, but they have nutritional powers all their own. Green peas have more than twice the protein of most vegetables, they are high in fiber and iron and they also provide some vitamin C. To serve them to babies as finger food, cook them until tender, then squash a little with a fork to make them easier to chew and to help prevent a choking hazard. For the rest of the family, serve warm as a side dish, add to chicken or rice salads or include in a stir-fry or chili.
  2. Green peppers: Green peppers are good source of beta carotene and vitamin C, but their more mature cousin, the red pepper, is an even better source. One pepper will meet a day's needs for vitamin A and supply more than 150 percent of your vitamin C requirement. Sweet peppers are a favorite finger food with most toddlers. Serve pepper strips in salads or with a dip, add peppers to baked poultry or a stir-fry or consider roasting or grilling them.
  3. Green Lettuce: Salad greens (not to be confused with the pale and nutrient-devoid iceberg) such as deep-green leaf lettuces like romaine, radicchio, endive, chicory and arugula are good sources of beta-carotene. Again, the darker the color of the salad green, the more nutritious it is. Some of them also contain vitamin C. It won't be long before your toddler can handle some salad that has been cut into pieces small enough to eat, sprinkled with a light dressing. Try to include a salad with most dinners.
  4. Spinach: Spinach is high in fiber and in vitamins and minerals. It is an excellent source of vitamin A in the form of beta-carotene and, served raw, it is a good source of vitamin C. But when overcooked, it loses most of that vitamin. Little children may like some fresh, young spinach mixed into their salad. Chopped spinach added to vegetable soups at the end of the cooking will taste great. (Soup is a great toddler food and can hold a wonderful variety of nutrient-dense, kid-pleasing foods.)
  5. Broccoli: Calorie for calorie, broccoli gives you more nutrition than any other vegetable. It is dense in vitamin C, beta-carotene, folic acid, calcium and fiber. It is also a good source of chromium. Broccoli belongs to the cabbage family, known as the cruciferous vegetables, which are associated with lower rates of cancer, probably due to the presence of indoles and isothiocyanates. Broccoli is a fun finger food for kids. For little ones, cook it until it is easy to chew, but not overcooked. Chill and serve with a dipping sauce like tomato or hommus. Older kids may prefer eating it raw with a fat-free dip. A cream-of-broccoli soup or any green soup is also a different way to serve greens to kids.
  6. Cabbage: Cabbage, like broccoli, is a cruciferous vegetable and contains some cancer-fighting compounds. Cabbage contains fiber and vitamin C. Two types of cabbage -- bok choy and savoy -- provide beta-carotene, and bok choy actually contains calcium. Savoy is probably the most nutritious member of the cabbage family.
  7. Collard greens: Collard greens are a great source of beta-carotene, the outer leaves usually containing more than the inner leaves. Especially for children, choose greens that are small and young and have smooth, firm leaves. Try cooking them in a small amount of broth until just tender enough to eat. A nice serving suggestion is a scrambled egg, some mild, shredded cheddar cheese and cooked collard greens.
  8. Summer squash: Summer squash is a good nutrition choice, although it does not have as much to offer as the other greens mentioned or as much as its deep-orange winter squash cousins.

Other healthy greens to include are Swiss chard, kale and brussels sprouts.

This list does not cover all the possibilities, but it will certainly get you started. You have made some of the best choices by serving spinach and broccoli, so continue to do so. Have fun discovering and experimenting with different ways to serve a wide variety of greens.

Thanks for writing.
Sue Gilbert

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