Routine family meals aren’t the only way to get kids to eat their fruits and veggies. A new study reveals other tricks to keep children on track with healthier choices.
The study, which surveyed around 2,500 teenagers in Minnesota, suggests that when family meals are rare, children eat more fruits and vegetables if they’re readily available and when they see their parents eating them, too.
“Interestingly, we found that in the absence of regular family meals these other parenting practices had a positive association with teen fruit and vegetable consumption,” said lead study author Allison Watts of the University of Minnesota School of Public Health in Minneapolis. “Their independent effect appeared to be greater than family meals alone, and that the combination of regular family meals and healthful parenting practices had the largest positive associations with teen fruit and vegetable intake.”
Watts adds that the more positive things parents can do in the home, the greater the benefits.
“If you aren’t able to have regular family meals, it’s worth focusing on other positive practices like making sure fruits and vegetables are available and easy for your kids to access (cut up, on the counter), encouraging your kids to eat fruits and vegetables, and modeling this desired behavior as well,” she said.
Researchers reviewed data from a 2010 survey of middle and high school students in the Minneapolis and St. Paul metropolitan area.
On average, the students reported eating 3.7 servings of fruits and vegetables per day. The minimum daily recommendation is five servings.
Students who reported frequent family meals got 4.2 daily servings of fruits and vegetables.
Nearly one-third of teens surveyed reported two or less family meals per week. That same group reported eating only 3.3 servings of fruits and vegetables a day. They were also more likely to be from low-income households.
As reported in the Journal of Nutrition and Dietetics, teens consumed around half a serving more of fruits and vegetables each day when they were cut up and in easily accessible places such as on the counter or in the fridge.
“I think this study offers some hope that there may be some more subtle things that parents can do that matter – such as delegating one of your children to cut up fruits and vegetables so they are easily accessible in the fridge or making packaged fruits and vegetables available on the counter,” said Nancy Zucker, director of the center for eating disorders at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.
Still, the findings were observational and offer no proof that family meals or making fruits and vegetables readily available create healthy eating habits in kids.
Instead, the findings highlight an income disparity in how teens eat, says Sarah Clark, a researcher at the University of Michigan’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital.
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“Low-income families tend to have lower access to grocery stores with a broad selection of fresh fruits and vegetables, measured both in distance and in convenience of transportation, and the cost of fresh is higher than frozen or canned, which comes into play in terms of purchasing dollars and also related to waste if fresh fruits or vegetables go bad,” Clark adds.
Purchasing fresh produce when it’s on sale or considering canned fruits and vegetables can help, says Melissa Horning, a researcher at the University of Minnesota School of Nursing.
“Finding simple ways for families to eat healthier without adding to their stress, particularly in families already low on resources, is critical,” Zucker concludes.