Eat your veggies! is a common refrain in many households, and even the recently updated U.S. Dietary Guidelines chime in by urging everyone to eat a more plant-based diet.
Yet how many quality fruits and vegetables are our kids really consuming? The answer: Not enough. A recent study by the National Cancer Institute found that, on average, only 36 percent of U.S. children are eating the recommended amount of vegetables each day. Low intake of fruits and vegetables is associated with low intake of vitamin A, vitamin C, and dietary fiber, as well as a higher intake of fat.
So how can a family go about upping veggie and fruit intake? Start simple and carve out two or three days each week where a vegetarian casserole or pasta dish serves as the main entrée. While grocery shopping, let your children pick out three fruits or veggies for the week, and make a point to try out one less common (and seasonal) variety each shopping trip.
Kim Kirchherr, registered dietician and nutrition advisor for Jewel Osco, advises families to divide their plates: "Picture a plate in your mind-fill half with fruits and veggies, a quarter with a grain (preferably whole grain; a sweet potato would be good, too) and the last quarter with protein. Be creative and use all kinds of choices from every food group for variety of nutrients and so the menu stays interesting," she says.
She also recommends eating a rainbow: "Remember that every color of fruit and vegetable provide a different mix of nutrients that support health goals throughout the life cycle."
Some families have chosen, for either health, ethical reasons or both, to switch to a vegetarian or even vegan diet altogether.
"I really like the clean feeling of being veggie," says Chicago mom Margaret Mass. Lisa Litberg, a Chicago-based teacher and mom of Trevor, 11, concurs: "I feel better when I'm not eating meat. More energetic."
Oak Park-based author and mom Marla Rose, who, along with her husband, transitioned to a vegan diet in 1995, chooses to focus on fresh, natural ingredients when it comes to preparing plant-based family meals. "Today, it's easy to have the best of both worlds: healthy, delicious vegan food and that which is a little more, well, fun or what we call a 'once in a while' food," she says.
"Although I enjoy cooking, it's really not necessary: There are lots of shortcuts and paths to vegan meals these days, and we're also so fortunate to be living in an area with so many dining-out options."
The idea is to focus on the fun, flavor and nutrition of fruits, vegetables and legumes.
For fall, Kirchherr recommends crunching on apples and squash; for winter, try citrus and vegetable soups. "Have kids make a salad face or top a sandwich with fruit slices that kids choose themselves."
Amy Bizzarri is a mom of two living in Logan Square. She also blogs at tiramisumom.com.
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