Breaking the Gag Rule

My nephew, Toliver, turns 12 this month, and like many kids his age, he names pizza, burgers, macaroni and cheese, chips, fries, and similar fare among his best-liked foods.

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He doesn’t mind carrots and apples, he notes, and he will (if pestered) occasionally eat a leaf of lettuce. But he can’t tolerate most vegetables, he insists, because they provoke an uncontrollable and unpleasant bodily reaction — something akin to choking, or hacking up a hairball.

“It’s not the flavor,” he explains, evoking maturity beyond his years. “It’s the texture.” Ask him what about the texture, and he can’t really say. But broccoli, squash, spinach, tomatoes, zucchini — raw, baked, sautéed or puréed — all cause the same mysterious nose-wrinkling revulsion. As a rule, says Toliver, “Most vegetables just make me gag.”

Kids’ mysterious and oft-voiced dread of vegetables may go back a long way. There’s some scientific evidence to suggest that humans are genetically programmed to prefer sweeter foods — like breast milk and fruits — from an early age. There’s also speculation that kids’ still-developing taste buds are overwhelmed by the subtlety and complexity of some vegetable flavors.

Of course, it’s also arguable that kids’ aversion to vegetables (and many other whole foods) has grown far more extreme in recent years, and in direct proportion to the increased availability and visibility of foods like 3-D snack chips, microwaveable pizza pockets and dinosaur-shaped chicken tenders. In cultures where these items are not so readily available, after all, kids happily eat everything from seaweed to seal blubber.

The expert advice to this culture’s parents, in any case, is straightforward: Don’t keep unhealthy processed foods in your house. Stock and prepare only healthy foods and allow your child to pick and choose among these wholesome options. Let your kids see you enjoying plant-based foods. Keep on gently and optimistically offering new and different nutritious dishes, even if your kid rejects them the first dozen or so times.

The earlier you start with this approach, the experts say, the easier it will go for you both, and the more success you will have in getting your kids on the right nutritional track. In fact, some experts suggest introducing your infant child to puréed vegetables before fruits to keep his or her taste for sweets from developing out of control.

But perhaps you missed that step and are now faced with a Toliver-like eater. All is not lost. Start by removing the worst dietary offenders from your shelves and replace them with healthier options. The vast majority of commercial foods marketed directly to kids contain one or more of the following culprits: hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated (trans) fats, high-fructose corn syrup, and refined flours. Simply by striving to eliminate these items from your pantry (and from future shopping lists), you’ll remove a lot of the most troublesome processed-food choices, including many of those your kids tend to fill up on before dinner.

Next, start educating your children about why you are making these changes.

Many kids prove far more willing to consider healthy foods — and to let the unhealthy ones go — once they understand the components of various foods and the ways they affect their bodies. Research by nutritionist Antonia Demas, a Cornell PhD who developed an award-winning multicultural food-education curriculum, showed that kids were willing to eat up to 20 times more plant-based foods once they had some hands-on education about them.

Of course, emphasizing healthy foods is just the beginning. The challenges of raising a fit family also involve increasing physical activity, shifting mental and emotional attitudes, and bucking societal trends. In this issue of Experience Life, we’ve touched on it all — including plans for kids you haven’t even had yet (see “Fertile Ground”).

In the meantime, you’ll be happy to know that even Toliver is coming around. I offered to take him out for a once-loved local-beef burger the other day and he made noise about thinking that we should eat at home more often. And not long after that, he told me he’d happily trade his Game-Cube in exchange for the ability to truly enjoy healthy foods like broccoli, tomatoes and other brightly colored vegetables.

Hmmm. I’m not certain I buy that one, but I do believe that a little education and motivation go a long way. So next time, I’m taking him to dinner at a vegan raw-foods restaurant for a real learning experience. And I’ll have a whole-grain organic cheese pizza waiting at home, just in case — with a salad on the side.

Pilar Gerasimo is the founding editor of Experience Life.

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