Children, fruit and vegetables: helping parents to overcome this well-known fight

Europe - Wed, 09/07/2016

Developing healthy eating habits in children is not an easy task, especially when it comes to making them eat fruit and vegetables. Many health care professionals face daily this problem together with parents who find serious difficulties in achieving this objective and who finally, in most occasions, give up the fight. But they are not alone. Experts have identified the main strategies to promote healthy eating habits in children: breastfeeding, the way in which foods are presented, persistence and adults’ attitude are some of the key points to reach it.

Here are some recommendations taken from the HabEat project (European Project FP7/-245012-Habeat) that may be helpful in the everyday paediatric routine:

  • Promote breastfeeding: Breastfeeding facilitates baby’s acceptance of fruit and vegetables during the complementary feeding stage and makes the child accept a higher variety of healthy foods in later stages of childhood. This fact may be due to the food flavours transferred from the mother’s diet to breast milk.

  • Be persistent: It may seem that the child does not like a new taste when trying it for the first time, but parents should not cease in their efforts only because of that. It is recommended to offer a novel food on at least 8-10 occasions several days apart during several weeks and s/he will probably like it in the end. It is better to offer the vegetables one by one to get them used to one flavour at a time.

  • Offer a wide variety of fruit and vegetables:The stage of complementary feeding means a “window of opportunity” where a baby is open to accept a higher variety of foods with different aromas, textures and flavours. The more flavours s/he tastes, the higher their acceptance of novel foods will be in later life.

  • Set a good example: If parents do not eat fruit and vegetables, they will hardly achieve this objective with their kids. These are beneficial habits for both parents and children! Furthermore, parents should show their children how delicious fruit and vegetables are and how much they like eating them. By setting this attitude, the 50% of the success is already guaranteed!

  • Encourage a relaxed atmosphere: It is advisable not to pressure or bribe children to make them eat. Being too strict may cause negative effects on children’s future attitude towards food. Children’s appetite can vary from day to day.  Parents should pay attention to signs of hunger and satiety and respect their kids when they say they have had enough, so that they can develop a healthy relationship with food.

  • Foster children’s participation: From 2-3 years to 6 years of age, children can refuse some foods and be picky eaters. It is recommended to try getting them involved in the preparation of meals; in this way, they will be more keen on eating what they prepared. All the activities that encourage contact with foods may help children have a better acceptance of them.

  • Be creative: It is advisable to offer children between 2 and 6 years of age a choice of one, two or more vegetables, as well as more than one form of presentation (cut into sticks or cubes, grated, etc.). On the contrary, it is not recommended to offer them the same vegetable more than twice a week since the child may become bored and decrease its consumption.

  • General parent’s attitude: Foods may be offered to children in response to their feelings of hunger, never as a kind of reward for good behaviour or for any other reason. On the other hand, parents should not offer snacks high in energy just before or after meals. If a child is hungry before a meal, vegetables are a very advisable option as a way of snack or appetiser.

The experts ensure that all these recommendations, based on scientific evidence, result in the formation of lasting healthy eating habits for later life.