If you’re a parent, you know the challenge of trying to get your child to eat fruits and vegetables. And statistics show that too often parents are losing the dinnertime battle.
Only 22 percent of children ages 2 to 5 meet government recommendations for vegetable consumption. University of Miami research shows that among preschool children living in Miami-Dade County, 78 percent had dinner from a fast food restaurant at least once a week, only 12 percent had a family mealtime three to four times a week, and only 20 percent reported eating fruit three to four times a week.
It only gets worse as children get older. Just 16 percent of 6- to 11-year-olds meet the government’s guidelines, and only 11 percent of those ages 12 to 18 do.
Getting kids to consistently eat fruits and vegetables is a challenge, but it is not impossible. In fact, there are many ways you can not only get children of any age to consistently consume fruits and vegetables, but also get them to enjoy the experience.
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The best predictor of a child’s eating behavior is the eating patterns of her or her parents. This gives parents an amazing opportunity to model healthy eating habits that will provide a solid foundation for your kids’ future eating behaviors.
One of the first tricks to getting kids to eat fruits and vegetables is starting as early in life as possible. Even when breastfeeding, moms can eat a variety of vegetables that will transfer to the breastmilk, introducing babies to these tastes in their first months of life. This will make the transition to solid/ground vegetables less of a shock, and they will be more likely to consume the vegetables because it is a familiar taste.
When introducing babies to solid food, first use unsweetened bland foods such as oatmeal and rice cereal. Then introduce vegetables such as ground peas, spinach and carrots. Make fruits the very last solid food introduced so the sweet tastes come after the bland and not-so-sweet.
Once babies are at an age where they can eat solid food that isn’t ground up, think about introducing small pieces of vegetables, not just fruits. If babies are raised with the expectation that vegetables are a main part of their diet, it is much easier than trying to introduce them later in life.
Another great way to keep fruits and vegetables in the daily diet is to get kids involved in the meal preparation. This includes going to the grocery store and helping out with the items purchased. The produce section can have many great teachable moments to learn about the variety of fruits and vegetables available, especially in South Florida.
Kids love to learn how the beta carotene in carrots can help their eyesight, and how spinach can help their muscles grow. During meal preparation, let kids get hands-on with cleaning, prepping and, if old enough, cooking the meal’s vegetables. And encourage them to sample.
Incorporate the “one bite rule” in your household. Research consistently shows that children who have initially rejected a food must be exposed to it at least eight to 10 times for the food to be accepted. Have your child try at least one solid mouthful of a rejected food whenever it is served. After enough exposures, the food will be more familiar to the child and usually they begin to rate it more favorably.
On the other hand, do not force them to finish fruits and vegetables as it won’t change behavior. Require one bite, but try not to start an argument. Fighting and punishment create a negative meal experience, and your child will learn to associate food with bad feelings. Negative food experiences increase picky eating tendencies.
If you need to sneak some fruits and vegetables into meals, there are lots of ways. You can serve blended smoothies that have both greens and fruits as ingredients, casseroles and omelets that include several different vegetables, and use spices and healthy sauces to calm the taste of more bitter vegetables such as Brussels sprouts and broccoli.
Finally, make fruits and vegetables the go-to snack choice in your house. Keep fruit out on the counter in easy reach and eyesight and have pre-cut vegetables available for a quick-grab snack in the refrigerator. By following these tips and federal guidelines of a plate being divided into one quarter grains, one quarter proteins and one half fruit and vegetables, over time your kids will learn to make healthy choices independently.
Sarah Messiah, M.D., MPH, is co-director of the Division of Community-Based Research and Training at the Mailman Center for Child Development at UHealth – the University of Miami Health System. For more information, visit UHealthSystem.com/patients/pediatrics.