Why don't kids eat their veggies?

Getting kids to eat their 5-plus a day can be a challenge. Photo / Richard Robinson
Getting kids to eat their 5-plus a day can be a challenge. Photo / Richard Robinson

This post originally appeared on Sciblogs.co.nz.

There have been several reports in the media this week about the recent study on Children and Young People's Physical Activity and Dietary Behaviours, which looked at dietary and activity patterns among 10- to 24-year-olds.

One of the key findings of this report (published by the Ministry of Health) was that 60 per cent of children and young people are not eating enough vegetables. Only a third of those studied met the recommended guidelines for fruit and vegetable intake.

It is certainly a challenge for many parents of young children to get those veggies in. We had a lovely roast lamb dinner last weekend and I gave may kids (aged 3 and 5) one teaspoon each of a variety of different vegetables - just to encourage them to get used to the different tastes.

Before the food even hit their mouth there were tears and tantrums. We, of course, have no such problems with cakes and puddings!

There are a few basic veggies that are well accepted - bland tasting varieties such as carrots, peas and parsnips, and of course they love potatoes - but try anything like broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage or spinach and there is little chance of them being consumed. This may well be down to the fact that many of these vegetables have a slightly bitter taste. It could also be lack of exposure (although we aren't guilty on that count - having given our little ones almost every vegetable under the sun right from weaning age).

So what's the answer? My Mum's advice: 'disguise everything and lie through your teeth'. This certainly does work and I am sure many of us parents do find ourselves as having to become more and more creative with the way we prepare and serve food to our fussy kids. I find tomatoes are a great way of disguising vegetables - a fairly strong flavour and vivid bright colour means that you can puree almost anything into a tin of tomatoes and they won't know any better. This technique is excellent for pizza toppings, pasta sauces, or as a base for casseroles.

There is also some great advice on how to raise a healthy eater from Dietitians New Zealand - including some tactics for getting kids eating those healthy foods that are often rejected.

Certainly one piece of good news is that around two-thirds of children and young people were eating the recommended intakes for fruit! Still plenty of room for improvement - but at least some of those fussy little eaters will be consuming some goodness.

Other key findings from the report showed a reduction in activity as age increases and an increase in screen time as age increases. Healthy eating behaviours seemed to decline with age - for example 94 per cent of 5-9 year-olds had breakfast on five or more days a week, compared with 61 per cent of 20-24 year-olds. Body size was also an issue with 23 per cent of children and young people overweight and a further 13 per cent obese.

Improving the diet and lifestyle habits of our kids and of young adults is something we all need to get on board with if we are to combat many of the chronic health issues facing us today, and if we are to create a fitter and healthier generation of the future. It seems to me that education also should play an important role - particularly as kids get older and start to make their own food and activity choices. Surely now is the time to develop compulsory food policies in schools as a matter of urgency.

Kids need to be educated as to the importance of optimal nutrition for long-term health - even if they feel invincible now, age can creep up on you pretty fast along with a range of health problems for those who have ignored all the dietary and lifestyle recommendations from our public health experts.

Amanda Johnson is a registered nutritionist and science writer. View her work and that of 35 other scientists and science writers at Sciblogs.co.nz, Australasia's largest science blogging network.

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