Just like extra-dark chocolate drizzled over strawberries, the news about how often kids eat fruits and veggies is bittersweet. On the one hand, the under-18 set are eating more whole fruits. Unfortunately, 6 out of 10 kids still aren’t eating enough fruit, and 9 out of 10 still aren’t eating enough vegetables, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
From decreasing the risk of serious diseases to fighting inflammation and controlling weight, dining on a wide variety of fruits and vegetables has tremendous health benefits for us all—but particularly for kids. “Because dietary habits are set largely at a young age and last a lifetime, we’re very much interested in increasing fruit and vegetable intake in children as a health priority,” says Diane Harris, PhD, MPH, a health scientist in the division of nutrition, physical activity and obesity at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
1. Make It Interactive.
Forget coloring on a placemat when you’re out. Drawing kids into eating more healthfully is about making it a hands-on experience. “One of our top-selling items on the kids’ menu is a chopped salad,” explains John O’Connell, corporate director of food of beverage Americas operations for Hyatt Hotels Corporation. “It comes to the table somewhat deconstructed. You add the ingredients together, it goes into a large thermos and they get to shake the dressing themselves at the table. Little things like that can be interactive and more fun for kids.”
2. Get Out of Their Way.
Quit thinking, “Oh, my kid won’t eat that” and let them try it. Adult sensibilities may be getting in their way, says Nona Evans, president and executive director of the Whole Kids Foundation, a nonprofit founded by Whole Foods. “Our kids are so capable and willing to eat great food if we give them the choice.” She shared a story about a child who took a bite out of an eggplant like it was an apple—but was almost stopped by her mom. And yes, a second bite followed.
3. Plant Something.
Grow some tomatoes, summer squash or sugar snap peas in a home or community garden. When kids nurture a plant, they’re invested in eating it. “We’ve seen that they’ll share what they’ve learned about vegetables with their parents and start requesting carrots at dinner,” says Emily Swartzlander, senior program manager of community relations at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina, which has built community gardens as part of their Nourishing North Carolina initiative to help families eat more healthfully.
4. Don’t Give Up.
“Our taste buds regenerate every seven days. I have a 13-year-old and I’m seeing it,” says Evans, whose kid used to pick cilantro out of rice and now can’t get enough of it. “All of the sudden he’s discovered that things he used to not like taste different now.” So just because you’ve tried (unsuccessfully) to give your kid something before, don’t cross it off the list forever. Keep trying again. And again. They just might surprise you.