A School Lesson for Home: Get Kids to Eat Fruits and Vegetables

by Amy Hendel, P.A. Health Writer

There’s been a lot of talk in the news suggesting that the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which mandated huge reforms in school breakfast and lunch programs, has been a failure; that kids are tossing the healthier foods, particularly fruit, and even opting to go hungry rather than eat “that healthy stuff.” A number of schools and studies have disputed these headlines, finding that kids have not liked everything offered, but certainly have embraced some of the newer (healthier) versions of their favorite foods. If we want the kids to really choose the fruit, what can we do?

According to a new joint study from Cornell University and Brigham Young University, you get the kids to run around and then offer the fruit snack! A hungry child will be more likely to accept a wider range of food choices, even vegetables and fruit. After kids run around and play for a while they are usually very hungry.

The study involved kids from seven schools in the Utah school district. The age range included kids from first through sixth grade. At least 50 percent of the school kids in the study qualified for free or reduced cost lunches. For the purposes of the study, three schools switched recess to before lunch and the other four schools continued to hold recess after lunch. Researchers measured fruit and vegetables tossed by standing next to trash bins and counting the number of tossed and consumed fruits and vegetables. Also recorded was whether each child consumed a minimum of one serving of fruits or vegetables. These observations took place over four spring days and nine fall days, during the school year.

The data revealed that in the schools where recess occurred before lunch (meaning the kids had play and physical activity before lunch was served), children ate 54 percent more fruits and vegetables. There was also a 45 percent increase in children consuming at least one serving of fruits or vegetables. The other four schools that continued to have recess after lunch, actually showed a decrease in consumption of fruits and vegetables.

The takeaway message for parents of kids who are not enthused about healthier food choices like fruit, vegetables, yogurt, high-fiber cereals, healthier lean proteins, even lower fat milk and water, is to consider a similar approach – give your kids vigorous playtime before serving them nutritious (unpopular) food choices. The approach may also help with picky eaters who refuse most food choices and are often given “anything they’re willing to eat,” even very unhealthy foods. If kids are encouraged to get very hungry, they will be more likely to accept foods that they consider less attractive or desirable.

Some other tips that can help to inspire kids to eat their fruits and vegetables:

  • Play games with them like using a blindfold and asking them to taste and identify the fruit or vegetable

  • Let them make faces on healthy bread or waffles with fruits and vegetables

  • Give them a tasty dipping sauce like a fruity yogurt, hummus, tahini, or salsa

  • Let them spear the fruits and vegetables so kids have fun with food

  • Make smoothies with fruits and vegetables

  • Add fruit puree to recipes like brownies and muffins, which cuts the need for added oils or butter and bumps up the nutrition profile

  • Take them to the supermarket and do taste testing in the produce section

Amy Hendel, P.A.
Meet Our Writer
Amy Hendel, P.A.

Known as "The HealthGal", Amy Hendel P.A. is a medical and lifestyle reporter, nutrition and fitness expert, health coach and brand ambassador. Trained as a physician assistant, she maintains a health coach private practice in New York and Los Angeles. Author of The Four Habits of Healthy Families, find her on Twitter @Healthgal1103 and on Facebook @TheHealthGal. Check “Daily Health News” at healthgal.com. Her personal mantra? “Fix it first with food, fitness, and lifestyle.”