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What’s the best way to get your kids past the yuck factor and start eating more of their vegetables? Adding sugar or sneaking them into meals? Neither, according to a recent European study that observed the dinner-time struggles of about 330 tots between the ages of six and 38 months.
The UK, Danish and French researchers concluded that offering new vegies often
and early is the best way to increase your child’s vegetable intake. Even artichoke puree went down a treat using this approach.
The study, published in the scientific journal PLOS ONE, recommends parents offer a new food to their bub eight to 10 times by the age of two for best results, even if the child is a fussy eater. Many mothers tend to give up after only five attempts and older children become more reluctant to try new foods, even ones they previously enjoyed.
Here's some advice on how to keep vegetables in.
When your three-year-old clamps his lips shut at the sight of anything green, fibrous or chewy at the dinner table he’s apparently not being an imp, but a good little mammal. In eons past, mammals relied on an instinct which told them most bitter or sour-tasting things were poisonous, while sweet things were generally safe to eat. Nutritionist and health educator, Dr Jenny O’Dea, of the University of Sydney, says humans have an inbuilt fear of new tastes, especially if they’re not sweet so it’s natural for kids to be suspicious. It’s our job to teach them that broccoli isn’t poison, but essential for their growing bodies.
But for lots of families, that’s a tough message to put into practice. And it can seem especially overwhelming when a government campaign urges us to help our children eat five serves of vegetables and two serves of fruit a day – and by that they don’t mean five peas and two sultanas.
IN THE REAL WORLD
While the TV, radio and poster campaigns featuring a character called Vegie Man does point out that for younger children we can adjust the serving sizes, it can still seem like a mini-Everest to climb each day.
Dietitian Julie Gilbert says families do feel burdened by the thought of achieving the goals of the ‘Go for 2 fruit and 5 veg’ promotion, but the aim of the campaign is a good one. It gives specific information about how much we should be aiming for, rather than just vague messages about eating more. Having said that, Julie says a more realistic goal for younger children is one to two pieces of fruit and three to four serves of vegetables a day.
“I think a lot of families feel, ‘Oh my God, how am I going to fit it all in, I’ve got to get so many serves of cheese and milk and bread and vegetables a day’,” says Julie, who has four children, including five-year-old twins. “I think the whole thing is just so overwhelming for some parents. They want to do the right thing by their children and make sure they eat healthily. “But given all the other stresses there are in raising small children, many wonder how they are going to put all that in place.”
DON’T HASSLE THEM
For Julie, the key is making fruit and vegetables a normal part of everyday eating, presenting them at meals throughout the day in an encouraging atmosphere rather than a hostile one. “It is not so much about eating our four serves of vegetables every day but helping kids understand that it’s a normal part of daily eating.”
She suggests, at dinner time, serving a plate about half-filled with vegetables and half pasta or rice or whatever the dish is. Don’t fuss if they don’t eat all their vegetables, but let your family know that if they are wanting seconds, or dessert, it won’t happen until the vegies are eaten.
If you are finding the going tough, keep going, presenting the vegetables in different ways and setting a way of eating your children will come to accept.
“I know a lot of families who say their child will only eat sandwiches or noodles or pasta,” Julie says. “I often say, ‘Well when do you think they will take up eating vegetables?’ There is no magical age when kids will up and say: ‘Today I’m going to eat vegies’.”
SPACE THE SERVES
Dr O’Dea agrees many families find it hard to achieve the five vegetables and two fruits goal. But she says it’s only a guideline, and as children have smaller stomachs than adults serving numbers and sizes can vary. She recommends that a child aged one to seven years has two to three half-cup serves of vegies and at least one piece of fruit each and every day.
The important thing is to try to develop a pattern of eating which is all about having a variety of fruits and vegetables every day. Take opportunities throughout the day to provide your children with fruits and vegetables rather than waiting to squeeze all the serves into one meal at night.
“Most parents try to get it all into them at dinner but a child who is under six is exhausted by dinner time, so it’s unrealistic to expect them to eat those foods all at once,” says Dr O’Dea, who has two young children. Coaxing children to overcome their natural fear of different foods will mean you’ll need to offer the foods regularly, at least a few times a week, so they’ll become familiar with them.
Offer the vegetables in all sorts of ways – with a cheese sauce, grated raw, mashed, steamed, stir-fried and roasted – before accepting your child doesn’t like a particular vegetable or fruit. And if you feel you’ve messed up along the way and that your child will never be a fruit or vegetable eater, take heart. “It’s never too late,” Dr O’Dea says. “There are really 101 ways to serve them.
“We want kids to eat fruit and vegetables whether fresh or frozen, microwaved or in a soup, or grated or raw, so long as they are getting them. “The people who say you can only have fresh are… not living in the real world.”