We all know that fruits and vegetables are filled with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber. They're low in calories and contain no saturated fat and no added sugar or salt. And they can help promote health and prevent diseases, including childhood obesity.
That's why, ideally, fruits and veggies should fill at least half of every child's plate. But getting kids to enjoy eating healthy can often be a huge challenge.
As a registered dietitian, parents often ask me how to get their kids to eat more fruits and veggies. Here are nine easy tips I recommend for getting little ones to love plants:
1. Start young.
Research shows that food preferences develop very early. In one recent study, kids who were introduced to a variety of fruits and vegetables at age 14 months were more likely to eat them and be less fussy about food around age 4. I recommend including a variety of textures and flavors in babies' meals early on.
2. Keep serving a new food for at least 10 tries.
Don't get discouraged if your child rejects a certain food at first. Studies show that it can take 10 to 15 tries before a kid will develop a liking for a food, so repeated exposure to vegetables may help.
Start with a dip or pair a vegetable with something your children already like, such as their favorite fruit. Offer just a small taste at first. I also recommend using this Try, Try, Try Again chart to help you and your kids keep track of tries in a fun way. Use different colors or stickers to mark every attempt.
3. Cut up foods and serve them in fun styles.
Have fun creating novel ways to present fruits and veggies. For example, since kids often choose fruits over veggies, combine them together into salads or kebabs. Or, try creating a "sandwich" with fruit or veggie slices using a nut or seed butter in between.
Some kids will prefer raw veggies while others will prefer eating them cooked. Be patient and experiment to determine your child's preference.
4. Be a healthy role model.
Children learn through observation, and they notice parents' eating habits. So if you're excited about eating fruits and veggies then your children may become excited, too.
Snack times are good opportunities to show smart eating choices, and it can be as simple as adding blueberries to plain yogurt or enjoying red pepper slices with a hummus dip. Research backs up the idea that role modeling can lead to more fruit and vegetable consumption in kids.
5. Create a family meal routine.
Family meals are a great way to establish healthy eating habits. In fact, studies show that adolescents who have regular meals together as a family tend to eat more fruits and veggies.
Since we're all busy, make small changes and simply aim for at least three sit-down family meals per week. They don't have to be dinner. Maybe try a breakfast or lunch on the weekend or Sunday supper. And they don't have to be long meals or elaborate menus. When you're crunched for time, I recommend a simple veggie egg scramble for dinner.
6. Keep healthy food visible and within reach.
Instead of hiding fruits and veggies, place them in visible and reachable areas in the kitchen, which can increase consumption. Kids will grab and eat them if they don't have to go out of their way.
You can store bananas, apples, citrus, cucumbers, and tomatoes on the counter. Cut-up fruits and veggies can be left at room temperature for no more than two hours.
7. Involve your kids in grocery shopping and cooking.
Kids are more adventurous to try new foods if they had a role in the planning and preparation of meals. Take your kids to local markets or farmers markets and spend time in the produce section. Look at the beautiful, colorful displays; observe the different shapes; and have your kids touch the various textures. Research shows that such hands-on activities may motivate your little ones to try new foods.
I also recommend letting your child select a fruit or veggie they want to include in the meal and then letting them help you prepare it. Studies suggest that cooking with kids may boost vegetable consumption.
Be creative: since kids love pizza and pasta, try making pizza crust from cauliflower or pasta from the squash family. Let kids help stuff a tomato or eggplant with your choice of protein.
8. Cultivate a garden.
Kids who garden are more likely to want to eat the fruits or veggies they grow. Besides being a wonderful physical activity, gardening may enhance preferences for fruits and veggies.
If you don't have much outdoor space, you can start by growing fresh herbs in a pot in the kitchen. You can also get kids involved in school or community garden programs.
9. Use the power of books and pictures.
We know that reading with kids stimulates brain activities and is an amazing bonding experience. But did you also know that reading can influence eating behaviors?
Repeatedly exposing toddlers to picture books with fruits and vegetables may enhance their likelihood of trying these unfamiliar foods. A Stanford study demonstrated that reading books about veggies at snack time improved veggie intake in preschoolers because they understood why they should be eating these foods. In fact, I wrote the children's book Teddy Tries a Veggie (along with an interactive Apple version) with this goal in mind.
What else have you found to work in your family?