I am sure you remember the mantra at meal times ‘you must eat up all your vegetables, they are good for you’ when we were children and those of us that have had children know how difficult it is to encourage them to do the same. This article explains why it is important for children to eat fruit and vegetables and what research has found that gives insight in helping children to grow up to be healthy eaters of fruits and vegetables.
Why are vegetables so important for the health of our bodies?
Firstly, they provide antioxidants and phytonutrients. These nutrients are vital for the immune system to help our children stay strong against the attacks of the outside world of virus’s, bacteria and pollutants and so protect them from disease.
Secondly, they help keep our body alkaline which prevents our body being acidic which increases risk of diseases such as cancer and arthritis.
Thirdly they provide minerals, especially magnesium, important for growth, blood sugar management and energy.
Fourthly they provide cellulose, which is soluble fibre, and it is this which reduces cholesterol and prevents constipation and so prevents toxic build up. Soluble fibre helps eliminate and detoxify old hormones and other waste products. It also provides a substrate for the growth of beneficial bacteria which provide us with nutrients and important biochemicals for our bodily processes as well as optimising brain chemicals.
Finally, adequate fruit and vegetables helps to prevent obesity and this is important due to the increasing prevalence of type 2 diabetes in children and the added risk to the prevalence of other conditions such as cardiovascular disease in older age.
All of these functions help a child grow strong physically, develop mentally and give emotional well being. Vegetables are vital, not a choice, to reduced disease risk and increased longevity.
Apparently vegetable consumption in the western world is below recommended levels for both adults and children, so what hope do we have for our children to eat optimum amounts of vegetables?
In the bible it says that we should train up our children in the way they should go. What can we do to help teach children ‘the way they should go?’ that is going to result in eating their vegetables?
Food preferences start in the womb. Apparently if a child is breastfed, this significantly affects their acceptance of different foods such as vegetables in later life compared to non breast fed babies and also will be happier to eat those foods that they were subjected to through the amniotic fluid or breast milk. Being breastfed increases the likelihood that one would have a healthy diet later in life.
Preschoolers naturally avoid vegetables when given free choice. From birth children prefer sweeter foods rather than bitter and chose higher density foods which are packed with calories. I suppose that is understandable as children are programmed to grow and so to prefer calorific foods to survive.
However, by 2 to 3 years old, most children restrict their food to a few favourites but by repeating exposure and familiarity, the child is more likely to go back to eating a wider variety. Repeated exposure has been significant in increased learning of liking a novel food.
So how do you increase exposure to either new fruits and vegetables or those your children don’t want to eat without causing meal times to be like a battleground and the dinner table a war zone?
- Be creative.
- Teaching children to eat a variety of fruit and vegetables mirroring the colours of the rainbow is a very creative way to help your child eat a balance of fruit and veg that are high in a variety of antioxidants and phytonutrients. These are the key nutrients that protect our body from disease and cannot be replaced by supplements. Eg
- Carrots, beta carotene
- Blueberries, anthocyadins
- Tomatoes, lycopenes can be used as tomato sauce as in the cooked form, the lycopenes are more concentrated
- Curly kale high in vitamin c
- Sweet potato, high in caratenoids
- Brocolli high in magnesium
- Involve your child and educate them in the best choices of foods. Use food charts with pictures and stickers
- Let them help you cook with them
- Let them grow their own (or help you!)
- Do pick your own
- Hide vegetables by mashing softer vegetables and adding to pasta sauces or mixing them into fish cakes pies and homemade burgers. Eg carrots, brocolli, corgettes, cauliflower.
- make or mix them into soups.
- If all else fails use the vegetable water for making gravy or a soup
- Use their favorite foods and use as a theme eg try making sweet potato chips
- Can also use vegetables as a dessert eg sweet pumpkin pie
- Add mashed banana with a drizzle of honey into sandwiches or yoghurts or make into smoothies
- Strawberries into ice cream or also add to smoothies for extra antioxidants
- Add good fibre by adding red lentils to bolognaise dishes, either cooked or add raw to the dish during cooking.
- Make your own muffins and add grated carrot or blueberries
- Use a fondue, savory with vegetables or sweet with fruit
- Use bargaining but not force
- Be creative in your names and presentation
- Make sure you give them choice.
- Eat together
- Let meal times be about sharing, listening and hearing each other, developing good communication skills and associating food with safe enjoyable experiences. This is what being family and community is all about. Jesus shared food as a way of showing love and care.
So eating fruits and vegetables as part of a healthy way of living helps our children to do the same and make similar choices. Encouraging our children to eat foods that nourish their bodies, helps them live an abundant life, emotionally as well as spiritually and physically and reach their full potential. Food choices are formed early and generally stay into adulthood so it is important to introduce as many different varieties of fruit and veg in the earliest years before the terrible two’s! Repeated exposure may be effective for most children but in those that are more fussy, perseverance and creativity is greatly needed but the nutritional advantages far outway the hard work.