Veggies In Disguise
Clever ways to get your kids to say, "Hey, this is good!"

By Mollie Katzen
Photos by Rita Maas

Beyond a baked potato and possibly a side of buttered peas or corn, many children have a hard time warming up to vegetables. The repeated refrain "eat your vegetables" smacks of a grim obligation—something kids must endure "for their own good" (another phrase that carries around its own little storm cloud). The vegetable-eating issue can even become a battleground, especially when children figure out just how important their parents think it is.

My own experience taught me that many children simply find vegetables uninteresting—that is, until they are prepared in such a way as to be irresistible. This humbling revelation came when my then-4-year-old son announced to a roomful of people that he preferred the vegetables served at our local Chinese restaurant to those cooked by his mother. "Hmm," I wondered. "What do those cooks know that I don't?"

It didn't take long to figure out that the big difference between their broccoli and mine was texture and seasoning. And intense seasoning at that. I realized then that children like their food to be attractive and appealing and full of taste, just as adults do. I began to experiment with vegetable preparations designed to lure the younger set into actually eating them.

My experiments worked. By giving vegetables the thought, time, and attention they deserved, I was able to transform them into delicious, easy-to-prepare, and downright exciting events. Here are some of my big-time winners that have garnered the seal of approval from kids of all ages. They certainly have been effective on my two formerly fussy eaters, who now—at ages 18 and 11—have at last become happy vegetable munchers.

Zucchini Boats

Serves 4- 6 / These neat little vessels, adapted from a recipe in Mollie Katzen's Vegetable Heaven (Hyperion, 1997), are tender and moist, with a pungent, crunchy top—a good way to attract hesitant young children to the concept of a vegetable dish. Let the kids sprinkle on the cheese and these may interest them even more.

1 tablespoon butter
2 teaspoons minced garlic
4 small zucchini or summer squash (slender ones, about 6 inches long), halved lengthwise
Salt and pepper
Grated Parmesan cheese (1 cup or more, to taste)

1. Preheat broiler. Melt butter in a large cast-iron skillet or pan with an ovenproof handle. Add garlic and sauté over medium-low heat for several minutes, but don't let garlic brown.

2. Place zucchini halves facedown in garlic butter and sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper. Sauté over medium-high heat for about 5 minutes, or until zucchini are just slightly tender when poked gently with a fork.

3. Turn zucchini over and sprinkle generously with cheese. (Don't worry if cheese spills into the pan. It will melt into a delicious crust.) Cook for just a minute or 2 more, then transfer skillet to broiler. Broil for 3-5 minutes, or until cheese is melted and golden brown. Serve hot.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 137 calories % fat calories: 59 Fat: 9g Saturated Fat: 6g Cholesterol: 23mg Carbohydrate: 5g Protein: 10g Fiber: 1g Sodium: 538mg

Broccoli Quesadillas

Serves 4- 6 / The next time you cook broccoli for dinner, add a little extra so you can make these the next day for lunch or an after-school snack (or even a light supper). You might need to make one at a time, depending on the size of your pan. If desired, keep finished ones warm in the oven until all are cooked.

4 flour tortillas (burrito size)
2 cups grated jack cheese, packed (about 1/4 pound)
1-1/2 - 2 cups chopped, cooked broccoli, room temperature

1. Preheat griddle or heavy skillet over medium heat for 3 minutes. Add a flour tortilla or two and sprinkle each with about 1/2 cup cheese. Divide broccoli (about 1 cup per quesadilla) between tortillas, sprinkling it over the cheese, then divide remaining cheese over broccoli. Top each tortilla with a second tortilla and cook for several minutes, until bottom of lower tortilla is light gold.

2. Flip quesadilla over and cook on second side until bottom is golden. Cheese should be completely melted. Remove from pan and slice into wedges. Serve hot or warm.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 290 calories % fat calories: 39 Fat: 13g Saturated Fat: 6g Cholesterol: 25mg Carbohydrate: 34g Protein: 13g Fiber: 3g Sodium: 382mg

Creamy Spinach Soup

Serves 6- 8 / A great way to sneak green vegetables into kids' diets is to purée them into a delicious, creamy soup. This one is light and thin. If you would like it thicker, add another potato and increase the salt to taste.

1 8-ounce russet potato, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes
1 quart organic vegetable broth
6 ounces baby spinach leaves
1/4 - 1/2 teaspoon salt, to taste
1/2 cup half-and-half or milk

1. Place potato pieces in a medium-large saucepan and add 1-1/2 cups broth. Bring to a boil, lower heat to simmer, cover, and cook until pieces are tender, about 8 minutes. Add spinach and salt, stir, cover again, and cook about 3 minutes longer, or until spinach is wilted but still bright green.

2. Transfer cooked mixture to a blender and purée until smooth. Add additional broth if necessary.

3. Return mixture to pan, add remaining broth, and heat. When hot, remove from heat and stir in half-and-half or milk. Taste to adjust salt, and serve.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 87 calories % fat calories: 27 Fat: 3g Saturated Fat: 2g Cholesterol: 7mg Carbohydrate: 14g Protein: 3g Fiber: 2g Sodium: 169mg

Sugar Snap Peas with a Single Herb

Serves 4-6 / Sugar snaps—those chubby, edible pea pods—are so good raw or lightly cooked, there's no need to gussy them up too much. Also from Mollie Katzen's Vegetable Heaven (Hyperion, 1997), this recipe is a great choice for cooks who hate to chop; just snip the chosen herb with scissors. Dried herbs work, too, if you can't find fresh ones.

1 pound fresh, tight sugar snap peas
2 teaspoons butter
Salt and pepper, to taste
1-2 tablespoons minced fresh herb (marjoram, mint, savory, tarragon, or thyme.)

1. Remove tops from peas and pull off strings. Melt butter in skillet over medium-high heat. Add pea pods, keeping heat fairly high. Cook quickly for about 1 minute. Sprinkle with salt, pepper, and the herb of your choice. Cook about 1 minute longer.

2. Transfer to a bowl and eat as soon as possible, while pods are still bright green, puffy, and hot.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 66 calories % fat calories: 29 Fat: 2g Saturated Fat: 1g Cholesterol: 5mg Carbohydrate: 9g Protein: 3g Fiber: 3g Sodium: 154mg

Roasted Sweet Potato Sticks

Serves 4 / We usually expect sweet potatoes to be mashed with butter and sweetening and presented as a soft side dish. In this more unusual approach, sweet potatoes, which are full of fiber and beta-carotene, are cut into long wedges and roasted until slightly crispy on the outside and creamy on the inside. Butter and sugar are unnecessary and won't be missed.

3 8-ounce sweet potatoes
2-4 tablespoons olive oil (approximate measure)
Squeezable lime wedges
Salt to taste

1. Preheat oven to 450°F. Slice unpeeled sweet potatoes in half lengthwise, then slice each half lengthwise into four strips.

2. Coat a 9" x 13" baking dish with olive oil, then pour remaining olive oil into a small bowl. Use a pastry brush to brush olive oil over cut surfaces of sweet potato wedges, then place them skin-side-down in prepared pan. Roast in lower half of oven for 15 minutes, or until pierced easily with a fork.

3. Remove pan from oven and let sweet potatoes cool. Transfer to a plate. Sprinkle with lime juice and salt, and eat them right out of the skins with a spoon or whole with your fingers. (If using fingers, make sure the potatoes are cool enough to handle safely.)

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 218 calories % fat calories: 29 Fat: 7g Saturated Fat: 1g Cholesterol: 0mg Carbohydrate: 37g Protein: 3g Fiber: 5g Sodium: 286mg

Ranch Dip

Makes 1 cup / Kids are much more inclined to eat vegetables when they can dip them in something flavorful. "Ranch" flavor lands at the top of most kids' list of preferred dips, but commercially prepared dips and dressings can be loaded with unhealthy fats and artificial ingredients. Here's an easy way to make your own—or let the kids make it themselves. It keeps for several days in the refrigerator.

1/3 cup light or regular mayonnaise
1/2 cup low-fat buttermilk
2 teaspoons cider vinegar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon onion powder
1/4 teaspoon garlic powder (or more to taste)
Baby carrots, bell pepper strips, celery sticks, cherry tomatoes, cold steamed broccoli or cauliflower, raw or lightly steamed green beans, or other dipping vegetables

1. Place all dip ingredients in a medium-size bowl and whisk until smooth. Cover and chill until serving time. To serve, transfer to an attractive bowl and place it in the center of a plate, surrounded by vegetables for dipping.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 21 calories % fat calories: 77 Fat: 2g Saturated Fat: 0g Cholesterol: 0mg Carbohydrate: 1g Protein: 0g Fiber: 0g Sodium: 77mg