Just like adults, kids need their vegetables. In fact, the new MyPyramid plan recommends that children between the ages of two to three consume 1 to 1-1/2 cups of vegetables each day. For children ages four to eight years, 1-1/2 to 2-1/2 cups of veggies is recommended daily, depending on calorie needs. And, for the active nine- to 13-year-old, up to 3-1/2 cups of vegetables are recommended daily. Even for a vegetable lover, this can be a daunting task.
In contrast, studies show that American school-age children typically consume around 3/4 cup of vegetables daily, well less than half the recommended amount. Further, more than half of the vegetables that kids do consume are either potatoes (most often french fries) or tomatoes. Because vegetables are usually not as sweet as fruit, it can sometimes be difficult to get children to eat them. If your kids routinely turn up their noses whenever vegetables are served, try these ideas.
– Be a good role model. Let your kids see you eating and enjoying a wide variety of vegetables on a regular basis.
– Start young. Serve small portions of soft, cooked vegetables beginning at an early age. Establishing good eating habits as a young child can have lifelong benefits.
– Offer lots of choices. Let children select which vegetables will be served with dinner or which vegetables to add to a salad.
– Buy new and different vegetables. Encourage your child to choose a new vegetable when shopping at the grocery store.
– Let your children help. Kids often are more likely to eat foods that they help to prepare. Choose age-appropriate activities such as washing, peeling and/or slicing the vegetables.
– Add vegetables to foods you already serve. For example, add frozen corn, carrots, peas or beans to canned soup. Mix chopped celery, peas or chunks of tomato into macaroni and cheese. Top pizza with sliced tomatoes, mushrooms or spinach. Add chopped or grated carrot to spaghetti sauce or chili. Try veggie lasagna instead of meat lasagna.
– Store cleaned, cut-up raw vegetables in the refrigerator at eye level for snacking or grazing. Kids often like to dip vegetables, so have a healthy dip, such as salsa, bean dip or yogurt on hand as well.
– Put single servings of raw vegetables or a small salad in your child’s sack lunch.
– Kids often find the bright colors and crisp textures of vegetables appealing. Serving vegetables raw, lightly steamed or stir-fried can help maintain their natural color and texture. For younger children, it is a good idea to at least partially cook crisper vegetables, such as carrots, broccoli and cauliflower, to make them easier to chew.
– Plant a vegetable garden with your children. Children may be more interested in eating vegetables if they help grow them. If you don’t have space in your yard to plant a garden, grow a container garden instead.
– Check out children’s books about vegetables from your local library. Ask the librarian to suggest books that have a vegetable theme. Some good examples include "Oliver’s Vegetables" by Vivian French, "Over Under in the Garden" by Pat Schories and "Rabbit Food" by Susan Gretz. Read the story and then taste the vegetables together.
– Visit your local farmer’s market during the late summer and early fall. Farmer’s markets offer a great way to learn how food is grown and what it looks like in its unprocessed state. Let your children choose one or two vegetables that they would like to try.
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by Pat Kendall, Ph.D., R.D., Food Science and Human Nutrition Specialist, Colorado State University, Cooperative Extension