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There are green vegetables, and then there is spinach. The ultimate 'eat your greens' veggie that appears in dishes from almost every cuisine, but is almost universally abhorrent when you are five.
"Any food that our taste buds are not introduced to they can find foreign and dislike," says Accredited Practising Dietitian Michelle Theodosi, The Lifestyle Dietitian. "This goes back to hunter-gatherer days when something tasting foreign was protective. We naturally had a dislike to something we weren't familiar with."
That 'foreign' taste Theodosi refers to was no doubt the bitterness of chlorophyll, the photochemical that turns green veggies green. "The darker the green, the higher the chlorophyll," says Theodosi. With spinach being one of the darkest green vegetables of them all.
Green light for nutrition
The good news is that the darker the green, the more packed the nutrition. In 2014 research by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that leafy greens and cruciferous vegetables came top of the list for overall nutrient density.
In fact, spinach was found to be a "powerhouse" food, which are those foods most strongly associated with reduced chronic disease risk, including cancer and heart disease. For overall ranking of the nutrition of 47 vegetables that are considered "nutrient-dense", spinach came in at number five.
Recipe for spinach in sesame dressing here.
"Vitamin A, K and E are fat-soluble vitamins found in spinach, vitamin C is a water-soluble vitamin found in spinach," says Theodosi. "It's also contains vitamin K1 and folic acid, and it's an excellent source of iron and calcium. Plus it's high in fibre and contains beneficial amounts of potassium, magnesium and other vitamins... you can see why it's worth persisting to help your kids to develop a liking for it."
Persistence is key here. Theodosi says that it takes around 10 introductions for a child to start exploring with a food they are not used to. "Don't make a big deal about it," she recommends. "It's just there on the plate. Encourage exploration, be patient and persistent in a neutral way."
You may need to keep it up for quite some time. Researchers know that young children are particularly sensitive to a phytochemical compound called 6-n-propylthiocuracil (PROP). The more sensitive they are to PROP, the less likely they are to accept strong-tasting foods like spinach.
"Encourage exploration, be patient and persistent in a neutral way."
This intolerance is an inheritable trait (if you don't like the taste of PROP, your children most likely won't either). It's also been found that we generally "grow out of" the sensitivity. Around 20 per cent of the population who are known as super-tasters may never grow to like PROP, but that means 80 per cent of children will.
Find the recipe for Luke Powell's creamed spinach here.
Play the game
Which is good news for parents who are try, try, trying again to get spinach into their kids. The more times they taste the dreaded green veggie, the more likely they are to desensitise to the bitter flavour.
Which is why Theodosi is all for playing the "hide the spinach" game. Finely slicing up spinach, or even pureeing it, to add to child favourites like spaghetti bolognese, smoothies or in lunchbox muffins, builds tolerance over time.
"This can be a good way to introduce the flavour of spinach in a familiar way," she says. "However it's eaten, it's being eaten and having a beneficial influence on the diversity of the gut microbiome, which increases the acceptance of different foods."
If anyone is a master of hiding the spinach, it's Lucy Tweed, author of Every Night of the Week. "I swear my kids can dry wretch at the site of some things, but oddly I have found spinach an easy one to sneak into things," she says. " Believe it or not, I have found a sweet green smoothie one of the best disarmers when it comes to verde revulsion."
Tweed recommends blending a handful of spinach, some mint, orange juice and grapes and maybe a banana together. "It's great as it tastes like a sweet juice but has that gorgeous vibrant green. Getting past the visual of something green being so delicious really helped my kids. That and accepting small wins."
Sprinkle it everywhere
Whatever you do, just don't boil it. Boiling leeches most spinach's water-soluble vitamins away. It's better to steam it, or add it to stir fries or other dishes directly. Spinach is such a versatile veggie that it's found in every dish from Greek pies to Korean soups to Italian pastas.
"I find it easy to slide into lots of recipes… especially when you can add cheese, pastry or frying!"
Tweed is happy to add it to everything. "Being a subtly flavoured but so damn nutritious veg I find it easy to slide into lots of recipes… especially when you can add cheese, pastry or frying!"
Her favourite methods of disguise include sautéing the spinach and once cooled, mixing it with feta, cheddar ricotta and mozzarella to bake into pastry triangles. "It's the pastry and the obligatory dousing of tom sauce that sells this in I think," explains Tweed.
Find this spanakopita recipe here.
Her spinach falafels, which are crispy and crunchy bites, are easily wrapped in pita for lunch, or make a great dinner. "Accept cheese and barbeque sauce as the culinary trade off [for the kids], while you have hummus and tabouli," she advises.
Tweed's best advice, though, is to "eat by example. Let them love stuff and dislike stuff as they do, soon enough curiosity is bound to entice them, especially if you love what you’re eating."
That definitely sounds like a call to arms to eat more of this much-maligned green. Remember, the more you eat it, the more you'll love it. And versatile, nutrition-packed spinach loves you back very much.
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