My sons, aged two and four, are finicky eaters. When offered certain vegetables, they reject them completely or mournfully pick at their plates. The nutritional recommendation from the US (MyPlate.gov) is for children to fill at least half their plates with vegetables and fruits. But I've found that's not easy to do, and studies show that it's tough for many families, too.
According to a study this year by researchers at Chinese University and the Health Department, only 40 per cent of children aged one to four meet government recommendations for eating vegetables, and as they get older, the numbers get worse. Another study found that fewer than 10 per cent of children aged 10 to 16 met the guidelines of five servings of fruits and vegetables per day.
So what's the trick to getting youngsters to eat healthily? Research suggests mothers start sensitising children to foods while in the womb. Since some flavours can cross into the amniotic fluid, it appears what a mother eats during her pregnancy can someday influence her child's food preferences.
I ate lots of fruits and vegetables during pregnancy. In fact, I had cravings for mangoes and was a record spinach eater. Sadly, this prenatal sensitisation was not enough to do the trick in our home. Using fun, catchy names for fruits and vegetables may help persuade children to eat them.
Researchers at Cornell University tested the likelihood that students would eat foods called "Silly Dilly Green Beans" and "Power Punch Broccoli" over the same foods named "Food of the Day."
The results were impressive. At one school, nearly twice the amount of carrots were eaten when labelled "X-Ray Vision Carrots". Unfortunately, my boys were somewhat immune to the enticement though they found the names of the vegetables amusing.
I've had to be more creative to get my children to eat healthily. Some strategies worked better than others, but they are all worth a try.
Educate your children about food
Explaining the benefits of certain foods and the risks of others can influence what children pick. We borrowed a colourful children's book about the human body and nutrition from the library, and my four-year-old learned about what makes his muscles and bones strong. I admit I went a little overboard with the vitamins and minerals, but he definitely knows now that the vitamin A in carrots are good for his eyes and skin, and he's more excited about eating them.
Make food fun
Children are much more likely to try food if they have taken part in the cooking process. My boys liked a children's cookbook by British author Annabel Karmel, so we tried out a few recipes including smoothies and tri-coloured fruit popsicles. (The blueberry-mango-banana yogurt smoothie was a big hit.) The boys enjoyed selecting what went in and using the blender. I now take them grocery shopping and they pick out a type of fruit or vegetable they would like to try.
Another time when I was exasperated by the boys' aversion to fruits and vegetables, I created a colour game. We cut out small circles of different colours representing different fruits and vegetables and pinned them on a corkboard corresponding to what they ate. The children got to see that if they ate only apples and pasta all day, they would not have many colours on the board, and it would not be a very colourful day.
Texture and taste count
Children's taste buds are much more sensitive than adults'. So many little ones have negative reactions to bitter flavours in foods such as Brussels sprouts and asparagus. If they do, try to focus on sweeter but healthy options, such as sweet peas and corn. Some children are as sensitive to new textures as they are to new tastes. Luckily, the texture of many foods can be changed. When my youngest refused broccoli and squash, I found that if they were puréed and then made into a soup (especially topped with croutons), he was more likely to eat them.
Stock healthy food
Nutritionists agree that by eliminating less nutritious foods, you allow the healthy options to take centre stage. I try to keep our fridge stocked with carrot sticks, sliced apples, raisins and bananas. These items also make great snacks while on the go, are easy to store and require minimal preparation.
Watch plants grow
If children are involved in growing plants and seeing where their food comes from, they are more likely to take an interest in eating them. Although it's hard to have a full garden with tomatoes and beans in Hong Kong, arranging a trip to a farm or growing a small potted plant on a window sill or balcony is possible. Once the boys took home a pot of basil and we still use it.
If all else fails, hide the veggies
Jessica Seinfeld, author of Deceptively Delicious and mother of three, tells parents how to sneak puréed vegetables into everything from shrimp dumplings to quesadillas. We add finely chopped carrots to pasta sauce, blueberries and apples to pancakes, and bananas and pears to oatmeal. And we often make cutlets with ground chicken and vegetables or wrap small amounts of ground vegetables in tortillas or pita bread so they don't see what's inside.
Don't give up
If your child sees you skipping the vegetables they will do the same, so be a good role model. Keep introducing those fruits and vegetables. They can learn to enjoy flavours and textures if they're exposed to them regularly.
Anisha Abraham is an associate professor of paediatrics at Georgetown University in Washington and a visiting scholar at the Chinese University of Hong Kong