Getting to Know Your Veggies

Appeared in Brownsville Herarld and Valley Morning Star on June 2, 2013

By Lisa Mitchell-Bennett

So many people complain that their kids, or spouses, don’t like vegetables, or don’t like to try new healthier foods. If you’re like me, you would rejoice if all of the “I don’t like that’s” and pushing aside of brightly colored veggies would magically transform into “Wow, this is good!”

So now that the summer is approaching and I will have a bit more time for family meals, I’m determined to get us eating a more plant-based diet with more variety of fruits and vegetables. I’ve launched a new “campaign” around our dinner table. It’s called “Fruit/Veggie of the Week”. The first week was rocky; week two brought subtle improvement, and now into week three it’s really starting to pay off. Lest you think this strategy is only for the young, it is definitely appropriate for older teens, young adults and even old husbands and grandparents.

The idea is to feature a fruit and vegetable of the week. Try to choose something you don’t normally eat or purchase. You can do it with the usual suspects— broccoli, carrots, grapes, apples, etc. but it’s more fun to start with a bit exotic. This also helps you expand your produce repertoire.

For example this week we featured Tuna of Nopal (Prickly Pear Cactus fruit) and Kale. In our kitchen we have part of a wall covered with chalkboard paint, so my daughter and I wrote Tuna and Kale in big cartoony letters with stars around it in chalk. You could make a poster or just put a paper with a drawing on your fridge. Then her brothers looked up information about Kale and Tuna de Nopal on the internet. Did you know that kale is packed with antioxidants, fiber, iron, calcium, vitamins A and C, and works as an anti-inflammatory?

You can get fancy and print out cards with nutritional information, or be lazy like we are and just sit around the computer reading the info together. The next step is to “contextualize”—fancy word for thinking about when and where we have seen or eaten Kale and Prickly Pear fruit. It was really fun doing this because it brought back memories of travel in Mexico, Arizona, and just a recent trip to the Brownsville Farmers Market. We got a little side-tracked talking about how Nopal could save our lives if we were ever lost in the desert.

Next we had the taste-testing. We sliced the tuna fruit, (I had stir-fried the kale as part of dinner), and everyone tried both. This is key—everyone has to take at least one bite. We all gave our ratings and opinions and that was that.

By the way, this sounds much more involved than it really is. From start to finish, including the taste test, internet search, memory lane conversation and my seven year old chalk drawing the Fruit and Veggie of the week,  it was 5 to 10 minutes max—and all at the dinner table while we ate. It’s like planting vegetables—when you are involved in the growing process and really understand the benefits, you are just more likely to eat them. Also, the more you try things the more likely you are to one day say, “Hey, I like this now!”  Not all of the new fruits and veggies will be hits, but some will. For example, all three of my kids really liked the nopal tuna fruit, but only my oldest like the kale. At least they all tried it and know what it is. When my middle son heard about the health benefits, he said he didn’t love kale, but would be willing to eat it sometimes because it is such a super food. I think we often underestimate kids’ ability to be involved in growing, selecting, preparing and conversing about food. We need to train our palates, young and old, to try new, healthy produce from the earth.  There is such variety so naturally packed with vitamins and nutrients. We need to teach our kids respect for food, not just to shovel in the processed, packaged stuff. If you have younger children, let them “play” with their fruits and veggies, making faces on their plates. A cherry tomato-eyed, kiwi-nosed, green bean-mouthed face will inspire any reluctant toddler to pop a nose into his or her own mouth.

Learning and conversing about the health benefits and miraculous complexity of simple plants, can help us all make better choices and enjoy the richness of food that grows right out of the ground, because Tu Salud ¡Si Cuenta! (Your Health Matters!)

P.S. The family member who grumbled most about doing this the first week, is now the one who asks over and over when it’s time for the “Fruit and Veggie taste test” and recently printed out a list of new fruits for us to try.