Guest authors for this post are nationally recognized experts on children’s health, Laura A. Jana, MD, FAAP and Jennifer Shu, MD, FAAP. Both are pediatricians, parents, and award-winning authors whose most recent book is Food Fights: Winning the Nutritional Challenges of Parenthood Armed with Insight, Humor and a Bottle of Ketchup (American Academy of Pediatrics, Oct. 2007). Menu recipes are my own.
In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, many families celebrate by having green food. While it may be tempting to artificially color your way to a green St. Paddy’s day dinner, health-conscious parents can achieve a better result by choosing locally grown green herbs and produce and throwing them into the mix.
My kids don’t like green foods, you say? Let’s take a step back and see why this might be. Just about all naturally green foods are vegetables. And a large number of vegetables happen to be green. That said, it can’t just be a vegetable’s green color that leaves so many kids sticking to their story that they just don’t like vegetables? Given the opportunity, very few kids will turn down green SweeTarts or Skittles, so we’re clearly not just dealing with shades of green. It must then boil down to the fact that vegetables - and green ones in particular - unintentionally (or intentionally) be given bad press by children’s most influential role models—their parents! Add to that the fact that green foods don’t get much love in television commercials or in casual conversation amongst friends and classmates—two other important influencers in children’s lives – and we seem to have identified the root of the problem.
So what can you do to bring green back into your child’s diet?
- Keep any anti-green propaganda to yourself. Hearing disparaging remarks about asparagus and other green veggies on a regular basis is certainly not going to result in them receiving a warm welcome at mealtime, and can even lead children to shun foods they otherwise might like.
- Keep a can-do attitude. It is very useful to keep in mind that it can take multiple exposures to a food before a child will eat it. It’s not surprising that parents often give up serving green vegetables after one or two rejected attempts. Just knowing that many children require a dozen or more tries before realizing a food isn’t so bad (and may actually taste pretty good!) can help you promote the cause a little longer.
- Don’t turn green vegetables into second-class citizens. Forcing a child to eat his veggies in order to get dessert is a common ploy that can backfire. Instead of seeing green as a good thing, kids will see it as a means to an end and actually grow to dislike it even more. The desired food (dessert) simply becomes more desirable, while the “required” food becomes more of a chore.
- Get your creative juices flowing. Look around and try to find healthy foods—green or not—that appeal to both kids and adults. Mix green foods and herbs with other foods your family loves, and you’ll have a menu that you can all feel good about.
Here’s a sample menu you can try. We’re hoping these flavorful green, nutrient-rich foods will overcome any fear of green you or your child may have—and leave your friends and neighbors green with envy.
“Spring Green” Pasta
For the sauce:
1 tbs. butter
2 tbs. pesto
1/4 cup half and half
1 large leek, cleaned well of grit, rinsed and chopped
1/3 cup parmesan, grated
salt and pepper to taste
For the veggies:
1 bunch chard, washed, stems and center rib removed, chopped
1 cup frozen peas (or fresh if you can find them)
1 bunch asparagus, cut in 1/2-inch pieces OR 1/2 pound sugar snap peas, diced, whichever your child will more likely eat
1/2 pound spaghetti OR spinach pasta storebought OR
1/2 pound spinach pasta (recipe follows)
Boil the water for pasta. While waiting for the water to boil, place the veggies in a steamer, and set timer for only 4 minutes. Vegetables often taste best “tender crisp” and not overcooked. In a saucepan, over medium heat, melt the butter and add the leek. Sweat the leek until white parts are translucent. Add the half and half, stir until it thickens, then add the cheese and pesto. Boil the pasta, following directions, to al dente, drain, but do not rinse.
You may notice that there are a lot more vegetables than sauce! This is intentional to keep the dish light and to let the flavor of the spring vegetables come through. Combine the ingredients, tossing lightly. Garnish with a sprinkle of parmesan, if desired. Serves 8.
6 cups fresh spinach, cleaned and drained
2 cups all-purpose flour, plus extra as needed
1 cup semolina flour
4 large eggs
1 tsp. Olive oil
1/2 tsp. Salt
“Pan” the spinach by putting the damp leaves into a pot and heat on low just until the spinach wilts. Drain the spinach and let cool. Squeeze the spinach into a ball with your hands, pressing out as much of the water as possible. Chop fine.
Add the spinach to the eggs. Olive oil, and salt. Place all but a 1/4 cup of the flour and semolina in a food processor work bowl. While the blade is running, pour the egg and spinach mixture through the feed tube. Pulse until the dough comes together, sticky and still a bit rough. Do not over mix. Place the dough on a work surface, sprinkled with some of the reserved flour. Knead the dough, adding flour if needed, for about 10 minutes until it is smooth and elastic, but not sticky. Allow the dough to rest for one hour before rolling.
Using a pasta roller, roll 1/4 of the dough at a time into sheets. Cut to fettuccine size with blade attachment, or by rolling the sheet of dough (lightly sprinkle with flour) into a roll and slicing the roll into 1/4 inch thick strips. Toss the strips with a bit of flour, and keep covered with a kitchen towel until use. You can also freeze the pasta at this stage for later use. This recipe makes about 1 pound of pasta, you will only need half of a batch for the above recipe.
Lucky Fruit Salad
5 Kiwi fruit, peeled and sliced
1 cup green grapes, sliced lengthwise
2 granny smith apples, cored and diced
1 lime, zest and juice
1/2 cup apple juice
Toss the fruit gently in bowl with the lime and apple juice. Garnish with lime zest and optional mint.
Chocolate-Pistachio Zucchini Bread
1 3⁄4 cup flour
1⁄2 tbs. baking powder
1⁄2 tsp baking soda
1⁄2 tsp kosher salt
4 tbs. cocoa powder
1⁄2 cup sugar
1⁄2 cup brown sugar
1⁄2 cup canola oil
1 tsp. vanilla
3 cups grated zucchini
1 cup dark chocolate (bittersweet) chips
2/3 cup chopped pistachios
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Mix together the dry ingredients, blending well. Using a mixer, cream the “wet” ingredients and sugars. Slowly add the dry ingredients until just blended. Fold in the zucchini, chocolate chips and nuts. Put batter into a standard loaf pan.
Bake for about one hour. But the water content of the zucchini can vary, so check the bread. If a toothpick inserted in the top and center comes out clean, it should be done. I baked mine for closer to 90 minutes, so you have to watch it.
The end result is rich, moist and chocolate-y without being overly sweet. Is it bread, vegetable or cake? Does it matter? You can also bake the batter as cupcakes or muffins and frost for a St. Pat’s celebration. Adjust the baking time to about 20 minutes and check, baking longer until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean.