While it is well documented that switching to a healthy diet can have many positive effects on children’s physical and mental growth and development, we realise that getting them to eat foods such as fruit and vegetables can be quite a challenge! Children’s eating and drinking habits are largely learned, so with this in mind, here are a few easy tips and tricks that will develop their preferences and help reduce the mealtime battles!
- Get them involved
Children love to be involved and given the opportunity to make their own decisions so let them help with the grocery shopping and in preparing and cooking meals. One idea could be letting them choose a new fruit or vegetable to try each week. By giving them this choice for what is on the menu and then to help in the kitchen, children will be more willing to try them. This time spent together can also be used to teach them about different foods and why they are so good for them!
- Make healthy foods more available
Research shows when fruits and vegetables are more available and accessible to children intakes increases. To do this keep plenty of fruit, vegetables, and healthy beverages to hand to offer before unhealthier alternatives as snacks. Give the children the ability to grab fruit from a fruit bowl, rather than a cookie jar on the side. Also make the food more accessible and easy to eat, for example peeling the orange before adding the lunch box. This removes a barrier and means it is more likely to be eaten.
Children can be particularly fussy and unwilling to try unfamiliar foods without a little persuasion and reassurance. ‘I don’t like it’ is often reported before even tasting! Increased exposure to unfamiliar vegetables can benefit here due to the learned safety of the food. Research has shown after tasting a new vegetable at least 10 times even the most reluctant children have an increased liking and consumption, effective even in previously tasted-but-disliked vegetables. Therefore, the more familiar the vegetables become the more your child will like them, so start familiarising the children with lots of vegetables. This can be done through games and discussion on healthy eating; studies showing messages on health benefits and the healthy eating behaviour of others increased fruit and vegetable intake in children. Try these picture cards as a way to introduce new fruit and vegetables to children and how they can improve health and reduce disease risk (link). Discuss how they look, the texture inside and out, size and shape for example. Care should also be taken to not pressure the children into eating, research indicating that this can have negative effects on children’s responses to and intake of healthy foods.
Rewarding children for good choices as positive reinforcement is an effective way of encouragement, and while the use of rewards to encourage children to eat healthily is controversial, research has shown that incentives combined with taste exposure can effectively increase both liking and consumption. These small rewards, shown to increase children’s acceptance of disliked foods through a learned benefit of receiving a positive outcome. However, using food itself as a reward may be negative long term by teaching them that the food rewarded is more desirable than other foods, so is not advisable. Alternatively choose sticker charts or points towards a larger reward of their choice.
- Lead by example
Observational learning can be a powerful tool with a significant body of research indicating that eating behaviour can be socially influenced by the presence of others. Children learn their behaviour primarily from adults, and if they see them regularly enjoying all kinds of fruits and vegetables they are more likely to want to get in on the action! This is even stronger when the emotional reaction is positive. This can be done by sitting down as a family to eat a home-cooked meal. Studies show families that eat together have better overall diets, including intakes of fruits and vegetables. This social aspect of the meal is additional vital for children’s social skills and in bringing the family together, an ideal opportunity to talk and listen without distraction.
THE CHRISTCHURCH FOOD FESTIVAL EDUCATION TRUST: CHARITY NUMBER 1127292
BOURNEMOUTH UNIVERSITY: MSC NUTRITION AND BEHAVIOUR STUDENT: CHRISTINA