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Getting the actual people in your house to eat the healthy food

I've heard from quite a number of people lately who have started gardening, but find that they can't get everyone in their family onboard with the actual eating part of all these veggies. Here are some thoughts (from 2008) on how to to convince people to try the kohlrabi. Really.

I think I get more requests for ideas for helping people who are on-board with the idea of sustainable eating get the rest of their families on-board than on any other food storage topic.

In a perfect world, of course, our partners, roommates, children and other assorted members of our lives would say "Oh, I'm so thrilled you are growing a garden/part of a CSA - now I can get rid of the honey-barbecue chips and the fast food, and start really appreciating rutabagas like I've always wanted to." In our perfect world, when Daddy unveils his laboriously created six-vegetable risotto with an enthusiastic "Voila!" the kids would say "Wow, Dad, is there really, truly bok choy in it? And we can have seconds? Yay!" instead of "What's 'wallah'? It looks gross. And ewww, what's that green stuff?"

I would say the odds are good that most of us live in a somewhat imperfect world. If we've been lucky enough to have started our kids on this stuff from birth, we may avoid the latter (mostly), but since most of our lives also involve some adults we didn't get a hand in raising, and who we love despite their weird habits, we're kinda stuck with them, and the painful reality that shifts in diet run up against people's weird habits pretty hard.

The thing is, changing someone's food habits is a big thing - we can do this for ourselves - all of a sudden we see the light and begin eating a new way - but making others do it? That's a challenge - and in reality, I don't think any of us can *make* any adult do much of anything. Carrots are better than sticks here, but maybe they don't like carrots ;-).

In many ways, we define ourselves by what and how we eat - so attacks on diets look like attacks on people, and often are fended off with the ferocity of warfare. Nor does moralizing work very well - we all know the truth - the Western diet has a high price, and that it sometimes kills people, and also that the dying often cling to it with a passion that proves firmly that you can't make most people change by simply telling them how bad their choices are.

As far as I can tell, with rational adults, and extremely rational teenagers there are a few ways of at least getting them onboard for the broader project of changing diets.

1. You enlist them in the name of self-improvement and being better people. You can do this straight, or manipulatively. (And yes, I know in a perfect world, you'd never manipulate people at all, but I've never met a family in which there was no manipulation at all, if you include the sort of blatant, half humorous stuff.) The straight way is simply to say "I think we all ought to be eating better - do you agree? Here's what I want us to do." This works in some families and with some people - and it doesn't with others, even if we wish it would. Don't forget to mention the chance to be self-righteous to them that like that sort of thing the "I can't believe those people who eat all that processed..."

If you do need/want to be sneaky, it helps, I think if you start the discussion from the assumption that you both care very much about these things and want the same things. That is, some people can be confused a little by simply starting from the "Of course we both care desperately that everyone have enough food in the future, so I know you will agree with me." Some people will assume that if you are assuming they care about this seemingly good thing that they must, and that gets you part of the way. Or perhaps you could enlist their help against a larger obstacle "Katie our two year old is so terribly picky, and I'm so terribly concerned that she be able to eat things...perhaps you can help me make it easier for her..." Or if you think that it will work (and if they are a person you'd say this sort of thing to) you can tell them it turns you on when they eat... Heck, you've got weirder kinks than a taste for seeing your girlfriend devour kale, right?

2. You use a different motivator than the one that moves you. If you know the person you are thinking of is, say, cheap, you talk about how to save money, with an emphasis of doing the things you want to do anyway. If the person is into cool gadgets, talk about the neat stuff you can buy to preserve food. With small children, a great strategy is to convince them that you don't really want to share your asparagus, or to describe the food in disgusting terms - you aren't just offering them healthy food, you are offering them roadkill stew with sweet potatoes, and if they eat it, they can tell their friends that they ate week old raccoon.

3. You sneak the food into their diets gradually. This is often the case when the motivated person is the primary cook, and has some control over what goes into food. Suddenly, the noodles are whole wheat or brown rice flour. Secretly, the meatballs are half tvp or ground zucchini. The yogurt is in the old containers, but it comes from home and has homemade strawberry jam mixed in. You don't talk about it, unless someone says something nice. Meals have a suspiciously green undertone. The cookies get kinda browner and a little denser. When asked about these things, you tell people they must be imagining things.

4. You are a total hardass. This works only if you are the sole cook for someone without much power to get food elsewhere - young kids, teenagers too young to drive or too poor to buy food, spouses so accustomed to eating the partner's cooking (or sufficiently disinclined to argue) that they won't dissent too much. It starts out once a week - there's this meal, and no snacks unless you eat it. Then it goes up to two or three meals a week - dal replaces fast food burgers, fruit replaces most desserts, no one buys snack cakes and juice boxes and iced tea, rather than soda is in the pitcher. Don't like it? Tough patooties. Guess who is holding the car keys? The problem here is the danger of mutiny, or that someone else might actually learn to cook.

5. You compromise - a little of this, a little of that - and the truth is that while you have to eat more out of your storage, and you find some meals that everyone will like, you never quite get to the point where everyone is really eating this way all the time - there's still some frozen stuff and take out in your life. And that's ok - just as long as you have a range of things people will do with the 75lbs of dried chickpeas that don't involve sculpture.

Some practical ideas:

1. I've had great luck (and other people I know have) getting kids to eat raw cabbage and green beans dipped in ketchup, even if they won't eat it cooked. For some people under five (and a few unfortunates well above it) ketchup is the universal solvent ;).

2. Root vegetables roasted in a pan are the basis for tons of meals - they can go inside enchiladas or wrap sandwiches, act as a starchy side dish (and are great at room temperature or cold),

3. Fritters. You can dip them in anything. Also dumplings. It is hard to tell how much green stuff is in them.

4. Less sweet pumpkin or sweet potato pie can be breakfast, lunch and dinner (although maybe not in the same day).

5. For people who like strong flavors and mixed up foods, things like jambalaya, gumbo and casseroley things are your friend, because it is hard to tell exactly what's in it - particularly if you chop the greens finely.

6. For people who like everything to be separate with nice clean lines, the potato is your friend. Meat and potato people can get used to an ever-increasing amount of potato and a gradually decreasing amount of meat.

7. Vegetarian cookbooks are your friends - even if you aren't veg. They often have recipes that you'll be able to put together with only pantry and garden.

8. Teenagers like power. Get them cooking - and give them the power, within certain parameters, to choose some of the meals.

9. It really helps to let go on some things. If you reassure your honey you aren't trying to take away everything she loves, that you will still love him if he stops at the convenience store, your kids that candy is still allowed now and again, this will help the transition. In fact, it helps if you instigate - let them have ice cream sundaes for dinner once a year, and you put it on the schedule! Work with them, at the same time you are working "against" them.

10. Sometimes using a fat/salt/sugar laden technique is what is needed to get started with a new food - make rutabaga chips fried in oil with salt - and once they admit they like rutabagas, then you can work on mashing them.

11. Popcorn is a whole grain.

12. My children will eat all sorts of things if they planted them themselves. There's simply a difference between sorrel you didn't plant and the kind you did, if you are a kid.

13. The replacement of lettuces with darker, more nutritious greens can often be accomplished without folks whose only consumption of greens is in salad noticing.

14. Everyone seems fascinated by edible flowers, and will eat the things around the daylily petals or johnny-jump-ups pretty much at the same time.

15. Don't take away dessert instantly. It provides a potent bribe for eating other things. The correct answer to "how much more do I have to eat to get dessert" is always three more bites than you think they would have taken anyway.

16. If you are the picky person, keep trying things. Sometimes tastes change, even for grownups.

17. Sometimes people are absolutely sure they hate something mostly because they either hated it as a kid or were told kids hate it as a kid. This is usually pretty easy to overcome by developing an awesome recipe or two for each vegetable, but it is even better if you can avoid letting your kids know that they are supposed to hate lima beans. For those it is too late for, knowing what to do with limas (or beets, or peas, or whatever) is vital.

18. If you are the one pushing eating a wider variety of foods, you do not get to be picky yourself. Be brave. Take the lead. Eat the kale.

19. Rendering sweet vegetables savory sometimes makes them more palatable to people who simply don't like sweet things in their dinner - try eating sweet potatoes with a savory cheese sauce, or serving beets with tahini, rather than the traditional "more sweetening" models of something like marshmallow sweet potatoes or Harvard beets.

20. In most households, what will eventually emerge is the reality that your family doesn't like or doesn't care about some vegetables. It isn't necessary to grow these ones - for example, I like celery just fine, but I don't care for it so strongly that the heavy feeder, time consuming weeding thing appeals to me. So I just don't grow celery. If you have honorably tried to get people to eat chard, and no one likes it, ok, eat something else green and good for you. Lots of choices out there.


Happy Eating!


Editorial Notes: Seems like a lot of what needs to be done falls into a category of getting people to do what's really in their best interests? For example:
  • bicycling and walking
  • living within one's means
  • not starting unwinnable foreign wars
Kudos to Sharon for how to do this gentle nagging diplomatically and with a sense of fun. The original post has some good comments in the discussion at the end, including this one by Pteryxx:
Somehow, I never expected to see advice on manipulation coming from Casaubon's Book. O_o And it's still thoughtfully written, conscious manipulation advice! I'd add a few suggestions to the arsenal: - Be patient and keep trying. Most of my own major diet changes took months; learning to like oatmeal, for instance, took me about a year of gradually reducing the flavorings necessary to make it tolerable. - Start simple. It's less upsetting when an easy, cheap healthy dish gets rejected than something expensive that took hours of effort to make. It's also easier to eat all of a small dish yourself if you have to. - Let other folks cook for you. Gushing over someone else's healthy dish at a potluck or dinner nets you helpful tips and suggestions for dealing with unfamiliar food items. You can score a recipe and if you're really lucky, a tutorial.
-BA EB reader Ann Peluso adds: The 20 suggestions are excellent. I could add one in an entirely different category that may work for some children: Limit access. If both parents want to eat it and want the children to try it, don't serve it to them. Put it on the adult plates, but not the children's. Most children will ask about it, maybe even whine, if they see it there, and you're enjoying it, and they haven't got any. "Well, this is really just for the adults." [They know about this. It's part of their lives. Think: dating, driving a car, late-night TV.] "Maybe a taste, but you need to be a bit older for more." [No definition on "a bit older." Could be tomorrow or next week.] Just make enough for the adults the first time, and serve tastes off the adult plates if asked. Next time, before cooking it, ask if they would like a small serving, too. "Maybe you really are old enough now." "Maybe you're big enough for all the extra nutrition." "Maybe you really do need to get muscled up for soccer." Then use some of Sharon's excellent cooking ideas to make the dish delicious for them, and make it look special, too. It is a rite of passage. They qualified for the good stuff. For many children, all the best stuff is for older people. When I arranged a career fair for high school students years ago, I was told to target 10th graders. So I did. I opened it only to 10th, 11th, and 12th graders. 9th graders could attend only with a permission slip from a staff member. We got a few 12th graders signing up because they were truly interested, many 11th graders because they assumed it was for them and they were interested, the entire 10th grade class looking starry-eyed and hungry for it, and most of the 9th graders trying hard to look mature. The school had never seen such attendance. I was criticized beforehand for leaving out the 9th graders and including the 11th and 12th graders. Then there was astonishment when the entire 10th grade class signed up along with most of the 9th graders with their begged, special status permission slips. Then I was criticized for disrupting the entire school day with a massive event. Sigh. However, the moral of the story is, some people want what they can't have or have to earn the right to, especially teenagers if it is something mostly for older teens. I'm sure it works as well for young children. Some, anyway. I would guess that there are Energy Bulletin readers who could come up with lots of practical ideas in this category of persuasion.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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