Wednesday, January 26, 2005

eat yer veggies, dammit

I just had a conversation with Keith about kids and veggies (it started off being about the McDonald's obesity lawsuit, but morphed as conversations are wont to do). Keith was saying that it's hard to make kids eat vegetables because "Kids just don't like vegetables. It's genetic." In a possible CLM, I kinda told him that it was because his vegetables weren't cooked right.

Well, we're both right, really. There are certain vegetables that most kids will object to, and this is because they are bitter. And Keith is correct that this is a genetically-based behaviour that evolved to protect children from the potent chemicals in vegetation which are largely beneficial for adults but which can harm the growing systems that children have. These chemicals are generally bitter (or taste that way to us), and kids naturally prefer not to eat them.

Modern vegetables, however, have been hybridized and mucked around with so they are orders of magnitude less bitter than the wild predecessors we evolved to eat, but since kids' taste buds are super-sensitive (and the jury is out on whether this is entirely natural or encouraged by parents who, desperate to get their kids to eat *anything*, allow them to eat only what tastes good and therefore do not develop their tastebuds "naturally"), kids still tend to avoid them. The main culprits are the leafy greens (lettuce and raw greens, chard, kale, bok choy, many chinese vegetables) and the brassicae (broccoli, cauliflower, brussel sprouts, cabbage). Most kids have little or no objection to ripe bell peppers, carrots, peas, beets, and other sweeter vegetables.

While I think that kids should be encouraged to develop more of a taste for things other than sweet, it IS natural for them to dislike bitter foods. I don't see much harm in skewing a child's vegetable intake on the side of more sweet veg, less bitter as long as parents realize that sweet vegetables tend to be more energy-dense and kids don't need as much of them. But I also don't see any harm in making bitter vegetables more palatable.

For some reason, most people have one method of cooking most vegetables: steam the suckers. Why? Because we've been told it's the healthiest. Which it might well be, but let's balance the healthiness of eating a slightly-less-healthily-prepared vegetable with not eating one at all because it tastes gross. Hmm, which is better?

Blanching is my favourite method of preparing vegetables (although I will steam occasionally, if the veggies are nice and fresh and tender) because it provides a method for quick cooking (which preserves nutrients) AND a way to decrease the bitterness and increase overall flavour. In the winter, when we're stuck with crappy, sad looking supermarket veggies, that's a huge bonus. What is this magical taste-improving elixir, you ask? It's simple: salt and sugar.

Oh, horrors! you gasp. Why would you add such patently unhealthy things to pure, perfect, nutritious vegetables???? Well, for one thing, they're hardly nutritious unless you eat them, and you're way more likely to eat them if they taste good. Secondly, we're talking extremely small amounts here - in a couple litres of water, I'll typically put 1/2 tsp of salt and 1/2 - 1 tsp sugar, depending on the vegetable (more sugar for more bitterness). That's less sugar than an apple contains, and about a billion times less salt than anything that comes out of a can or a package, guaranteed. But the difference is really amazing. Will kids suddenly start eating the vegetables prepared this way? Probably not - much of taste is expectation, and if they expect it to taste yucky they probably will insist that it's still yucky even when it's not. But if they see their parents enjoying them more, that will probably, over time, make a difference.

Other tricks to do with vegetables include tossing a small amount of butter (like a teaspoon) with some fresh herbs (basil goes spectacularly well with carrots, mint with peas, savoury with just about anything, etc.) or, for greenery, a touch of good balsamic vinegar. (or reduced not-so-good balsamic.) If you're going asian-style, a bit of mirin and sesame oil tossed with the cooked vegetables is great.

It does not take a lot of effort to make vegetables taste better. I just do not understand why people persist in steaming them. I can't see that it's any easier, plus you've got extra steamer inserts/machinery to clean afterwards. Blanching just takes a pot. One pot. Maybe an extra minute to bring it to the boil. If I ever find the person who started this "steam your vegetables" craze, I'm going to give him/her a good talking-to. But I suspect that he/she is no longer with us, probably because he/she didn't eat his/her vegetables and expired from a heart attack some time ago.


Blogger Clamb said...

Blanching, intersting. So let me get this straight. I bring my pot to a boil, toss in some salt/sugar, then toss in my veggies. I pull them out after 5 secs? 30 secs?

Oh, and I've seen people take it from the hot water and toss them into cold water right afterwards. What's with that?

12:30 PM  
Blogger spughy said...

The length of time depends on the vegetables. Delicate tender stuff like wee asparagus, julienned carrots, fresh fresh chard, fresh snap peas or really good shanghai bok choy, 1 minute, tops. Stuff like "more mature" bok choy, big chard leaves and snap peas past their prime can go up to 2 minutes, all the way to broccoli, brussel sprouts and big hunks of carrot to about 4 or maybe even 5 minutes. The best way to tell if it's done is look at the colour: it should be bright bright green (with the obvious exception of carrots). Taste, and if it's tender enough to eat, it's done. So some things won't even take a minute.

The dunking in cold water is for vegetables that are going to be cooked again in a stir-fry, frozen, canned, or eaten in a cold dish. What this does is halt the cooking quickly, preserving the crunch and colour but preventing future breakdowns caused by heat or cold. Chinese cooks typically blanch all vegetables before stir-frying, for better texture, colour and nutrition.

1:35 PM  
Blogger Deanna said...

Hey Sarah!

Regarding kids and eating their veggies:

Babies and young children will eat just about anything, once they get used to the texture and taste. Up until they are about two years old, they are fairly accepting, because everything they try is new. These are kids that are willing to stick anything in their mouths, dirt, sticks, bugs, you name it. Compared to that, turnip and broccoli aren't so bad.

After the age of 2, however, they start to get suspicious about anything that tastes/smells unusual. Apparently the theory is that this is a defense mechanism - by the time you're two, you have a greater opportunity to try to eat things that haven't been vetted by mommy. Thus it's a good thing that they're gonna spit out that thing that tastes wrong.

Anyway, the point is that parents should start to introduce different tastes to their infants early on, shortly after they graduate to stuff like Pablum. Mashing up adult meals/foods in a food processor will ensure the right consistency and introduce baby to the new tastes. Though its a good idea to stay with storebought pablums and baby foods for some of the meals - they're enriched with all the vitamins and minerals a baby needs.

4:07 PM  
Blogger spughy said...

Good point, Deanna. I was talking more about older kids - like ages 5-10. And I was sort of trying to avoid blaming parents for picky-eaterness, but what the hell, it's my blog - damnit, it IS their parent's fault.

There. I feel better now. Thank you, Deanna.

4:13 PM  
Blogger Deanna said...

Well, there is one more thing to remember:

Introducing a taste to an infant isn't really enough. Sure, they're eating those mushed brussel sprouts when they're a year old -- but if you don't serve them again over the next 4 years, don't be surprized if your five year old suddenly rejects them. Also, some kids learn food pickiness from their friends - "Bobby doesn't like this, so neither do I" kind of thing.

4:27 PM  
Blogger Sue said...

So what's being said here is that infants will eat pretty much anything that you tell them is "food".. but then at age 2 or 3 they start to get more suspicious, and that's when parents start to pander?

So what happens if you refuse to pander, make your child eat brussel sprouts or nothing at all, because brussel sprouts are being served tonight... and your child refuses to eat them... what happens when he starves? Will he? See, I think I could be the kind of parent who just refuses to pander to their child's whims. I'm not much on inconveniencing myself for another person's petty likes and dislikes. I just want to make sure I'm not going to have an underdeveloped child, or get busted for horrific neglect.

By the way, if you've never tried it, white vinegar on brussel sprouts is awesome. People should use more white vinegar overall, I think.

1:20 PM  
Blogger spughy said...

I would like to think that there's a happy medium there, but I'm all in favour of serving the kid food and having a "don't eat it if you don't want, but there ain't no more til breakfast" rule.

I've read that if you expose a kid to new foods in small amounts (like, 2 bites, and make them eat it) in time they'll eat it without fuss. That having been said, parents DO have a responsibility to make food actually taste as good as it can, I think. I hated hated hated brussel sprouts until I discovered not only good brussel sprouts but also how to cook them so they weren't soggy nasty little sulfurous cabbage-bombs.

1:57 PM  

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