Despite numerous public awareness campaigns, statistics show that few children in the United States eat the recommended five or more servings of fruits and vegetables a day. That's reason for concern among health care professionals.
Research suggests that a diet rich in fruits and vegetables can reduce the risk of chronic disease later in life. However, people who don't establish healthy eating habits during their childhood aren't likely to as adults. What you feed your children now will influence them for the rest of their lives.
Although that may seem daunting, don't despair. You can get your children to endure-and eventually welcome-fruits and vegetables, say nutrition experts. Study after study shows that children will eat fruits and vegetables when available.
For example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture launched a pilot program last year, spending $6 million in 106 schools across the country to provide free fresh produce to children during snack time. It was an exciting opportunity to introduce certain foods to children who never had them.
Some of the children had never seen an orange and didn't know it had to be peeled. Others had such severe dental conditions they couldn't bite into whole apples. Instead they were given apple slices.
"The kids were wild about it. It's now [no longer experimental] in nine states with a budget of $9 million," says Brenda Humphreys, the food service director for the Produce for Better Health Foundation in Wilmington, Del.
Humphreys shares tips she learned as a result of the experience in the program.
• Do taste-testing when you introduce a fruit or vegetable. Give children small samples, such as a slice of jicama, or a pear wedge, so they're not overwhelmed.
• Be persistent. Children are wary of foods they haven't seen before. "Don't stop after the first try. You have to offer a new food nine times before a child will accept it," Humphreys says.
• Introduce a new food with something familiar. "If you know kids are going to eat broccoli and dip, bring in cauliflower. Bring in celery. You'll have more success if you pair something eaten more often with something new," Humphreys says.
• Provide a message to encourage improved eating habits. Last year Florida conducted a trial introducing salad bars into 12 schools around the state. At the same time, students were given educational materials that describe the importance of eating a variety of produce. Fruit and vegetable consumption increased by 9 to 31 percent where the programs were implemented, according to Humphreys.
At home, you can also find ways to get the produce story across, says Lisa Dorfman, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association.
"Create an image in children's minds that vegetables are fun and will keep them healthy," says Dorfman, who is also a sports nutritionist and adjunct professor at the University of Miami Athletic Department.
"Encourage children to try fruits and vegetables in smoothies, sauces and soups-kids love soups," says Dorfman.
And if you find obstacles to cooking vegetables, work around them. Shop salad bars instead of the produce isles. Keep frozen vegetables on hand so you don't run short while cooking.
"I have bags and bags of vegetables in the freezer. It's so easy to take a small amount of vegetables at a time and add them to anything you're cooking," says Dorfman.
She suggests buying plain frozen vegetables packed without sauces or flavorings so you and your children can cook together.
"Let your children establish their own relationship with vegetables," Dorfman says.
Here is a salad you won't have to coax anyone to eat.
Cucumber Coleslaw with Mint Dressing (Adapted from the American Heart Association Low-Calorie Cookbook) 1 small cucumber, peeled and diced 3 cups packaged coleslaw mix 1/4 cup chopped red onion 1/4 cup white wine vinegar 1 tablespoon honey 1 teaspoon canola oil 1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint Combine the cucumber, coleslaw and onion in a bowl. Stir together the vinegar, honey and oil in a cup. Pour over the vegetables and toss. Sprinkle with the mint. Serves 4.
Bev Bennett is the mother of two and the author of 30 Minute Meals for Dummies (John Wiley & Sons Inc., 2003).