More whole foods and vegetables – that’s what kids need for optimal health. There’s a growing epidemic of childhood obesity, and research has linked a diet rich in fruits and vegetables with a lower risk for obesity. Kids and adults who eat more vegetables and fruits enjoy other health benefits as well including a lower risk for heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure and some types of cancer.
The USDA recommends that adults and children fill half their plate with fruits and vegetables. How many kids are actually doing that? Not many! Research shows as few as 16% of kids get five or more servings of fruits and vegetables a day. When kids and adolescents do put vegetables on their plate, the most common one they choose is potatoes, which more often than not is in the form of French fries.
Kids and Vegetables: Early Exposure is Best
Why are kids so reluctant to eat vegetables? Most say they don’t like the taste. According to a new study from the University of Leeds, giving kids a variety of vegetables early in life could be key to getting them to eat more veggies later on. In this study, babies and kids from weaning age to age 3 years were given 5 to 10 servings of artichoke puree. Some of the artichoke puree had added sugar or was mixed with vegetable oil. After 5 to 10 exposures to the puree, 40% of the kids, mostly those under 2 years of age, gradually increased how much artichoke they ate as they became used to it. Adding sugar to the artichoke puree didn’t seem to make a difference.
Based on this study, the best time to expose kids to new and healthy foods like vegetables is before the age of 2 years. After the age of 2, kids go through a phase where they reject new foods and it’s harder to get them interested in foods they haven’t already been exposed to. The take-home message? Give kids vegetables, pureed if necessary, as soon as they are weaned and offer them a variety of vegetables. The earlier they’re exposed, the more likely they’ll be receptive to them later on.
There’s a reason some kids don’t like vegetables. According to a study published in the journal Pediatrics, some kids have a gene variant involving genes that code for taste. Kids with this variant are more sensitive to the bitter tastes of some vegetables like watercress, kale, arugula, broccoli, cauliflower and radishes. The key is to hide the bitterness with a naturally sweet tomato-based sauce or even let kids enjoy veggies with low-sugar ketchup. Tomato-based sauces and ketchup are rich in natural antioxidants called lycopenes that have their own health benefits.
Eat Together as a Family
One study showed kids eat more fruits and vegetables when they eat meals as a family. Plus, when you prepare veggie-rich meals, kids are more likely to meet their daily fruit and vegetable quota. Even if your clan dislikes vegetables, serve “stealth” vegetables. Skip the pasta noodles when you make spaghetti and serve tomato sauce over zucchini noodles instead. Zucchini noodles are easy to make with a spiral vegetable cutter.
It’s also easy to slip vegetables into soups, stews and casseroles. To make them even more stealth, puree them in a blender and use them to thicken soup. What kid doesn’t love chips? Give them kale chips roasted in the oven instead of potato chips.
More Ways to Get Kids to Eat Vegetables
When your kids are screaming for pizza, serve it piled high with veggies. Most kids won’t turn down pizza even if it’s veggie pizza. Instead of a sandwich, serve your kids wraps. They’ll hold more vegetables. Sprinkle shredded cheese lightly on vegetables and let the kids watch the cheese melt in the oven to get them motivated to eat them. Just as importantly, let them choose the vegetables your family eats, as long as it’s not just potatoes. Encourage them to choose different ones and let them help in the preparation.
For younger kids, arrange the vegetables on a plate in an interesting pattern like smiley faces or choose vegetables in a variety of colors to make them more eye-catching and interesting. You can also bring out their flavor by grilling them and serving them on a wooden stick – kabob style. Add a healthy dip like hummus for dipping.
Lead by example. Kids are more likely to adopt healthy eating habits if they see Mom and Dad adding fruits and vegetables to their plate. Unfortunately, most adults still fail to get enough fruits and vegetables in their diet. Make sure you’re not one of them.
Kids and Vegetables: Is Vegetable Consumption in Children on the Rise?
There is some good news about kids and fruit and vegetable consumption. In 2012, new federal standards made it mandatory that schools offer healthier food options for kids, including more fruits, vegetables and whole grains. It seems to be working. After studying what kids ate after establishing these new standards, fruit consumption rose by 23%. While kids didn’t choose to put more vegetables on their plate, the amount of vegetables on their plate they consumed rose by over 16%. That’s a small victory!
The Bottom Line?
Kids need their vegetables. Expose them to them as early as possible and lead by example. Make sure you’re getting your five or more a day too!
Medical News Today. “Giving children a taste for vegetables ‘often and early”
Harvard Gazette. “Study shows kids eating more fruits, veggies”
Pediatrics. 2005 Feb;115(2):e216-22.
Obes Res. 2001 Mar;9(3):171-8.
The CDC Guide to Strategies to Increase the Consumption of Fruits and Vegetables
Science Daily. “Regular family meals together boost kids’ fruit and vegetable intake”
JAMA Pediatrics. “Fruit and Vegetable Intakes of Children and Adolescents in the United States”