Getting kids to eat more fruits and vegetables is a common concern for schools and families across the country. Fruits and vegetables are rich in vitamins and minerals, antioxidants and phytonutrients, and even fiber. All of these components help our bodies to stay healthy and work the way they are supposed to. However, an overwhelming majority of kids in the U.S. don’t meet the recommendations for daily fruit and vegetable intake.
Who’s Eating Their Fruits and Vegetables?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 60% of U.S. children do not meet daily fruit recommendations, and 93% of children do not meet daily vegetable recommendations (data from 2007-2010). So how do we change this?
Through the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) set new nutrition standards beginning in 2012 for what is offered through the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program. These standards included an increase in fruits and vegetables served in school meals. The hope was that serving more fruits and vegetables would lead to an increase in kids’ fruit and vegetable consumption in the school environment and throughout the day and thus improve the health of our country’s youth.
One particular study from researchers at Harvard School of Public Health suggests that the new school meal standards have, in fact, led to a small increase in fruit and vegetable intake in school. The study looked at plate waste data from a school district both before and after the new standards were implemented. Students selected fruit 23% more often at lunch after the change in nutrition standards, with no increase in fruit being wasted. As for vegetables, the same percentage of students selected a vegetable with lunch, but consumption increased 16.2% after the change.
How Do We Increase Healthy Eating Habits?
Whether or not these same trends are seen in other districts across the country, one thing is clear: Fruit and vegetable intake among school-age kids still isn’t great. So how can we continue to build upon the new nutrition standards and encourage kids to eat more of the healthy foods that will set them up to be successful in the future?
One simple solution that could help to increase fruit and vegetable intake in school lunch is to schedule lunch after recess. Researchers found that switching lunch to after recess instead of before led to a 54% increase in fruit and vegetable intake. In addition, 45% more students ate at least one serving of fruits and vegetables. Instead of rushing through their meal to get to recess, students were able to enjoy their lunch, fruits and vegetables included.
Several other solutions to help increase kids’ fruit and vegetable intake both in school and at home have been successful, and here are some examples:
- Talk about food. Whether you are a parent, teacher, or school foodservice employee, talk to kids about the fruits and vegetables that they are being served at home and at school. Talk about taste, texture, color, and smell to build up kids’ interest in eating different foods.
- Be patient with new foods. It can take 10 or more exposures to a food before a child will accept it, so don’t get frustrated if kids don’t immediately love every new fruit and vegetable.
- Increase visibility and appeal. Displaying fruits and vegetables in an appealing way can help increase consumption. Consider slicing fruits and vegetables so they are easier to eat, placing fresh fruit in a convenient and visible location, or even giving fruit and vegetable dishes fun and descriptive names.
- Support nutrition education in classrooms and the community. Whether teaching about the importance of the different food groups in a classroom or providing hands-on learning in a garden or kitchen, nutrition education is a great way to encourage a healthy lifestyle.
- Share what works. If you find a strategy for increasing fruits and vegetables that works at your school or in your household, don’t be afraid to share it with others.
How do you encourage your kids to eat more fruits and vegetables? Let us know in the comments below!
Chloe Plummer, MS, RD, LD, is a clinical dietitian with ProMedica Advocacy and Community Health, and her main passion is promoting childhood and adolescent health and wellness. She has a bachelor of science degree in Health and Sport Studies from Miami University and a master of science degree in Clinical Nutrition from Rush University. Her column, Nutrition at the Table, appears on HealthConnect each month.