IS IT POSSIBLE that children need not eat their vegetables after all? That subversive notion was explored in a story in this paper (Tuesday, Style section) dealing with the difficulties of persuading young people to eat spinach, broccoli, cucumbers, beets and other things universally assumed to be good for them. Perhaps, says one nutrition expert quoted in the piece, the mealtime storm and struggle over eating vegetables is unnecessary. "If you look at why nutritionists think children should eat vegetables, it's primarily for Vitamin C, Vitamin A, some of the trace minerals and fiber," says Barbara Deskins of the University of Pittsburgh. "You can get these same nutrients and vitamins from fruits. . . . If a parent can get four small servings of fruits in their children each day, then technically the children don't have to eat vegetables."

That's an enticing prospect for parents: just let the kids happily gobble a few bananas, pears and oranges, and there will be no more hassles, ever, over Brussels sprouts, carrots and asparagus. But Prof. Deskins conveniently ignores an important fact concerning the national attitude toward vegetables: that they are not just about vitamins, minerals, trace elements and fiber -- they are also about character.

Vegetables are widely seen as having been put on (or in) this Earth for purposes of moral instruction. They teach the virtues of deferring gratification ("Someday, green beans will taste good to you . . ."), of patience (". . . but it will probably take 15 or 20 years . . ."), hard work (". . . so in the meantime just keep chewing, no matter how stringy they are . . .") and obedience (". . . or you won't get any dessert.")

Vegetables, preferably cooked until they are reduced to a uniformly gray mass and thus distinguishable from one another only by their chemical effluvia, fulfill the need of each generation to tell the next that no good is achieved without some suffering. That's why they will never be replaced by anything so agreeable as fruit. Fruit is something to be earned; vegetables are what you do to earn it. When things first began to go wrong in this world, it was not because Eve took a bite of the forbidden boiled turnip.