Did You Eat Your Vegetables? Really? Are You Sure?

We all know that we should be eating plenty of fruits and vegetables, and we all know about the many health benefits, including reductions in diabetes, cardiovascular events (heart disease, heart attack, stroke), and even some cancers. Only 11 percent of the U.S. population currently meets the daily targets for vegetable consumption, while just 20 percent meet the guideline for fruit, according to researchers at Yale. Asking people—especially kids—whether they’ve eaten what they’re supposed to produces notoriously inaccurate results. But researchers have discovered that a special laser that measure a compound in the skin can tell exactly how much we’re getting.

Depending on your age, sex, and level of physical activity, we should eat anywhere from 1 cup to 3 cups of fruits and veggies every day. Visually, that’s about half of everything on our plate at every meal. And most of us tend to greatly overestimate how much we’re actually eating. The compound being measured is called carotenoids, and levels vary according to fruit and vegetable intake.
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When Nutrition Guidelines Backfire

Dear Mr. Dad. A few weeks ago you wrote that parents shouldn’t try to force kids to eat their vegetables because it could backfire. I see the logic in having only healthy foods around the house and letting the kids decide how much they want to eat. But what are we supposed to do when they’re at school? Is there some way to get cafeterias and snack bars to serve only healthy foods?

A: Great—and very tough—question. Yes, it’s possible to get schools to serve healthy foods. This past summer, I read a great article about lunches at one school in France, where all the food is locally sourced and prepared (including freshly baked bread every day), the menus are reviewed by a certified dietician, and the only beverage is water. Unfortunately, attempts to nudge American schools in that direction have been both heavy-handed and unsuccessful.
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Want to Lower Your Kids’ Obesity Risk? Get an Education

Who’d have thought? One of the best ways to lower your children’s obesity risk is to go back to school. No them, you! Poorly educated parents tend to eat—and feed their children—fewer fruits and veggies and more high-fat, high-sugar foods and drinks. Better educated parents do just the opposite, emphasizing healthy eating habits and providing more nutritious, lower-fat, lower-sugar, better-rounded foods, including fruits, whole grains, and vegetables.
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Would You Please Pass the White Foods?

Dear Mr. Dad: My toddler used to eat pretty much everything. But recently she’s become incredibly. It’s gotten so bad that I can’t get her to eat anything but mac and cheese, noodles, and rice. Is there anything I can do to get her back to a healthier diet?

A: What you’re describing is a completely normal phase for kids. And every parent has had plenty of experience with toddlers’ dramatic pronouncements about what they will or won’t eat. Let’s face it, ice cream and cake taste better than broccoli and if you didn’t know that you needed a more balanced diet, you’d probably eat nothing but dessert.

The good news is that somehow or other, most kids end up getting enough of whatever it is they need to run around like maniacs all day long. But that doesn’t mean you should let her eat nothing but the white food group. Your daughter is old enough to understand that we all need a variety of foods—fruits, veggies, protein, and yes, an occasional cookie. At the very least, she needs to develop healthy eating habits now so she can carry them with her as she grows.

Here are some ways to help her get a more balanced diet:

  • Give her plenty of choices, but no Yes or No possibilities. Offering beans or peas is better than asking whether or not she wants beans.
  • If you’re feeling adventurous, next time you’re at the grocery store, have her pick a fruit or veggie no one in the family has had before.
  • If there’s a food she despises, like broccoli, don’t push it. Instead, choose a nutritious replacement, like creamed spinach (but you’ll probably have to call it something else than spinach).
  • Kids love to dunk, so include ranch dressing for carrots, melted cheese for green beans, yogurt or peanut butter for fruit. But make sure she isn’t just licking off the dip.
  • Juice contains a lot of sugar so stick with mostly water or milk. When you do serve juice, (and we all do), make sure it’s 100 percent and dilute it by adding half water.
  • Insist that she tries two bites of everything—even new foods. This could be a battle at first, but if she learns it’s a firm rule, she’ll eventually get used to the idea.
  • Little kids tend to prefer crunchy things. Most of the time when they reject a food it’s because of the texture, not the taste.
  • If possible, visit a farm so your daughter can see where produce comes from. That might make it more interesting, especially if she can pick her own.
  • It’s easy to blend healthy ingredients into a smoothie—plus it’s something your daughter can help with. Throw in fruit (fresh or frozen), yogurt, ice and perhaps a little tufu or protein powder.
  • Get her involved in other food prep tasks. Baking muffins is great fun. And it gives you a chance to demonstrate that something can be delicious even if it contains carrots or zucchini.
  • Swap your regular pasta and noodles for whole wheat. The cheese and tomato sauces will cover up the difference in taste. You can slip all sorts of other nutritious things into tomato sauce and most kids will down plenty of fruit if it’s in their oatmeal or cereal.
  • Your daughter is watching and will eat what you do, so set a good example. And take some comfort in the fact that kids get more adventurous with age.