How to get your kids to eat their veggies

  • Article by: KRISTEN V. BROWN , San Francisco Chronicle
  • Updated: August 31, 2013 - 5:03 PM

Parents need not resort to trickery to get kids to eat well, but they do need to demonstrate good mealtime habits themselves.

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When prompted to describe his favorite food, Jennifer Fitzgerald’s 8-year-old son paused thoughtfully before delivering an answer.

“Quiche,” said Keenan, of Concord, Calif., before elaborating. “Broccoli quiche.”

At pizza joints, he and his 9-year-old sister Samantha will often opt for the salad bar over a slice. Recently, a friend offered her kids a Pop-Tart. They didn’t know what one was.

The Fitzgerald kids’ affinity for greens and other foods often thought of as anathema to children isn’t some small miracle bestowed upon Fitzgerald and her husband, John. Both children were at one time picky eaters, shunning many of the healthy foods that are staples at the family dinner table.

But their parents didn’t give in. Picky eating was never rewarded. The rule was to eat what’s for dinner, or have a bowl of granola with milk — in other words, no trading up broccoli for mac and cheese.

Much research has backed up what the Fitzgeralds have learned in practice: Grown-ups and kids eat the same foods, sit-down family meals are standard and picky eating simply isn’t tolerated. Parents need not resort to trickery to get their kids to eat their veggies.

“Research shows that you have to offer a child a food an average 10 to 12 times before they like it,” said Dr. Scott Gee, a pediatrician specializing in obesity at Kaiser Permanente’s Walnut Creek (Calif.) Medical Center. “I think a lot of parents give up.”

The Fitzgeralds did not.

“People say, ‘Well, kids don’t eat this,’ ” said Jennifer Fitzgerald. “Kids ate regular food before we had all this convenience food. They will eat healthy.”

The effort takes time

Most nights Jennifer makes dinner from scratch — recent meals included vegetarian lasagna with salad and chicken with sautéed kale. Keenan and Samantha usually gobble it up, Fitzgerald said. When they were toddlers, she said, it was often a struggle to get the kids to enjoy — or even eat — what was on their plates.

Take grapefruit: “I recognize it’s kind of a weird taste for a kid,” Fitzgerald said. When her kids didn’t want it, she said, she didn’t push the issue. Every so often, curious, they would ask for a bite of hers. Soon they were requesting their own. Grapefruit drizzled with honey is now a mainstay of the lunches Fitzgerald packs for the kids to take to school.

For Keenan, the more finicky of the two kids when it comes to food, salad was a particular hurdle. The Fitzgeralds never attempted to force their kids to eat whole meals of foods they didn’t like, but with each meal, Fitzgerald would request that Keenan try just a bite of her salad. Eventually, he realized it was the concept he’d disdained and not the taste. Now he chooses salad over pizza.

Although Fitzgerald didn’t realize it, she was relying on so-called “modeling,” a strategy that many studies — the most recent published in June in the International Journal of Obesity — have shown as among the most effective in helping children develop healthy eating patterns. The basic concept is that parents should eat what they would like their kids to eat. After all, there is no injustice like being served up a plate of Brussels sprouts while Mom and Dad dine on burgers.

“Having the parents model good eating habits is a big part of it,” said Gail Seche, a nurse and the clinical nutrition manager at Children’s Hospital Oakland in Oakland, Calif.

Could do better

A new federal report found that the diet quality of children and adolescents nationwide fell woefully short of federal recommendations, pointing to a need for better strategies in teaching kids about nutrition. The report, by the Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics, found that from 2003 to 2008, the diets of American children ages 2 to 17 scored 50 percent or less on a Healthy Eating Index.

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