Every nutritionist agrees upon one thing: children who regularly eat generous portions of fruit and vegetables are healthier, both in the short and long-term. Whether it’s the high fiber content that helps their digestive systems, the vitamins and minerals that help their tissues and bones to develop, or the low-sugar energy rush that they can provide, fruit and vegetables should be a central part of any child’s diet.
However, as any parent knows, kids don’t automatically follow the guidelines of the world’s leading nutritionists. In fact, given half a chance, they will do the exact opposite, reaching for candy bars and junk food every mealtime.
It doesn’t have to be that way though. Here are four effective ways to encourage your children to eat healthy food, promoting good dietary habits that will last a lifetime.
Eating healthily yourself is probably the single most important way to get your kids to do the same. Children take their cues about what they should be eating and how to prepare food from their elders, and nobody is more influential than their parents.
It makes sense to eat a balanced diet that is fruit and vegetables for many reasons, but if you are struggling to make the change, think about how it can improve your children’s health. Instead of suffering from child obesity, early onset diabetes and poor dental health, a nutrient rich, low sugar diet can help your kids grow and avoid health problems when they hit adulthood.
Try to cook using fresh ingredients, and avoid processed foods. Introduce kids to the tools of the trade – from spatulas and colanders to slow cookers and saucepans. Make cooking a daily event, with everyone playing a role (while keeping it as safe as possible), so that everyone in the household can work together to improve their diets.
The way you serve food can have a major effect on how children consume it. Imagine a plate with a mountain of fries and a huge burger, dripping with melted cheese, alongside a tomato, lettuce and cucumber salad. What’s going to happen to that salad? Not much, probably, beyond being scraped into the trash.
Studies have found that children are much more likely to eat vegetables if they are served first and separately to the main course. If you serve a plate of carrots, potato and broccoli before the chicken nuggets and fries, there’s much more likelihood that they will be consumed. Don’t make veggies compete with junk food – they’ll never stand a chance.
Some parents just don’t take the effort to find out what their kids actually like to eat. Everyone has different tastes. Some love olives, while others can’t stand them. Some love broccoli, and some adore tomatoes. The trick is to find out which vegetables your kids go for, instead of serving the same old mashed potato every meal time and seeing half of it thrown away.
When you cook your curries, pasta dishes or even pizzas, try to offer a range of vegetable sides and toppings. Give kids the choice of different vegetables so that they can explore the variety of tastes on offer and come to their own choices about what to eat. Food is such a vital part of our sense of who we are, and kids are constantly trying to find out where they fit into the world. So don’t limit their possibilities. Give them a chance to fall in love with eggplant or spinach. They will probably find something they adore.
Visual cues can definitely be a powerful way to encourage kids to eat healthily. In a recent study, researchers tried to find out how promotional banners and cartoons affect the way children eat, and what they found was astonishing.
They placed the same salad and vegetable buffet in different elementary school cafeterias. In a quarter of the cafeterias, they left the buffet undecorated. In another quarter, they decorated the buffet with colourful banners showing fruit and vegetable-themed “super heroes.” Another quarter showed video cartoons of the same characters, while a final quarter combined the cartoons and the banners.
What did they find? Cartoons alone had very little effect on eating habits. However, where the colorful banners were in place, salad consumption rose by 90 percent, and where cartoons and banners were both featured, it rose by a massive 240 percent.
This suggests that it’s not necessarily the food itself that kids don’t like. It’s the way parents and educators sell the food. As one of the study’s authors argues, “It’s possible to use marketing techniques to do some good things” and encouraging kids to eat healthy food is one of them.
In the home, you could decorate your kitchen and dining room with pictures of cartoon characters based on healthy food. Creating your own videos might be impossible, but even a few pictures here and there can have a beneficial effect.
You don’t need to become an expert marketer to sell fruit and vegetables to your kids, but it does help to think about why children make the nutritional choices that they do. By making mealtimes more colorful, giving more choice, serving vegetables separately and setting a good example, you can shape those choices towards a diet that avoids obesity and protects against disease.