I was thrilled the first time my then-four-year-old walked over to me during a dinner with friends and asked, “Mommy, may I have another salad?” Trying not to dissuade him by looking too happy with his request, I got up and fixed him another salad. He has found this to be the easiest request to get an affirmative response out of me. Even if I've already put all the food away and finished cleaning the kitchen, I can't help but oblige a child asking for more salad.
But this past week I heard something new: “Mommy, could I have a fourth salad?”
I paused, considering, “Daniel, I think … maybe … you've had enough salad. I mean, I don't think it's going to hurt you, but you might need something with some more calories.” I know I wasn't convincing, and I'm still trying to decide whether I was wrong, but at that point I was trying to avoid being awoken at 3 a.m. by a little voice whining about being SOOO hungry.
Nevertheless, being asked about a fourth salad feels like a victory in this land of fast-food, microwaved meals and kids who will only eat mac-and-cheese, chicken nuggets, and tater tots. It feels like the time my middle son, who was six, asked me “what on earth” another boy at his Taekwondo school had, and I had to explain that it was called a Happy Meal. (There are plenty of things I've done wrong with my kids, but I'm going to go ahead and feel victorious when I can!)
For the last couple of years I've been telling my friends about the benefits of green smoothies. “They're like a multivitamin in a glass, only better, because they're whole-food.” “They're wonderful protection against osteoporosis and anemia, and they're relatively cheap and easy to make.” I'd even say, “Kids love them. Just call it an Incredible Hulk Smoothie and kids will think it's great.” Ironically, my own kids didn't buy my enthusiasm, and they finally went on strike.
Okay, it wasn't a strike, but they did approach us with a request: could they just have salads instead? It was the first time they'd asked about ceasing green smoothies without sounding whiny, so we listened. We agreed they could have non-green smoothies in the morning, but they had to have at least two salads per day. And they were going to make them, not I. I do try to check for cut-up veggies during the day, but they have taken on the task of actually assembling their salads, and I often delegate cutting a cucumber or a pepper. They have to be full bowls, with at least half dark greens like spinach, kale, and chard. (We're blessed to have a warehouse club in our town where we are able to buy organic greens for $4/pound. If you don't have a warehouse club near you, check around for restaurant suppliers and farmers markets.) So now, when it gets to be that dreaded, almost-dinnertime-but-it's-not-ready-and-we're-hungry-NOW-hour, I can simply say, “I'm making dinner. Why don't you go make your second salad?”
My kids did not always want salad and it's been a process to get them to where they are. I think it's been easier because we started changing our diet when they were still pretty young, but I don't think it's a food that most people naturally take to at first. I think you can train yourself with what you need, and eventually it will become something you like. I know there are as many thoughts about how to get kids to eat good food as there are opinions about what we should eat in the first place. I'm not going to say which is right, but following are the methods that worked for us:
I served salads before dinner, and I told my boys it was because they were the most important foods. I worded it that way so they didn't get the idea that it was the undesirable thing you have to eat before you could get “the good stuff.” I know there are different schools of thought on when salad should be eaten, but I didn't do a bunch of research on “before vs after the meal.” I simply figured it would be better received if they were hungrier.
It was not presented as optional, but it was not forced, either. A kid who truly ate most of it but said there were “just too many dry greens” at the bottom was listened to. Requests to stop getting the “purple lettuce” were heeded. (They were right- that stuff is bitter!) My child who was most resistant was allowed to eat his salad “bite for bite” with his other food, and then eventually was allowed to have a veggie plate instead. At first I thought I was not supposed to give in to him, but I finally realized that if I forced the issue I was going to make him hate salad. He would likely never eat one again once he left my house. Later we realized he has some real sensory processing issues, so the greens really were bothersome to him and I'm glad we didn't force him. He spent years making decorative veggie plates for himself and now he wants to be a chef. Also, now he will eat salad.
I'm a big fan of salad dressing. I let my kids, for the most part, pick their dressing. I've actually had to discourage one son from eating his salad plain, because we really do need the fat to absorb the fat-soluble vitamins in salad. (See http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/80/2/396.full) We've gradually progressed from unhealthful, to not-so-bad, to better-but-expensive store-bought dressings. My kids now think it's fun to make our own. Just start with a basic recipe online and tweak it based on preferences and what you have on hand. It really is easy, I promise. There have been stages in my life when I know I could not have handled having to do even that one small extra task, so if that's where you are, don't worry about it. Pick a dressing that will get your family eating salad and don't stress about it. Stress isn't good for you!
I know some people like to hide vegetables in creative ways, assuming their children won't eat them and could never like them. I think that's a valid survival strategy for a very difficult child who likely has nutritional deficiencies, but I also think we need to present our kids with the best food options as the best food options. There are ways to make vegetables, even salad, accepted by our kids and even fun. I love the fact that my boys are now taking ownership of their options--salad vs green smoothies--and even taking on the job themselves.