How to Get Kids to Eat Their Vegetables

Tricks to Get Kids to Eat Healthier at School
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What happens if we give one group of kids a plate of cookies and the other group the same number of cookies, but cut in half, and tell both groups they can eat as many as they want? Researchers reported that decreasing cookie size led to 25% fewer cookie calories eaten.

The goal of that study was to help counter obesity-promoting eating behaviors facilitated by the availability of large portions of junk food. The findings “suggest that reducing the size of cookies (without altering the total amount of food) decreases children’s short-term caloric intake,” a dietary strategy for parents to discreetly decrease unhealthy behaviors. But they were using sugar wafers– what’s in those things? Partially hydrogenated oil (trans fats). What’s so bad about trans fats? See Trans Fat in Meat and Dairy, Trans Fat, Saturated Fat, and Cholesterol: Tolerable Upper Intake of Zero, and Breast Cancer Survival and Trans Fat. No one should be eating those cookies. In fact, I can think of another “dietary strategy” to decrease kid’s intake—don’t give them any!

Admittedly, this is easier said than done. Even in the ‘granola crunchy’ San Francisco Bay Area, a proposed ban on junk food suggested by parents and school administrators sent a faction of teachers into an apoplectic fit. In Texas, there was so much parental outrage that they got lawmakers to pass a Safe Cupcake Amendment. The amendment, known as Lauren’s Law, ensures that parents and grandparents of schoolchildren celebrating a birthday can bring whatever they want to school.

Fine. What if we just offered fruit in addition to the cupcakes at classroom celebrations? In a study outlined in my video, Tricks to Get Kids to Eat Healthier at School, researchers provided bowls of fresh, cut-up fruit in addition to the party food brought by the parents at two of four kindergarten or preschool celebrations to observe student response. No special effort was made to encourage students to choose the fruit: they just put it out there. Would kids actually eat fruit when there was birthday cake, ice cream, and cheese puffs taking up nearly a whopping third of their daily caloric intake? Yes! On average each kid ate a full fruit serving. Take that, cheesy puffs!

There are entire curricula available now for schools, such as “Veggiecation,” where for a whole year classrooms feature a new “veggie of the month,” sprinkled with nutrition mantras like ”Fiber equals a happy tummy.” And they work! “The active engagement of students in tasting and rating vegetable dishes seemed to have contributed to higher consumption of featured vegetables.”

One school was able in some cases to double vegetable consumption just by giving them attractive names. Elementary students ate twice the number of carrots if they were called “X-ray Vision Carrots,” compared to when they were just “carrots” or generically named “Food of the Day.”

How about “Power Punch Broccoli, Silly Dilly Green Beans, or Tiny Tasty Tree Tops?” Selection of broccoli increased by 109.4%, and green beans by 177%. Conclusion: “these studies demonstrate that using an attractive name to describe a healthy food in a cafeteria is robustly effective, persistent, and scalable with little or no money or experience. These names were not carefully crafted, discussed in focus groups, and then pre-tested.” They just thought them up out of thin air. And kids were suckered into eating healthier for months by putting out silly little signs. In this school, vegetable intake was up nearly 100%, while in the control school without signs, vegetable consumption started low and actually got worse. So why isn’t every single school in the country doing this right now?! Bring it up at your next PTA meeting.

And if we want to get really bold, we can join the nutritious school lunch revolution led by pioneering organizations like the New York Coalition for Healthy School Food (check out their website at www.healthyschoolfood.org).

Whenever I find myself frustrated by half measures, I am forced to remind myself just how SAD the Standard American Diet is. See Nations Diet in Crisis for a reality check. One of the problems is that parents may not even realize there is a problem (Mothers Overestimate Dietary Quality).

For more healthy eating tricks check out: Tricks to Get Kids to Eat Healthier at Home and Tricks to Get Adults to Eat Healthier.

-Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here and watch my full 2012 – 2014 presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More than an Apple a Day, and From Table to Able.

Image Credit: U.S. Department of Agriculture / Flickr

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  • JUne

    I’d be interested in contacting schools who had this Veggiecation. Anyone know of any schools?

  • Rivka Freeman

    Dr Greger I want you to be more straightforward. Cutting food into smaller pieces, a dietary strategy for parents to decrease “unhealthy behaviors” is really taking advantage of more surface area to decrease “overeating”! I think you must always describe what you mean when by “healthy” or “unhealthy” behavior. Strategies to decrease calorie consumption or to limit overeating just sounds less judgmental and is easier for people to understand. Dr Greger your videos and blogs get better every day. Thanks

  • AngelaRGonzales

    The amendment, known as Lauren’s Law, ensures that parents and grandparents of schoolchildren celebrating a birthday can bring whatever they want to school. http://0rz.tw/9BIIY

  • Hillary Feerick-Hillenbrand

    Read kids the Mitch Spinach children’s book series. Learn how to get superpowers from eating fruits and veggies!

  • Rainier

    How about making the vegetables more tasty, not with sugar, but with cooking? My children love broccoli because I stir fry it with minced garlic and a little oil. They love all kinds of green leafy vegetables cooked in this way. Stir fry vegetables are a staple dish in lots of Asian families and many children enjoy eating them.