For optimal health, it is recommended that children eat at least FIVE SERVINGS of vegetables and fruits per day. Filling HALF of your child’s plate with veggies and fruits – not chicken nuggets, mashed potatoes or macaroni and cheese, but broccoli, green beans or Brussels sprouts – will help your child reach this goal.
Providing the veggies, however, is only half the battle. Getting your little ones to choose to eat these foods is the real victory. Luckily, there are strategies and recipes that can help. Here are a few recommendations from dietitians at CHoR’s Healthy Lifestyles Center and a quick and easy way to measure the recommended five daily servings:
Make a schedule and stick to it. Children need to eat every three to four hours: ideally three meals and one to two snacks. Sticking to this sort of schedule allows a natural balance of hunger and fullness throughout the day. Allowing your child to graze or drink milk or juice between scheduled times will lessen their hunger at mealtime, decreasing the likelihood of them trying new foods. Stick to water between meal and snack times.
A parent’s job is to serve balanced meals; the kids are responsible for eating them. Allow children to explore foods, especially new ones, at their own pace. Having vegetables and fruits at the table can increase their likelihood of trying them- don’t give up if they aren’t tried the first, second or even third time they are served! Phrases like “You HAVE to eat your vegetables” will only make a child resist.
Don’t become a short-order cook. Although it’s tempting to prepare a substitute meal that you know your child will eat, resist this urge. Your child will be less likely to try new foods. Prepare one meal for everybody and serve it family-style so the kids can pick and choose what they want (and hopefully soon half will be veggies and fruits!).
Introduce new foods slowly. A large portion of new veggies on a plate may intimidate even the least picky of eaters. Start with a small portion, like one or two bites. Allow them to get more if they would like it.
Get dippin’. Kids love to dip. Try making a variety of dips and allowing your kids to play a game to see what tastes best. Provide lots of veggies and fruits to try and a variety of dips: hummus, bean dip, salsa, yogurt-based dips, guacamole, peanut butter, etc. The possibilities are limitless.
Serve a new food with a favorite food, or in a style similar to a favorite food. This is shown to increase a child’s likelihood of trying new foods. Serve vegetables with a favorite healthy dip, or make a veggie-based pizza: bake zucchini slices and top them with marinara sauce and part-skim shredded mozzarella.
Have fun! Make meals enjoyable and interesting. Come up with creative names. (Broccoli florets are “baby trees” or “dinosaur food.”) Present food in a fun way too – anything “mini” is always a hit. Use cookie cutters to trim carrots into mini hearts or turn cucumbers into stars for some added fun. Use creative arranging to present food in a “smiley face” on the plate.
Sneak up on ‘em. It’s important to serve veggies in their whole form, but it doesn’t hurt to find some ways to make meals healthier by adding pureed veggies to other foods, such as smoothies, casseroles and pastas. (Some recipes based on this concept are included below.) Don’t lie about including them, but don’t be afraid to boost the nutrition of foods with things like pureed sweet potatoes, cauliflower or baby spinach.
Make it competitive. Try a family competition for who can make the best veggie pizza or have a “blind food taste test” of healthy options with friends.
Allow some freedom in food preparation and mealtime. Encourage children to try different food combinations to see what they like. Try a family potato bar with lots of veggie toppings or a healthy pasta night where kids can pick their own ingredients to go with fiber-rich pasta.
How to measure a serving size of fruits or veggies
One serving size = one of the following:
½ cup cooked veggies or canned fruit
1 cup raw veggies or fruit (2 cups of raw leafy greens = 1 serving)
1 medium (fist-sized) whole fruit
Note: The USDA’s Food Guide Pyramid has additional information about measuring serving sizes. Their ChooseMyPlate website details the specific amounts of fruits and vegetables that are recommended daily based on an individual’s age, gender and physical activity.
Recipes starring veggies
Here are a few recipes for kid-friendly dips and familiar dishes that are a great way to include some veggies into your family’s mealtime plan!
Cheesy Broccoli Dip
1 14-ounce bag frozen broccoli, thawed
1 cup low-fat cottage cheese
1/8 tsp kosher salt
Puree the broccoli, cottage cheese and salt in a food processor until smooth. Serve with baked whole-grain pita chips.
Avocado and Yogurt Dip
1/2 cup plain fat-free Greek yogurt
2 ripe avocados, peeled and seeded
1 clove garlic, minced
3 Tbsp chopped fresh cilantro
1 Tbsp finely chopped seeded jalapeño pepper
2 Tbsp fresh lime juice
1/4 tsp ground cumin
Place the yogurt, avocados, garlic, cilantro, jalapeño, lime juice and cumin in a blender or food processor. Mix until smooth. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Scrape dip into a serving bowl and serve with baked whole-grain pita chips, baked tortilla chips or cut up veggies. Store any leftovers with plastic wrap pressed against the top to keep the color bright.
A Better Mac and Cheese
1 1/2 pound (20 ounce) whole wheat elbow macaroni (or any other kind of pasta)
2 small sweet potatoes, microwaved or baked until soft (or substitute 1 1/2 cups cooked carrots)
2 1/2 cups low-fat milk
3/4 cup pasta water
3/4 cup plain yogurt (Greek-style if you’d prefer)
1 1/2 tsp salt
1/4-1/2 tsp black pepper
3 cups grated cheese (a mix of half cheddar and mozzarella works well)
1 cup bread crumbs
2 tsp olive oil, divided
Optional: 1 Tbsp fresh parsley, minced, or 1 tsp dried parsley
View the recipe at Thrivinghomeblog.com.
Enchilada-Stuffed Spaghetti Squash
1-2 small spaghetti squash
1/2 onion diced (about 1 cup diced)
1 Tbsp olive oil
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 cup fresh corn (kernels from one ear)
1 red bell pepper, diced
1 cup cooked black beans (1 can rinsed and drained or substitute browned lean ground meat)
1 Tbsp chili powder
1 Tbsp cumin
1 Tbsp coriander
1-2 tsp fresh chopped jalapeño
1 tsp kosher salt
8 ounce can tomato sauce
1/4 cup chopped cilantro, plus more for garnish
1/4 cup shredded cheddar or Mexican cheese per serving (optional)
Other optional toppings: chopped avocado, hot sauce, sour cream
Pre-heat oven to 425 degrees. Cut spaghetti squash in half vertically (from North Pole to South Pole, creating oval “boats”) and scrape out seeds. Shave a little off the bottom as well so the boats can sit stable and hold the filling at the end of the recipe. Place on a parchment-lined or greased baking sheet, with the cut side faced down, and place in the hot oven for 40 minutes.
While squash are roasting, make the filling: Sauté onion in a skillet with 1 Tbsp olive oil on medium high heat, stirring for two minutes. Add garlic, turn heat to medium and sauté for 1-2 minutes until garlic becomes fragrant and golden. Turn heat to medium low, add jalapeno, corn and peppers, and stir occasionally for 5 minutes. Add beans, spices, salt and tomato sauce and bring to a simmer. Turn heat off and stir in cilantro. Mixture will seem salty, but you will be mixing this with under-seasoned spaghetti squash, so the salt will adjust to the right level.
When spaghetti squash is done, carefully scrape the squash from the sides with a fork to form strands. Incorporate a little filling at a time, mixing it together with the spaghetti squash. (You will have enough filling for four smaller halves or for two very hearty and mounded larger halves.) If adding cheese, mix a little into the squash and black bean mixture and use the remaining for the top. Return the stuffed squash into the hot oven and bake for 10 more minutes, until heated through and/or cheese is melted, or refrigerate and bake at a later time.
Garnish with cilantro and serve. Top with sour cream, hot sauce or chopped avocado if desired.
Article updated/reviewed by Sonya Islam, Dietitian, Healthy Lifestyles Center, July 2016
Recipes adapted from: