We've all heard about the health benefits of a diet rich in a variety of vegetables. These nutrient-packed powerhouse foods help with normal body processes and act as an armor to provide immunity against disease. The more variety we enjoy, the better. The Humane Society of the United States advocates the Three R's: "reducing" or "replacing" consumption of animal products, and "refining" our diets by switching to products from sources that adhere to higher animal welfare standards.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of Americans are currently missing the mark when it comes to fruit and vegetable consumption. Research shows 90 percent of the population regularly doesn't meet the recommended daily servings of fruits and vegetables. In fact, the data indicates the most consumed vegetable is the potato (prepared fried, of course) and the most consumed fruit is the orange (consumed as juice) among adolescents.
As parents, we want our children to grow up making the best choices possible. However, children are receiving messages on eating habits from a multitude of influences at a very young age. The Centers for Disease and Control reports dietary and activity habits are influenced by families, communities, schools, child care settings, medical care providers, faith-based institutions, government agencies, the media, and the food and beverage industries and entertainment industries.
The good news is we are seeing more and more programs dedicated to increasing accessibility and consumption of plant foods. In fact, this March you and your family can celebrate National Nutrition Month by savoring the flavor of eating right.
Together, we can make a difference, one bite at a time!
Here are five tips to get your kids to eat more vegetables:
1. Start Young
Studies show kids' eating habits are developed as early as 12-24 months old. This means, as parents, we should begin introducing the most health promoting foods once children begin the transition to solid foods.
Research has shown many of us have an innate preference for sweets. If this is the case for you, you may want to introduce your baby to vegetables first. Be sure to choose a variety like carrots, sweet potatoes, avocados, beets, squash and broccoli. Try steaming spinach, chopping and mixing small amounts in the cereals or grains for infants and toddlers. When serving broccoli, steam first, chop into bite-sized pieces and cool.
Take control of what goes in your baby's food by preparing it from scratch, even part of the time. This will allow you to purchase seasonal foods and experiment with a variety of produce. There are many great resources for preparing your own meals. Either way, offering a healthy mix of fruits and vegetables with grains will get your babies on the right track from the start.
2. MasterChef anyone?
If anyone has seen MasterChef Junior, you know it is possible for your kids to prepare gourmet meals every night. While my stepdaughter may not be rolling veggie sushi for us to enjoy, I do make it a priority to get her involved in the kitchen. She can be a picky eater, but she is more willing to try and enjoy the meals she has a hand in preparing. Studies show this is true among children. When kids are involved in food preparation, they consume more vegetables and report more positive associations with the experience.
3. Get digging.
Kids, like most people, are more willing to believe in something when they're invested. Starting a garden with your family will help kids learn where their food comes from. A garden will also create a feeling of empowerment and ownership of the food they created. Kids will feel proud they grew the string beans the family is eating and will be more likely to enjoy them throughout the meal.
Gardening will also allow kids to understand the seasonality of produce. Try growing your own pumpkins as a great opportunity to incorporate education along with fun!
4. If you don't succeed, try, again and again......
Did you know that it can take ten times for a person to try a food before they like it? As challenging as it is when kids don't like particular vegetables, don't give up. Be encouraging and persistent. Experiment with preparing vegetables in different ways. Kids may not like raw broccoli, but may love it steamed, roasted or even pureed in a creamy soup.
The cut of vegetables can have an impact on a child's willingness to try them. Some kids prefer veggies cut in "coins" while others prefer "sticks." Slicing or dicing the vegetables into small pieces in foods can also be more palatable for the discerning taster.
Incorporate some of your child's not so favorite vegetables in stir-fries, casseroles or stews. Sneak leafy vegetables into lasagna or puree white beans in the spaghetti sauce to add a nutrition punch everyone will benefit from. I also make sure to share what's in the foods my stepdaughter is gobbling up; especially when it is a vegetable or food she "doesn't like."
No matter what, keep the tasting and encouragement positive. Be sure to always point out why foods are beneficial instead of what may happen if they don't eat these foods.
5. Do as I say and as I do
Adults can influence children by being a positive role model. It's difficult to trust someone who says one thing and does another. This theory applies to all areas of child development, including diet. If you want your child to be willing to try a variety of vegetables, you must do the same. Preparing plant-strong meals for the whole family to enjoy will send the right message of health and sustainability to everyone. The food habits formed in childhood has tremendous influence on how we eat for the rest of our lives. Making small changes like participating in Meatless Monday as a family can set kids on a positive path.
For family-friendly and kid approved recipes, please visit humanesociety.org/recipes.
Karla Dumas RDN, is a Registered Dietitian with The Humane Society of the United States.