We all know kids especially need to listen to their parents and eat their fruits and vegetables. But because many, just like their parents, skimp on fruit and vegetable intake, it's critical to figure out ways to increase intake in nutrient-rich produce. The key is to do it in a way that doesn't turn them off to these powerful foods or create drama, especially when enjoying family meals.
Fruits and vegetables pack in so many nutrients and potent plant chemicals that help kids grow and develop. Collectively, they're a key source of fiber and potassium—a nutrient that many kids (and their parents) fall short on. Many produce options also contain vitamin C, a key antioxidant nutrient, as well as folate, magnesium, vitamin A and vitamin K.
Eating fruits and vegetables has been linked with so many vital benefits as well. A 2012 review in the European Journal of Nutrition found convincing evidence that increasing fruit and vegetable intake reduces the risk of hypertension, coronary heart disease and stroke and may even lower cancer risk. Because studies also suggest that produce intake in childhood can predict produce intake when they become adults, it's even more essential for parents to help their kids meet their daily quota for fruits and vegetables while they're still young.
In order to help kids get the 2 to 4 cups of produce they need daily as recommended in MyPlate (individual amounts needed depend on their age and calorie needs), it's important to first figure out what drives kids to eat (or not eat) produce in the first place. Then it's important to find ways to get it on the table and into their mouths.
To address the first question, a 2011 study published in International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity found the following variables are among those that play a role in kids' fruit and vegetable intake: the perception that fruits and veggies aren't as filling as fast food; how the produce looks, how it's prepared and its quality; its appearance, taste and texture; influences of peers (for example, are their friends eating it, too); and whether it's available at school and if they think they have enough time to eat it.
A recent study published in The Journal of Human Resources even found that offering kids monetary incentives—a nickel, a quarter or a raffle ticket for a larger prize—at school led to an 80% increase in children who ate a serving of fruits or vegetables at lunch. An added bonus: food waste was decreased by 33%. Whether using incentives like this at school or even at home is a good thing to do is certainly something up for debate among parents and health professionals. Nevertheless, the study provides some interesting food for thought on how to help kids work toward meeting their daily food group and nutrient goals, no?
To help kids seamlessly and enjoyably get more fruits and vegetables into their diets, registered dietitian nutritionists' Lyssie Lakatos and Tammy Lakatos- Shames (aka The Nutrition Twins) recommend encouraging kids to help buy and prepare them. While they say parents should never make a big deal out of it if their kids won't eat any or much produce (it can, after all, take up to 20 tries before kids will accept and enjoy a new food), they encourage them to keep trying and to emphasize to their kids what's in it for them when they eat nutrient-rich foods. "Telling kids that healthy foods, like fruits and vegetables, will make them stronger and faster on the playground, or make their skin, hair and nails look better can definitely be tangible incentives for them to eat more produce," says Lakatos-Shames.
When it comes to vegetables in particular—cup for cup, current guidelines recommend more vegetables than fruit, though they're both important—the Nutrition Twins recommend a few strategies such as getting kids involved in the cooking process. They say it makes sense that kids become more invested in enjoying what they eat when they take part in the preparation, and I concur! Also, any parent knows that kids, especially younger ones, have a lot of fun when they get to help in the kitchen. The Nutrition Twins recommend letting them stir ingredients together, sprinkle cheese on top of vegetables before they go into the oven and to watch the cheese melt or the veggies brown as they cook in the oven.
The bottom line when it comes to helping kids eat more produce is to buy it and to offer it. It's also important to eat and enjoy it in front of them. Preparing produce—especially vegetables—in attractive and tantalizing ways can also help. With that in mind, below you'll find a recipe for delicious zucchini fritters from the beautiful and useful new book, The Nutrition Twins' Veggie Cures.
Sunday mornings were all about our mom making fritters for the family, so for us they are a comfort food. However, no need to feel guilty indulging in these for breakfast, lunch–or dinner! These good-size fritters will warm your insides and give you a mood boost for just about 100 calories each.
Servings: 4 (two 4-inch fritters per serving)
2 cups coarsely grated zucchini
½ cup coarsely grated white onion
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
1 cup cornmeal
1 teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon fresh cracked pepper
2 teaspoons canola oil, divided
Honey, maple syrup, or apple sauce for serving
Salt to taste (optional)
1. Preheat the oven to 200 degrees.
2. Place the grated zucchini over 3 layers of paper towels in a thin layer. Let sit for at least 30 minutes to lose some excess moisture. (Make sure the grated onion sits as well, for at least 5 minutes before using, to activate its powerful phytonutrient compounds.)
3. After 30 minutes, change the paper towel for new sheets and squeeze the zucchini a little to lose more moisture.
4. In a bowl, whisk together the egg and parsley. Add the zucchini, onion, cornmeal, baking powder, and pepper. Stir well to combine. The batter will be thick and chunky. Let rest 10 minutes.
5. Add 1 teaspoon of oil to a large nonstick pan over medium heat. When the pan is hot, drop in a scant 1/3 cup of the batter, flattening into a 4-inch fritter. Cook for 2 to 3 minutes or until the top of the fritter looks slightly bubbly and dry. Turn and cook for another 2 to 3 minutes on the other side. Use the remaining teaspoon of oil as necessary to cook the remaining fritters.
6. Keep fritters warm at 200 degrees Fahrenheit in the oven until all are cooked. Serve with a little honey, maple syrup, or applesauce.
Per serving (without salt): calories 216, total fat 4g, saturated fat 1g, cholesterol 53mg, sodium 152mg, carbohydrates 39g, dietary fiber 4g, sugars 4g, protein 6g
Percent Daily Value: vitamin A: 10%, vitamin C: 36%, iron: 17%, calcium: 10%
Image of zucchini fritters via The Nutrition Twins.
Full disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of The Nutrition Twins' Veggie Cure from the publisher. The recipe was adapted with permission from the publisher.Find healthy recipes your toddler will actually eat with our helpful guide.