Although many Americans know they should be eating more fruits and veggies (F&V), only 11 percent actually meet the recommended minimum of five-servings-a-day.
Many parents are worried their kids don't eat enough F&V and this concern is actually encouraging. There’s no better time to address the issue of good nutrition than in childhood. This is the time when eating habits are formed, and what we do as parents can be a lifelong gift of healthy eating and better overall health for our kids.
I think there are plenty of reasons why many American kids don’t jump with joy at the sight of F&V:
• Culinary culture and habits: In countries where F&V are central in the diet—Mediterranean countries for instance—everyone eats more produce (or at least did before the Western diet invaded). Kids eat what their parents eat, and we live in a place in which F&V are on the backstage at best.
• Advertising and marketing-: Kids are exposed to thousands of ads for foods and beverages. In fact, food and beverage companies spend $2 billion a year on marketing food to kids and some $900 million annually on television ads tailored to children under 12. Most of the ads promote foods that have low nutritional value, and almost none promote F&V.
We’d love to think our kids don’t pay attention, but the repeated messages do have an effect, and the overriding theme they’re hearing again and again is that highly processed foods are fun, will make them feel good, and taste amazing. If the same amount of money and talent targeted all of the good things about F&V, I think we’d get kids nagging for an apple (the fruit, I mean; mine are already in the habit of nagging for the other kind of Apple).
• Availability: We’re surrounded by food. There are food-purchasing opportunities everywhere. Yet what’s readily available is junk food and sugary drinks; good produce is—for too many—hard to find. Low income neighborhoods in particular are fresh produce deserts. If fresh F&V were as readily available as soda, I bet hungry kids looking for a snack would grab them.
• Quality: If kids are introduced to F&V through low-quality or poorly prepared examples, they’re unlikely to be tempted to try this food again. Day-old salads in fast food outlets (often the only F&V option) can taste so bad, one couldn’t imagine that salad could be anyone’s favorite food. Many people don't know how good veggies can taste because they’ve never eaten great produce that’s been properly handled.
• Price: The price of good quality F&V can be prohibitive. People tend to look (if only subconsciously) at how many calories or satiety their dollars buy. For $2 you can get an excellent large organic Fuji apple at Whole Foods, or a whole meal at McDonalds. Many will choose the McDonalds meal, or a bag of chips and a soda, as these will fill them up.
So what can we do?
A few tips on how to get your kids to eat more F&V
1) Serve early and often.
How early? Flavors from the mother's diet are transmitted through amniotic fluid and mother's milk. Studies show that when mothers eat fruit and vegetables during pregnancy and breastfeeding, their babies accept those fruit and vegetables more readily.
Later on, between the age of 6 and 24 months, the infant is usually most receptive to new tastes and textures, so this is the time to introduce many fruits and vegetables. Even if the initial introduction did not go very well, repeated exposure will often get the baby to like the new food.
2) Be a good role model.
Young children copy us, and for a short while (too short!) will tend to believe whatever we say. Sitting at the family dinner, and pleasurably eating a balanced diet, rich in plant-based foods, will get the message across very well. The fact that in some cultures most young children are excited about spicy and even bitter foods, shows that food preference is not a physiologic absolute, but more of a cultural, habitual behavior. While the preference for sweetness is universal, other preferences can be learned.
3) Let the F&V taste like themselves.
Celebrate F&V tastes for what they are, and good quality vegetables are quite often delicious. Cook them simply, or serve them raw. This way your child will learn to like the food for its flavor and texture.
4) Serve the best quality vegetables and fruit you can find.
One of the reasons children and adults dislike some dishes, and generalize to a whole family of ingredients, is because of an experience they’ve had with a poor quality fruit or poor preparation of a vegetable.
There is a huge difference between an organically grown local tomato, ripened on the vine and picked just today, and a winter tomato from the supermarket. Overcooked broccoli and Brussels sprouts are bitter and emit unpleasant-smelling sulphur compounds. On the other hand, there’s nothing like fresh, locally grown produce. Think about it: If the only two movies you saw were bad ones, you might think you don’t like movies.
5) Serve one family meal with no substitutions.
Making a “kids menu” is unnecessary and impractical. Beyond infancy, children can be gradually introduced to the family diet, and eat whatever we eat in smaller portions. There is no reason why a toddler should eat bland yellow foods that have cartoons on the package.
A no substitution policy is important for one simple reason: If a toddler is hungry, he will want to eat. If he has no option but the dish on the table, he is much more likely to give it a try. If he can opt for the mac & cheese instead, why would he stretch himself?
6) Involve children in making F&V dishes.
Introduce kids to the world of botany and gardening using the vegetable in their dish as a starting point. Take them to the farmers market to meet the people who grow their food. Teach them how to make a good vegetable salad, or how to prepare a nice bowl of boiled edamame for a snack. Encourage them to spend time with you in the kitchen, preparing plant-based foods.
7) Don't pressure, coax, bribe or reward your child to eat F&V.
Pressuring children to eat a particular food actually reduces their interest and intake of that food, and causes undue tension around the dinner table. Offering a reward, even if it’s just dessert, devalues the means (eating F&V) relative to the reward in the kids’ mind, while what we want them to think is just the opposite.
Encouraging everyone to eat more F&V is one point on which all nutrition experts agree. The protective effects of fruits and vegetables and a significant number of other health benefits have been confirmed by many studies. But even disregarding the health attributes of F&V, these plant foods really are tasty, pretty and colorful, and their biology is so fascinating, that there’s really no reason why we shouldn’t all enjoy them, with the proper introduction.
Good luck with what may sometimes seem to be a long journey towards better kids’ nutrition.
I wrote the original version of this post for LittleStomaks, a great science driven child nutrition blog--go take a look.