How To Get Our Kids to Eat Their Vegetables

How To Get Our Kids to Eat Their Vegetables
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When researchers offered kids broccoli or a chocolate bar, which do you think they picked? Four out of five picked the chocolate (though how proud are the parents of the one in five kids that chose the broccoli?!).

But what if we put an Elmo sticker on the broccoli? When an Elmo sticker was placed on the broccoli, it was half and half. Fifty percent chose the broccoli.

It works in schools, too. A picture of SpongeBob saying, “Got beans?” and 37% more boys and 17% more girls chose green beans. One little sign and kids were eating significantly more vegetables.

We saw how we should cut up (or cut out) cookies to minimize consumption in my video Tricks to Get Kids to Eat Healthier at School. How should we cut up vegetables to maximize consumption? Which do you think 9 to 12 year olds ate more of, whole slices, sticks or stars? And do they like them bigger, or smaller? The results were strikingly clear. Turns out “Shape was very influential; children clearly preferred having their vegetables cut.” Stars were liked the most. What about whole slices versus sticks? No difference. It turns out that size only mattered for the whole chunk: the ordinary size was preferred to the miniature versions.

If they’re still not biting, we can apply the same trick I use to get our dog to eat stuff she doesn’t like: dip it in peanut butter. “Pairing vegetables with peanut butter may successfully increase intake, even in vegetable-resistant children.” Offering a salad dressing dip may help, too.

Then there’s always the hidden vegetables strategy.  In one study, “broccoli, cauliflower, tomatoes, squash, and zucchini were covertly added to familiar entrees so that the appearance, flavor, and texture of the original recipes were maintained,” like pureeing vegetables into a pasta sauce, and families weren’t any wiser. Covertly incorporating vegetables into foods can “have a beneficial effect on children’s vegetable intake, but it should not be the only way that vegetables are served to children.”  Since the appetite for an initially unappetizing vegetable can be increased through repeated exposure, it is important to use several strategies to ensure that children experience different forms of vegetables, especially whole vegetables, because they’re not always going to be at home.

Worse comes to worst, public health advocates can make a video game. There’s a public/private partnership, “The Quest to Lava Mountain,” where you can apparently harvest kale and gain “knowledge about the health benefits of eating healthy foods such as fruits, vegetables, and whole-grain foods” as well as the detrimental effects of eating junk. Where were the kale video games when I was growing up?

What may be the best way, though, to get kids to eat more fruits and vegetables? One study, featured in my video Tricks to Get Kids to Eat Healthier at Home, looked at all sorts of parenting styles—should we pressure them or should we lay off? What was the most important factor? The most important predictor of children’s fruit consumption was… the parents consumption. That was pretty much the case with vegetables, too. If we want our kids to eat healthy, we have to model healthy behavior. The researchers concluded that in order to try to increase children’s fruit and vegetable consumption, parents should be guided to improve their own diets first.

For a smattering of other videos on children’s health, check out:

I cover grown-ups in 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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  • Wendy

    Dr. G, the below statement by University of Maryland Medical Center concerns me. They state that taking any one B vitamin can cause imbalance of other B vitamins. As vegans we have to take a B12 supplement, but wouldn’t this supplement create a bit of imbalance amongst the other B vitamins? And, I don’t want to have to take a multi-B vitamin mixture, as B vitamins are synthetic, and folic acid supplements known to be harmful. The B-12 doses we take as vegans tend to be extremely high dose, even though we don’t utilize it all. What does the science say about B12 supplements creating shortages of other B vitamin levels in body? Is the science conclusive, and how credible is it?

    “Taking any one of the B vitamins for a long period of time can result in an imbalance of other important B vitamins. For this reason, you may want to take a B complex vitamin, which includes all the B vitamins.”

    Source: Vitamin B12 (cobalamin) | University of Maryland Medical Center http://umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/supplement/vitamin-b12-cobalamin#ixzz34uIWEvzz
    University of Maryland Medical Center

    • Jon

      Many foods are now fortified with B12 including tofu and alternative milks. You can always use nutritional yeast as well.

      • guest

        Yes, but most vegans, it seems, use B12 supplements, and this high dose is being claimed to cause other B-vitamin deficits. This person brings up a good point, and the “science”, (we all would hope!) will give clarity. Hopefully the good doctor can speak up on this, at is a very serious issue.

  • Ginger C

    I agree that modeling is the best way to produce positive behaviors in children. I didn’t grow up in a home, where vegetables were eaten very much. We did eat canned corn and green beans as well as ice berg lettuce salad. Looking into the future, I knew my children would be healthier if they ENJOYED eating vegetables. I also knew that the type of force my father used whenever my mother occasionally cooked army green broccoli or boiled cabbage would not produce happy veggie eaters. I also decided if they grew up eating them as normal, they wouldn’t reject them. Each of them had green vegetables as a first food. Since veggies gagged me, I ate them with a smile but never chewed them. If I swallowed them whole all the while smiling with faked enjoyment, I didn’t taste or gag. My children all love veggies and I eventually learned to enjoy them as well. Most of my grandchildren were raised with this food philosophy, too. They eat their veggies.