Although many Americans know they should be eating more fruits and vegetables, only 11 percent actually meet the recommended minimum of five servings a day.
Many parents are worried their kids don't eat enough fruits and veggies, 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 fruits and veggies. For one thing, our country's culinary culture doesn't encourage us to eat produce the way a Mediterranean diet, for example, might. Children are also the target of constant TV advertising: Food and beverage companies spend $2 billion a year marketing mostly unhealthful products to kids. Finally, many families -- especially those that live in low-income areas -- may not have access to tasty, affordable, high-quality produce.
So, what can we do?
A few tips for getting your kids to eat more fruits and vegetables:
1. Serve them 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 six 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 table and enjoying a balanced diet rich in plant-based foods will get the message of healthy eating 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 physiological absolute, but more of a cultural, habitual behavior. While the preference for sweetness is universal, other preferences can be learned.
3. Let the fruits and vegetables taste like themselves. Celebrate fruit and veggie tastes for what they are: 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 that distaste 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. Think about it: If the only two movies you ever 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 and cheese instead, why would he stretch himself?
6. Involve children in making fruit and vegetable 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 fruits and vegetables. 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 fruits and veggies) relative to the reward in the kids’ mind, while what we want them to think is just the opposite.
Encouraging everyone to eat more fruits and vegetables 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 their health attributes, 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 toward better kids' nutrition!