K-State nutrition educator offers suggestions on how to increase fruits and vegetables in children's diets
By Jessica Clark
If french fries and potato chips are the only vegetables your child eats and the green foods in his diet are Popsicles and candy, there is still hope for a well-balanced diet.
Many parents struggle to get their children to eat enough vegetables, and in some cases, fruits. Some may even worry that their child isn't getting proper nutrition because of picky eating behaviors. A Kansas State University nutrition educator says availability and preparation are of utmost importance when encouraging children to eat fruits and vegetables.
Sandy Procter, coordinator of the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program and extension associate in the department of human nutrition, says making plenty of fruit and vegetable choices available and presenting them in child-friendly ways may increase parents' success in getting their child to eat fruits and vegetables.
"Instead of serving an apple or peach sliced up and served individually, try making a fruit salad and the child can try many different types of fruit at once. With vegetables, most children appreciate them fresh and crisp. Cooking tends to bring out strong smells and flavors that children may not like as well," Procter said.
Another idea Procter suggests is involving children in the planning and purchasing of fruits and vegetables. "At a young age, children don't have much ownership of too many things. If they are given the opportunity to be involved in picking out a new vegetable for dinner, it really gives them a feeling of autonomy.
"If children are active in choosing what fruits and vegetables to buy and helping to prepare them, chances are they will be much more excited about eating them," Procter said.
Presenting fruits and vegetables in interesting ways is also important. Offering a dip, like cheese, peanut butter or cottage cheese, is a good way to make eating fruits and vegetables a little more fun. Changing the way food is presented also allows for more variety and children won't get tired of eating the same food, Procter said.
Preparing fruits and vegetables in bite size shapes or putting them in small plastic bags or containers also makes them appear more interesting. "Kids like things that are kid-sized and will enjoy eating fruits and vegetables prepared in child-sized portions," Procter said.
Another way to increase the amount of vegetables a child eats is to incorporate them into dishes or stews. "Adding tomato juice to a stew or adding corn, black beans and a little salsa to pizza gives it a unique southwest flavor that children may eat and not even know or care that more vegetables were added," Procter said.
There are some children who do not eat enough fruits and vegetables even when parents have tried various options, such as introducing them at an early age and making a wide variety available. These parents may be concerned about their children's nutrition and consider vitamin supplements, Procter said.
"Although getting vitamins and minerals through food is best, if vitamins are needed, always check with a physician before starting any vitamin supplement. Once-a-day kids vitamins are usually recommended, but it is important to make sure the supplements don't exceed 100 percent of any vitamin, according to the recommended dietary allowance for the child's age group," Procter said.
Another key to getting children to eat more fruits and vegetables is for parents to eat healthy and set good examples. "Children usually model their parents' behavior. Any choices parents make in their diet, children often model those same choices. Just by having a variety of fruits and vegetables available to eat or snack on and setting a good example may increase the amount of healthy foods children will eat," Procter said.