Whether hiding their peas in napkins, or feigning a full stomach, many kids in America will do just about anything to avoid eating their vegetables. But with childhood obesity rates more than tripling in the past 30 years, and nutrition related diseases on the rise, the need for a diet rich in vegetables is more urgent than ever—a fact not lost on First Lady Michelle Obama who has made anti-obesity initiatives a top priority.
So why are kids having such a hard time eating healthfully? And what can be done to reverse these trends?
When considering these questions, it’s worth noting that American children are much more likely to push their vegetables aside than kids in other countries. Experts think that one contributing factor is the powerful and persuasive marketing messages we target at our children. These messages, along with the use of heroic characters, cartoons, catchy slogans, as well as calculated store and restaurant layouts, all conspire to get kids to eat more fast fare, sugared cereals and junk food.
In addition, parents often send their children mixed messages about vegetables and nutritious eating without realizing it. For example, when you tell your child that he must eat his broccoli before having ice cream, he will equate the broccoli to a chore that is unpleasant, and place a higher value on the ice cream, which he now views as a reward for the difficult task of eating his broccoli.
The good news is that you can “re-vegucate” your children more easily than you think, and reinforce the idea that veggies are awesome. One tactic that parents are using successfully involves turning the tables on the “reward-punishment” pattern. These parents discovered that children can be rewarded for good behavior with their favorite fruits or vegetables, like a banana, carrot or sweet potato. Some have reported their great surprise when kids responded with delight at the sight of an apple or a handful of cashews (yes, nuts are fruits).
Children are also very observant of parental behavior and quick to point out inconsistencies. So if you say that vegetables are good for you, then turn up your nose at the brussel sprouts, your children are going to know it—and will model that behavior. So, Mom and Dad, it’s time to get yourselves on the veggie love train, too.
Remember that vegetables don’t have to be eaten plain to retain their nutritional value, which is why it is a smart idea to experiment with veggie rich recipes and incorporate them into family meals. Veggies can be added to kid-friendly foods like muffins, pasta dishes and even pancakes. Spices and a little lemon, butter, cheese or olive oil can enhance flavor and “dress up” your veggies. Caramelized onions or garlic can also add sweetness and flavor.
Another tip to try is involving your kids in the shopping and cooking experiences, which gives them more “ownership” over their eating. Have your child lead the grocery store hunt for the perfectly purple eggplant or the biggest carrot ever. Add some creativity, make it a game, and you’ll find that children are happy to play. A final shopping note: it helps to keep kids out of the dangerous “whining zones” located in the middle aisles of most grocery stores, where colorful sugary cereals and “toy inside” junk food reside. Your shopping experience and your child’s diet will both benefit by sticking to the perimeter of the store.
When you get home, don’t forget to involve your children in meal preparation. Kids love to feel like they are the “top chef” in the kitchen. You can even have your kids title the night’s dish, turning a familiar ratatouille into “Tara’s Terrific Touille” or a basic green salad into “Mitchell’s Muscle-Building Mesclun Melange.” Kids are much more likely to eat dishes that they’ve helped make and that bear their names.
If you want more tips, I’ll be blogging about nutrition and offering additional advice on getting kids to eat their vegetables on the Super Sprowtz website (supersprowtz.com). It has all the healthy eating information you’ll need, plus loads of fun videos and interactive games to keep kids feeling veggie friendly all year long.
Emily “Endive” Vroegindewey, Super Sprowtz Nutritionist, MS Staff Nutritionist, SuperSprowtz.com