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Kids aren't eating fruits and veggies

Happiest Baby's Dr. Harvey Karp has tips to change that

tips to get kids to eat fruits and veggies

A new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that approximately 32% of 1- to 5-year-olds did not eat a single piece of fruit a day and nearly one half (~49%) didn't eat any vegetables a day. Roughly 51% drank a sugar-sweetened beverage, like fruit drinks or soda, at least once a week.

"These findings are very, very concerning," says pediatrician Dr. Harvey Karp, MD and author of the best-selling parent guides Happiest Baby on the Block & Happiest Toddler on the Block and CEO of Happiest Baby, Inc. and creator of SNOO, the safe robotic baby bassinet. "We all know that 'you are what you eat.' During the early years of life, children are forming lifetime preferences that will influence their eating for the rest of their lives. Healthy eating can save our children terrible suffering, from obesity—with joint and back problems—to diabetes to heart disease…and maybe even cancer."

Parents and caregivers need to offer at least one fruit or vegetable at each meal and snack. To get there, follow Dr. Karp's expert advice:

Know what a serving truly is.

Remember, an adult serving size is much different than the serving size for your toddler or preschooler! Once you get your head around how small a serving really is, ensuring your tot gets enough is far more doable.

  • For 1- and 2-year-olds, a serving is about 2 tablespoons cooked or canned fruits or veggies, 2 to 3 pieces fresh, or one-fourth of a small whole fruit, like a plum

  • For 3- to 4-year-olds, a serving is roughly one-fourth cup cooked or canned fruits or veggies, 4 to 5 pieces of fresh produce, or half a small whole fruit

  • For 5- to 6-year-olds, a serving is about a half cup cooked or canned, 6 to 7 pieces fresh, or one small whole fruit

Catch others eating well.

Since toddlers and preschoolers love imitating others, especially slightly older kids, when you visit restaurants or you're at friends' homes, casually point out what kids have on their plates. "Oh! Lily is having sweet potatoes. So yummy!" "Hmmm...that boy is eating apples slices. Do you think he's going to use the dipping sauce he has on the table?" But it is best not to compare your child to other kids. That often boomerangs and makes little kids more defiant.

Embrace dips and spreads.

The best way to help the kids eat fruits and vegetables is to make sure they taste good. Skip the pressure and let them have a "not today" bowl to put in foods they choose not to eat today. You can also lean into roasting (brings our natural sweetness), dipping sauce (little dish of ranch dressing, ketchup, or hummus with crunchy or lightly steamed veggies), little sprinkles of cheese on your tyke's cauliflower, or with a dusting cinnamon…the goal is to get kids excited to eat fruits and veggies!

READ MORE: Planning a balanced, plant-based diet for kids

Use reverse psychology.

One silly tip that often works is to use your child's natural defiant ("I want to do it myself!") as your secret helper. When your toddler has broccoli on their plate, reach over and take a little piece…and eat it with clear joy! "Mmmmm…! Mommy loves little trees. I want them ALL! They're Mommy's trees." When your tot gobbles up their piece, make a silly pout and say, "Hey, you ate my broccoli!!" If your tyke refuses to eat, pretend to try to sneak bits of food off their plate as though you greedily want all their food for yourself. This appeals to your toddler's basic sense of "It's mine!" While this doesn't always work, it's worth a try!

Make fruits and veggies appetizers and toppers.

If you're struggling to get your tot to eat fruits and veggies during mealtime, take the meal out of the equation. Instead, put out a plate of cut veggies or snap peas—or a bowl of fruit salad topped with yummy, shredded coconut—while you make dinner. This allows hungry kids to enjoy a healthy starter as you finish up in the kitchen. Plus, it's a great way to take the pressure off at mealtime and sidestep hangriness! Another easy in: Treat fruit as a fun topper for things like whole plain yogurt, ice cream, whole grain waffles or pancakes, and oatmeal.

Let them help.

You'd be surprised at how well this works! Kids are much more interested in eating food that they helped prepare. Inviting your children to help wash the fruit or veggies, help cutting it and organizing it on a plate 

Offer a win-win compromise.

Toddlers and preschoolers love choices! It helps them feel more control of their very adult-centered world. So, next mealtime ask something like, "Should I give you three peas or two?" and suggest a win-win compromise, like, "Eat a green bean and you can have another french fry, or eat two more green beans and you can have all five of these french fries!" If your tyke drives a hard bargain and eats only one tiny nibble of the bean, you should still give them a piece of the french fry. Why? Because they're making a baby step in the right direction!

Rethink juice.

When I was starting out as a pediatrician, we thought apple juice was a great first drink for babies, but today we know better! Fruit drinks and fruit juice are pretty much just sugar and water. The "fruit" part, meaning the pulp and the most nutritious bits of fruit, is thrown away during the juice-making process. Does that mean kids can't have any juice ever? No! But it's time to reposition 100% juice as a sometimes food, not a diet staple. And when/if you do serve it, make sure it's 100% juice and consider watering it down.

An easy – and very tasty – substitute is sunshine herbal tea, just put some dried peppermint or spearmint (tea bags or loose leaves) in plain room temperature water and let it sit for a few hours in the sun (no need for boiling). Mint is naturally sweet, but you can make it a bit sweeter by adding 1 ounce of apple juice or a little sugar or honey. (For extra fun, you and your child, can even grow some mint in your garden, it is very easy). 

Stock up on on-the-go fruit and veggies snacks.

Next time you get your snacks together for a trip to the park, the zoo, a road trip, or whatever, leave crackers and bars at home and take dried, whole, sauced, and/or baked fruits and veggies instead…but not gummy fruit snacks, which are glorified candy—and a choking hazard for children under 4. Some kid-favorites include clementines, fresh or puffed sugar snap peas, chopped dried cherries, seaweed snacks, freeze-dried berries with no added sugar, unsweetened applesauce, roasted chickpeas, and cucumber circles.

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