Autumn is, by far, my absolute favorite season. I love the early morning chill in the air, the deeply intense burnt red and yellow colors of the leaves and the excitement of fall holidays. And when I was a student, I loved going back to school. (For my summer-loving husband, he can’t fathom why anyone would look forward to the start of school. He also thinks I’m a major geek.) I also LOVE seasonal fall produce, like apples, butternut squash, Swiss chard and pumpkin.
While most of September is not technically fall, it feels like fall… with the return to weekday routines and a renewed focus on family meals and feeding kids healthfully. It’s no surprise then that September is Fruit & Veggies More Matter Month AND Childhood Obesity Awareness Month, two public health observances that seek to shed light on two very serious concerns: the lack of vegetables in the American (children’s) diet and the increasing number of children at an unhealthy weight.
- According to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), 87% of the total U.S. population did not meet vegetable intake and 76% did not meet daily fruit recommendations between 2007-2010
- The CDC also states that children, in particular, consume even fewer vegetable servings: 93% of U.S. children aged 1-18 years old did not meet daily vegetable recommendations, and 60% of children did not meet fruit recommendations
- More than one-third of American children are overweight or obese, which increases a child’s risk for a slew of health problems, such as heart disease, prediabetes, sleep apnea, bone and joint problems, poor self-esteem and psychological problems
These statistics are woeful and alarming, people.
Obesity at all ages is complex and caused by many factors (genetics, environment, excess calories, food choices, physical activity, metabolism, gut health and so many more). While the childhood obesity epidemic will not be solved by just getting kids to eat more fruits and vegetables, it’s a start.
Here are six easy ways to help encourage your child to eat more fruits and vegetables.
- Get kids INVOLVED. Take your kids to the farmers market or supermarket and talk about the fruits and vegetables you see. Let them pick out a veggie and a fruit that they help prepare (in age-appropriate ways). And, start a garden, no matter how big or small–when kids get their hands dirty and grow it themselves, they are more likely to try new foods.
- Make veggies and fruit FUN! Cut up veggies and fruits in fun shapes and encourage your child to make funny faces with the produce on their plate. Give your fruit and veggie dishes fun names. My kids love “banana boats,” which is simply a banana in the bottom half of the peel, thinly sliced and sprinkled with cinnamon.
- Offer OFTEN and with FAVORITE foods. When offering a new vegetable or fruit, offer alongside a familiar one. He or she may be more willing to try a new food, if they know they have a back-up food to eat. Family-style meals allow everyone to eat the same meal but with customization. We love DIY pizza night and quinoa bowls–I set out a starter food (such as whole grain pizza crust or quinoa) and a variety of toppings (like, sliced olives, sauteed kale, cheese, roasted broccoli, beans) and let everyone top their own. And, don’t forget nutritious dips–hummus, ranch dip, guacamole and yogurt-honey dip “up” the produce appeal for less-than-adventurous eaters.
- Try different COOKING METHODS. If you grew up with over-steamed mushy broccoli, you’re probably not going to love (or maybe even like) broccoli. But, roasted broccoli with a little olive oil and salt may change your mind. If your child doesn’t like vegetables or fruits prepared one way, try cooking or preparing a different way next time. You can also experiment with adding your child’s not-so-favorite fruits and vegetables to smoothies or puree into popsicles.
- Take the HIGH ROAD. Children are less likely to try new foods in a chaotic and stressful environment. Introduce new foods when mealtime is calm and pleasant. And, what if your child refuses to try a new food? Let it go and try another time. A child who knows that food is a “button” for parents will push that button in an effort to control the situation. Avoid power struggles, and don’t engage in food battles.
- Be a good ROLE MODEL. If you serve your child fruits and veggies while you reach for an energy bar, your child will notice. Being a good food role model for your children may sometimes be the biggest motivator in helping them form healthy habits. So, sit with your children while they’re eating and enjoy your veggies, too.
Most importantly, DON’T GIVE UP. Believe me, I know it’s not always as easy as it sounds.
One of my children will happily try new foods and loves her veggies. My other child is more cautious and loves his fruit. He finds vegetables incredibly bitter (super taster?), and it’s a constant struggle to get him to try new veggies. But, PERSISTENCE and HEALTHY ROLE MODELING are two critical keys to shaping young eaters. So, I’ll continue taking him to the farmers market, sitting down next to him at the table and enjoy eating my vegetables. And, of course, high-five him when he tries–and sometimes likes–a new veggie.
PLEASE SHARE: What are your favorite tips for introducing new fruits and vegetables? What are your favorite ways to make produce more fun?