The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that kids do not eat enough fruits and vegetables. A shocking headline? As a pediatric registered dietitian, I am not at all surprised.
Specifically, in children ages 1 to 5, 32.1% did not eat a fruit daily, and 49.1% did not eat a vegetable daily. This is well below the recommended intake of five servings of fruits and vegetables daily for this age group. Portion sizes vary by age, but it’s recommended that these foods should be consumed with every meal.
So why aren’t kids eating fruits and veggies? Despite the obvious (pizza tastes better!), there are other reasons why kids don’t regularly go for these foods — and how you can get your kids to eat more plants.
[READ: Plant-Based Diets for Kids.]
Offer a Variety of Foods From a Young age
It is important to expose kids to a variety of foods starting in infancy (when developmentally appropriate at 6 months). There is no literature to support that starting with vegetables will make them less picky. But there is evidence that continued exposure to foods, even if the kids don’t appear to like them, helps develop a more long-term, positive relationship with eating all different flavors and types of foods.
[Read: 8 Strategies for Maintaining a Healthy Relationship With Food.]
Serve Kids Fruits and Vegetables With Each Meal
You have to offer a food for a child to eat it.
So often I hear “they don’t like that, so I don’t serve it.” But kids can’t learn to like something if they aren’t exposed to it. My suggestion is to put a fruit and/or vegetable on the plate every single meal. And also offer them with snacks.
They may not eat it, and that’s okay. Just continue to offer veggie and fruit choices. And offer them in various ways: different seasonings, with dips and using different cooking methods, like air fried or grilled. It takes multiple exposures sometimes for kids to learn to like a food. But they will never eat it, if they never see it.
Start With Small Portions
Especially for younger kids, trying new foods can be overwhelming. If the family is eating broccoli, put one piece on your young child’s plate. Then they can have more if they want it. But this is much more manageable then walking up to the table and seeing a large portion of a potentially scary new food.
Parents Should Model Healthy Eating
Often, parents aren’t eating fruits and vegetables. But positive role modeling is huge in getting kids to eat. If you aren’t eating the foods, you can never expect your child to eat them. So many parents may be picky themselves and dislike vegetables. You have to put on a good show and set an example of what healthy eating looks like for your children.
[READ: Vegetables You Should Be Eating.]
Make It Fun
Make veggie-eating fun for the family. Have a blind taste test with your children. And you can be honest if you haven’t “learned to like” something yet. You and your kids can try new foods in a fun way together.
The CDC report also found that compared with children living in food-sufficient households, those living in households with marginal or low food sufficiency were less likely to eat a daily fruit or vegetable.
So much more goes into health than choices alone. Those without regular access to fresh fruits and vegetables have more significant disease occurrence over time. Education is especially valuable for these families. Simply acknowledging that canned and frozen vegetables are just as healthy as fresh can help aid in increased intake and provision for children.
The CDC report also found that 57.1% of children 1 to 5 years drank a sugar-sweetened beverage at least once a week. This, also, is a non-surprising statistic to me. Sugar-sweetened beverages provide non-nutritive energy, which — over time — can lead to inappropriate weight gain and associated medical complications. While the occasional sweet beverage is not harmful, regular consumption of these drinks can cause long-term health complications. Additionally, when consuming sugar-sweetened beverages it often displaces intake of necessary fluids like water and calcium-containing beverages.
Offer fruits and vegetables as a regular part of your family meals. And don’t make it a huge deal. I caution parents from forcing kids to eat their fruits and veggies in order to get other food. We don’t want to teach them that these foods are gross and they just need to choke them down to get to the better stuff. Instead, try to get the kids involved in picking out the produce , cooking and seasoning it how they would like. Try to make it fun.
Even exposing them to these foods at a non-eating time is valuable too. Then they don’t feel pressure to eat them, but can just learn. Surprisingly, talking about the health benefits of fruits and vegetables is actually not valuable for little kids. Instead, try to lead by example — and keep it low key.
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How to Get Kids to Eat More Vegetables originally appeared on usnews.com