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Tricks to Get Kids to Eat Healthier at Home

Tips like cutting vegetables into shapes, covertly pureeing greens into sauces, and modeling healthy behaviors can improve our children’s diets.

September 4, 2013 |
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Sources Cited

M. K. Spill, L. L. Birch, L. S. Roe, B. J. Rolls. Hiding vegetables to reduce energy density: An effective strategy to increase children's vegetable intake and reduce energy intake. Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 2011 94(3):735 - 741.

A. D. Blatt, L. S. Roe, B. J. Rolls. Hidden vegetables: An effective strategy to reduce energy intake and increase vegetable intake in adults. Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 2011 93(4):756 - 763.

C. A. Johnston, J. L. Palcic, C. Tyler, S. Stansberry, R. S. Reeves, J. P. Foreyt. Increasing vegetable intake in Mexican-American youth: A randomized controlled trial. J Am Diet Assoc 2011 111(5):716 - 720.

A. Olsen, C. Ritz, L. Kramer, P. Moller. Serving styles of raw snack vegetables. What do children want? Appetite 2012 59(2):556 - 562.

N. Beasley, S. Sharma, R. Shegog, R. Huber, P. Abernathy, C. Smith, D. Hoelscher. The quest to Lava Mountain: Using video games for dietary change in children. J Acad Nutr Diet 2012 112(9):1334 - 1336.

D. Marchiori, L. Waroquier, O. Klein. Split them! smaller item sizes of cookies lead to a decrease in energy intake in children. J Nutr Educ Behav. 2012 May-Jun;44(3):251-5.

C. Vereecken, A. Rovner, L. Maes. Associations of parenting styles, parental feeding practices and child characteristics with young children's fruit and vegetable consumption. Appetite 2010 55(3):589 - 596.

B. Wansink, D. R. Just, C. R. Payne, M. Z. Klinger. Attractive names sustain increased vegetable intake in schools. Prev Med 2012 55(4):330 - 332.

K. K. Isoldi, S. Dalton, D. P. Rodriguez, M. Nestle. Classroom cupcake celebrations: observations of foods offered and consumed. J Nutr Educ Behav. 2012 Jan-Feb;44(1):71-5.

J. O. Fisher, J. A. Mennella, S. O. Hughes, Y. Liu, P. M. Mendoza, H. Patrick. Offering “dip” promotes intake of a moderately-liked raw vegetable among preschoolers with genetic sensitivity to bitterness. J Acad Nutr Diet 2012 112(2):235 - 245.

J. S. Litt, M.-J. Soobader, M. S. Turbin, J. W. Hale, M. Buchenau, J. A. Marshall. The influence of social involvement, neighborhood aesthetics, and community garden participation on fruit and vegetable consumption. Am J Public Health 2011 101(8):1466 - 1473.

L. Suriano. Veggiecation: A Culinary Nutrition Education Program About Vegetables.

B. Wansink, K. van Ittersum, J. E. Painter. How descriptive food names bias sensory perceptions in restaurants. Food Qual Prefer. 2005 16(5):393­-400.

B. Wansink. Changing eating habits on the home front: Lost lessons from World War II research. J Public Policy Mark. 2002 21(1):90-99.

B. Wansink, S.-B. Park. Sensory suggestiveness and labelling: Do soy labels bias taste? J Sens Stud. 2002 17(5):483 - 491

Acknowledgements

Images thanks to More Good Foundation via Flickr and fir0002, flagstaffotos.com.au, and Evan-Amos via Wikimedia Commons. Thanks to Ellen Reid and Shane Barrett for their keynote help.

Transcript

If you offer kids broccoli or a chocolate bar, which do you think they'd pick? 4 out of 5 pick the chocolate.

OK, how proud are the parents of the kids that chose the broccoli right now?

But what if you put an Elmo sticker on the broccoli? When an Elmo sticker was placed on the broccoli, it was half and half. 50% 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. 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, you 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 another 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.

If worse comes to worst you 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,” and the detrimental effects of eating junk.

What may be the best way, though, to get kids to eat more fruits and vegetables? This study looked at all sorts of parenting styles - should you pressure them, should you lay off? - and what was the most important factor? The most important predictor of children’s fruit consumption was… wait for it… the parent’s consumption, and 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 darn diets.

To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video. This is just an approximation of the audio contributed by Ariel Levitsky.

To help out on the site please email volunteer@nutritionfacts.org.

Dr. Michael Greger

Doctor's Note

Where were the kale video games when I was growing up!? :)

For a smattering of other video's on children's health, check out:

  1. Nerves of Mercury
  2. Doctors’ Nutritional Ignorance
  3. Protein, Puberty, and Pollutants
  4. How Fast Can Children Detoxify from PCBs?
  5. Does a Drink of Water Make Children Smarter?
  6. Are Cats or Dogs More Protective For Children’s Health?

This is the second of a 3-part video series on practical tips for dietary improvement. Check out the last video of the day Tricks to Get Kids to Eat Healthier at School (which includes the cookie cutting experiment). Next I'll cover grown-ups in Tricks to Get Adults to Eat Healthier.

Anyone think their kids would have chosen the broccoli?

If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here.

  • Thea

    Having a good role model is so important for kids. I really like this video.

    It got me to thinking: How much do role models affect adults? How much does my eating healthy affect the adults around me? I know it goes the other way. People eating poorly around me sometimes entice me to eat poorly. (Those chips shared in the break room sometimes… argh!) This is an important question because it puts the impetus for having healthy kids on everyone in the community, not just the parents — as other people affect parents and then the parents affect their kids.

    Over the last couple of decades, more and more people are choosing to eat a whole food plant based diet. I wonder how much of that increase in healthy eating is due to influence from other adult role models. While we may not know how much our behavior affects others, we know it does have an effect. Something to think about the next time I sit down to have lunch in the break room or attend a potluck.

    • beccadoggie10

      A number of people have come up to me and said that I have beautiful skin and hair. If my skin is healthy, I thought it was because of good genes and not getting too much sun. But, they said they thought it was more, like my diet.

      My diet is mostly dark leafy greens for calcium, and magnesium, carrots and sweet potatoes for vitamin A and totally vegan to reduce pain and inflammation, which is a constant.battle since injuring my spine. But, my diet is better now than ever before. I’ve dropped lettuce and added more nutrient rich veggies; dropped meat, white potatoes and dairy inc. eggs, and added healthy veggie and fruit fiber and lots of blue and black berries.

      I wear no makeup since reading the Environmental Working Group report on Cosmetics. But, even before I read it, make up was really not my thing. With me, it’s what you see is what you receive.

      • Thea

        Nice. Sounds like your diet is pretty near perfect. You are a great role model for your community and a walking advertisement. :-)

    • TCB Health

      This is a great comment, Thea, and a great example of how we are all a part of the issues and solutions. Adults absolutely can affect other adults, just as you note in your chips example. The same concept is why the “buddy system” is promoted for exercise plans – we tend to be more likely to keep up with a regimen when we’re held accountable to someone. Thanks for the great post.

      • Thea

        TCB Health: Thanks for the feedback!

        So, what does TCB stand for? I’m guessing “The Country’s Best”

  • Plantstrongdoc M.D.

    Solution: Vitamix, broccoli, beetroot, kale, fresh and frozen fruit and a little juice. And then off to school.

    • http://nutritionfacts.org/ Michael Greger M.D.

      Whoa–them are some lucky kids!

    • VegAtHeart

      Great idea…but I am not a gifted cook and am likely to create a disaster unless I have the exact recipe….what proportion of ingredients did you use?

      • Plantstrongdoc M.D.

        You have to use a high-power blender, so there are no chunks (of broccoli). I use Vitamix. 1 fresh peeled beetroot, approx 30 grapes, 3-4 bouquet of broccoli, 1 big handful of fresh kale, 1 slice pineapple (incl. stem), frozen strawberries, frozen blueberries, 1 peeled fresh orange, approx 300 ml (depends on the thickness, so it can vary) of apple juice (not from concentrate), 1 slice of lemon or a little piece of ginger. Difficult to be more specific than this in the recipe. It will make approx 1500 ml of the best smoothie. Some would argue that there are too much fruit and too little vegetables, but it is designed to sneak powerful vegetables in the kid. Slowly you can increase the content of vegetables. This and a cup of coffee and I am off to work!

        • Thea

          Thanks for posting this recipe! I have a hard time coming up with smoothies that work for my own tastes. I probably need your kid version.

          I was thinking that the one thing I would do add is some ground flax seed. Just a thought.

          Thanks again for posting this.

          • Plantstrongdoc M.D.

            Actually, I have thought of exactly that – for health benefits. BTW I keep the peel on the slice of lemon (organic of course).

        • VegAtHeart

          Just got around to making your smoothie. Amazing!

          • VegAtHeart

            This smoothie is a great way to get beets into the diet, which is something I have been struggling to find. Can anyone provide any other tips on how to painlessly sneak beets it into the diet? Say, for example, an exact recipe for a whole foods plant based version of Borscht soup.

          • Plantstrongdoc M.D.

            Have you tried to bake them with other root vegetables (sliced like french fries) with a little salt and spices

          • Tini

            I found the best way to eat them is to peel the beets, cut it in cubes steam them for 20-30 minutes and then add a couple of tablespoon Organic cider vinegar with a touch of honey to your liking. The cider vinegar seems to eliminate the beet taste and the honey makes it yummy : )

          • Plantstrongdoc M.D.

            Glad to hear

  • Sabrina

    Dr. Michael what do you suggest for younger children around 12-24 months?

  • just me

    I modeled eating veggies even though they mad me gag. I used to pretend to like them, then swallow them whole. Little by little, I learned to enjoy their flavors, though. Now in their 20s and 30s, they all love most vegetables.

    • Thea

      just me: Wow! That’s amazing. I’m really impressed. What a great parent you are.

  • Lawrence

    Question for the good doctor: When we puree or blend vegetables and fruit are we “damaging” the fibre and other nutrients or are we just making them more accessible?

    • beccadoggie10

      I doubt that the fiber and nutrients are damaged from pureeing or blending. Boiling, maybe. But I think they are made more accessible. My two year old grandson has been drinking kale smoothies since he was weaned. He’s very healthy, lean and solid muscle. No fat on this kid.

      • Lawrence

        Thanks beccadoggie. That is what I thought but I was wondering if there was any research on this point.

  • beccadoggie10

    When my daughter was small, she never received junk food from me. When I took her to the pool at age 2 1/2, I also took a container of frozen mixed vegetables. And, some frozen cubes of apple or some other juice. By the time she was ready for something to eat, the veggies and ice cubes were thawed and very appealing.

    Now, my daughter is using her memories on her son although he has always received healthy snacks and meals from her. One way to get Ethan to drink kale smoothies was to puree kale, fresh ginger, and apple in a Vita-Mix blender so herself, and of course, Ethan also wanted whatever his mom was drinking. At the age of 2, Ethan was drinking Kale smoothies. He’s a chip of the ole block!

    • Thea

      beccadoggie10: Another great story. Thanks for sharing.

  • beccadoggie10

    Does everyone grow their own food? Or, do you buy organic produce and other foods?

    I ask because I just received an important heads up from the Cornucopia Institute.

    http://www.cornucopia.org/2013/09/food-safety-draft/

    Also, http://www.cornucopia.org/food-safety/

    Unless you grow all your own food…or even if you grow all your own food, it may be at risk because of bad policy at the FDA and USDA, which smells of Monsanto to me!

    Involvement is important.

    I’ve been using the Humane Society’s (Michael Greger’s) research and attachments to put comments into the record at the US FDA, and as usual have been ignored. This needs a large momentum to save organic and healthy agriculture!!!.

    • Pandabonium

      Americans spend a lot of time, money, and chemicals on growing the biggest crop there – lawn grass. I live in a fairly rural community in Japan and most people here have fruit trees and vegetable gardens. Some are organic, many people use chemical fertilizers, but few use herbicides or pesticides. Gifting of fruits or veggies among neighbors is very common.

      It is isn’t perfection, but which social arrangement has the best opportunity to improve? I hope Americans move increasingly toward food over grass in the yard and from there to organic food. Don’t wait for the government to do something.

      At least here I have an opportunity to discuss the matter with neighbors as we give each other part of what we’ve grown and encourage better ways of producing healthier food.

      Cheers.

      • Thea

        Pandabonium: I’m jealous. Sounds like a way better way to do things to me!

        I refuse to keep an American style lawn, but I hate gardening and don’t have much of a front or back yard. So most trees and growing my own food are out for me.

        I love the picture you paint of what happens where you live. Maybe some day I’ll work more on growing my own food. I do have some nut trees growing in my small yard right now. Maybe they will actually produce nuts at some point in the future, and I could gift them to my neighbors. If so, I’ll think of you. :-)

        • Pandabonium

          Thea, growing food isn’t for everyone, but perhaps you can grow some wild flowers to attract insects (like butterflies and bees) which pollinate food crops and provide food for other animals. Even just sowing some clover will create a nice ground cover that enriches the soil with nitrogen. No maintenance required.

          Nut trees – awesome. Bless you.

          • Thea

            Pandabonium: re: “wild flowers” Yes! Got that covered. My yard is a mine field of bees at certain times of year. But I take pride in what grows and what lives there. I have a very healthy family of garden snakes that I glimps fairly often. Also I have seen praying mantises every couple of years. It may be hubris or coincidence, but I think I have a nice diversity of fauna because I keep my landscape natural and chemical-free.

            Thanks for your thoughts.

  • Mike

    Here’s the video game for kids mentioned in this video….

    https://thequesttolavamountain.com/

    It says it’s available free but you need a “game code” to get it to work and it doesn’t tell you how to get one.

    If anyone figures it out, please post.

    Mike

  • Amber Keumurian
  • leanna

    Hi. I’m a mother of 3 kids, and my youngest just turned a year old a month ago. So far all three as toddlers insisted on eating meals consisting of a lot of fruits, as well as other foods like legumes, spelt pasta, vegetables, mushrooms etc, but when it came to fruit it was definitely their favorite, and they would eat pretty big amounts of it at sittings. Health recommendations are that toddlers can’t handle a lot of fiber, and even your article states that they don’t do well on raw food diets (never tried that exclusively). But I’ve had 3 kids and they’ve ALL done this. Even when they eat avocados they still demand fruits like grapes, bananas, berries. For example they left oatmeal uneaten, toast uneaten etc all in favor of a lot of grapes as toddlers and never been sick from it, or anything like that. That’s the reason they actually say they recommend milk and eggs for toddlers (avocados are considered “substitutes for veg*ans).

    • leanna

      What I’m asking is your thoughts regarding the theory that toddlers can only handle concentrated food sources. I understand that at times small children do go through periods of reduced appetite, so I see the value in prioritizing nutrient-dense foods during those times, but in general? I should add that I have yet to have a child with a small appetite.

      • Thea

        leanna: I don’t have an expert reply for you, but I wanted to share my appreciation for your posts. You have some lucky kids!

        My understanding of the point about nutrient-dense foods for kids is to make sure they get enough calories. If a parent has every indication that their kids are getting enough calories and are eating enough variety of foods, I don’t see the point in worrying about pushing say the avocados. That’s just my thoughts/agreeing with you.

        As for the large amounts of fruits: I don’t know. But if your kids are turning out great and are eating more than *just* fruit, I wouldn’t think it is a problem worth worrying about???

        Sounds like you may already be aware of the following information (or may be questioning it), but it is worth taking a look at I think the site is very trust-worthy:

        http://www.vrg.org/nutshell/kids.htm

        Here’s the whole series. Another article may also interest you:

        http://www.vrg.org/family/

        I hope you get better replies than mine. And good luck!

        • leanna

          thankyou :) very reassuring.