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“Eat your vegetables, Johnny. They’re good for you.”
“Just take a tiny bite, Mary. You might like it.”
Did those mealtime nudges inspire you to eat more spinach when you were a kid? Did they turn you on to cantaloupe?
Very likely not. And those messages may be equally uninspiring to your children. But don’t give up. Encouraging kids to eat their fruits and vegetables is important, says Melinda Johnson, MS, RD, a former spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and mother of two boys.
“Fruits and vegetables offer unique nutrition that no other foods offer,” Johnson says. “Certain vitamins, like vitamins C and folate (a B vitamin) can be almost impossible to get if no fruits and vegetables are consumed.”
Tips for parents
To help children develop a taste for produce, Johnson offers these tips:
- Lead the way
Studies show that kids tend to eat the way their parents eat.
- Start early
Children may develop a taste for stronger-tasting vegetables such as squash if you feed it to them in mashed, easy-to-digest form when they are infants.
- Be persistent
Serve a fruit or a veggie, or both, at each meal, and for at least one snack a day. Repeated exposure may make your child more likely to accept challenging foods.
- Add palate-pleasers
Some vegetables taste bitter to kids. A little cheese or butter can help bitter veggies taste good.
- Try different recipes
A child who doesn’t care for plain cooked carrots may love carrots cooked with a touch of brown sugar.
- Go raw
Many children don’t appreciate mushy cooked vegetables but are fine with the crunch of raw veggies—particularly if they’re served with low-fat dip.
- Let the kids help
When you shop, allow them to pick out which fruit they would like to eat or choose the prettiest apple. At home, ask an older child to find a recipe for broccoli that he or she might like.
- Be flexible
Use fresh, frozen, canned, dried or juiced products to meet your child’s daily requirements. But make wise choices. Choose fruits packaged in fruit juice (not heavy syrup), applesauce with no sugar added and canned vegetables low in sodium. And make sure the juices you serve are 100 percent juice; otherwise, they’re just sugar water. Try not to overdo the juice though, Johnson advises. Keep it to one or two servings a day, and use whole fruit to meet the rest of your child’s fruit servings.
- Offer new choices
Jicama, sweet potatoes, avocados, guavas, mangos and kiwi fruits are just a few examples of out-of-the-ordinary items your child might enjoy.
- Don't forget beans
Black beans and garbanzos don’t have a strong taste and they’re a good source of protein. And many kids enjoy the sweetness of baked beans.
- Dress up your greens
Iceberg lettuce doesn’t have much nutritional value, but romaine and other leaflike lettuces do. Use a low-fat dressing, and see if adding things like sunflower seeds, raisins or cheese chunks makes salads more appealing to kids.
- Have fun
“My boys love a dollop of light whipped cream on fruit, and that counts as dessert for them,” Johnson says. You can also warm frozen berries and serve them on ice cream or waffles. Other ideas are frozen grapes as a substitute for ice pops and homemade gelatin desserts with fruit in them. Avoid store-bought gelatin products, as they may contain more sugar than fruit.
- Plant a garden
Most kids will try the food they raise, Johnson says. No room for a garden? Try easy container plants such as tomatoes and strawberries.
Worth the effort
When you encourage children to eat a healthy diet now, you’re laying the groundwork for the future, Johnson points out. And changes don’t always happen overnight.
Remember to keep your eye on the prize, Johnson says. “Bring your patience, and recognize that this is a marathon, not a sprint.”