Last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a study examining children’s fruit and vegetable consumption from 2003 to 2010. The good news? Juice consumption is down and whole fruit consumption is up. The bad news? 93 percent of children and adults do not eat the recommended amount of vegetables (the equivalent of 1.1 cups per 1,000 calories). Even worse — the CDC considers potatoes a vegetable, which accounted for 30 percent of total veggie consumption (mostly in the form of fried potatoes and chips).
Vegetables are key to the health and development of children as they are associated with higher nutrient intake, weight control, and reduced risks for many serious illnesses.
Reading this study, I was worried that my kids weren’t eating enough vegetables either. Since the “cups equivalent per calories” measurement is impractical for a busy family, I used the recommended daily allowance (RDA). It turns out, their veggie consumption is too low, and that by letting this slip, I was allowing unhealthy habits to take hold. I spoke with my oldest daughter (age 7) and asked if she’d like to try and eat her RDA of vegetables each day for a week. Happily, she said yes.
(Note that my 3-year-old daughter also joined in the fun, but because her eating is more erratic, we opted not to take notes on her habits for the week.)
At the outset, I thought getting her to eat her vegetables would require some kind of trickery. After all, she’s often uninterested in the vegetable dishes preferred by her parents. After a week, though, the results surprised us. Our ground rules were simple: everything but white potatoes, sweets, or ketchup counted, and, as long as she did her best to eat vegetables each day, she could pick the ones she wanted.
Here’s what she ate:
Notes: This was a busy day and I was relieved she ate all the vegetables offered. (Though I prefer a chunky soup, I’ve found that velvety smooth pureed soups are what the girls like best.)
Notes: Today was a good day – she didn’t pass on any vegetables offered.
1 1/3 cups spinach salad
1/3 cup raw carrots
Notes: Onions are her nemesis, so today she passed on a lemony roasted broccoli and red onion salad.
2 cups steamed broccoli with butter
Notes: This was a busy, boxed mac and cheese kind of day. No other vegetables were offered, so I’m glad the broccoli went over so well.
2/3 cup raw carrots
1 cup spinach salad
Notes: I made a beautiful, cheesy one-pot broccoli and herb pasta for dinner. Broccoli is a hit-or-miss food (see above) for both kids, and tonight it was a miss. She picked out the noodles and that was it.
Notes: Sweet and colorful bell peppers are often a favorite of vegetable-averse kids. I got her to try a bite, but she absolutely hated it.
1/4 cup raw celery with lemon sour cream dip
2 cups raw carrots with dip
1/4 cup arugula salad with vinaigrette
1/4 cup steamed broccoli
Notes: Celery can be really chewy, especially if the ribs are tough. I reserved the outer stalks for cooking, and offered the girls the tender inner stalks instead. My oldest didn’t realize this at first, but eventually gave them a try. She liked these inner stalks of celery much better (though nothing can compete with her love of raw carrots).
Daily Average Vegetable Consumption: 1 3/4 cups (1/4 more than the RDA)!!!
I was surprised that our project went so smoothly. And I was downright thrilled that she took so easily to simply prepared staples, since they’re both easier to make and keep in stock. As for my daughter, she found the project to be “kind of fun.” Kind of fun? That’s a total parenting win!
Give Kids Control
Parents know that most struggles with kids come down to one thing: control. So why not make vegetable eating a way for them to assert their individuality? Making decisions about which vegetables to buy at the store or how big to slice the carrots can go a long way to empowering them.
Not All Vegetables Are Created Equal
Vegetable quality can vary widely according to the source, time of year, or grower – ask and taste different foods with kids to find out what they do and don’t like. Look for sweet carrots or less fibrous celery. Little things like off flavors or chewy textures can turn kids off, so be on the lookout for these seemingly minor roadblocks.
Flavor Is Your Friend
Salt, olive oil, lemon, and dairy are key allies in making vegetables taste great. In most cases, sodium is only a concern for kids who eat a lot of processed food — the amount of table salt that makes veggies taste good is likely worth the trade in terms of sodium content. Likewise, adding high-quality fats to the veggie mix is often a great trade off.
Try Again and Again
Studies have shown that kids can be offered new foods up to 12 times before accepting them. Keep trying – you’re doing a good job!