Yum! How to help your child eat their vegetables

With children only consuming 25% of the recommended daily amount of vegetables,* finding ways to help children increase their consumption seems to be a priority.  The team at Child’s Play recently reported a school based approach which had success at increasing the amount of fruit and vegetables that children eat, but what can parents do to encourage their pre-school children to eat more fruit and vegetables?

A recent study led by Teresia O’Connor at Baylor College of Medicine, Houston set out to examine what strategies parents use to motivate their children to eat fruit and vegetables, and which of these were the most effective.

Working with 755 children and their parents who were participating in a Head Start pre-school programme, the team of researchers initially met with parents to identify the practices that they use to encourage their children to eat more fruit and vegetables.  They then supplemented the list generated with an additional five parenting practices suggested by experts to give a total list of 32 different approaches available to parents.

Each parent was then shown the complete list of parenting practices and asked to identify which ones they used with their child.  They were also asked to keep a food diary for three days (two during the week and one at a weekend) to identify the quantities of fruit and vegetables eaten by their child.

What were the results?  You may be disappointed to find out that there is no magic wand that you can wave that will result in your child miraculously loving their vegetables.  No single parental practice predicted greater consumption of food and vegetable intake.

The researchers then clustered the 32 different methods into five types or categories of food parenting.  These included methods educating children about the benefits of eating fruit and vegetables; restricting junk food; increasing the accessibility of fruit and vegetables; disciplining the child for not eating fruit and vegetables; and using incentives of one sort or another (play, sweets, praise.)

They then analyzed which combination of techniques parents used and identified three different styles of food parenting.  The first style (somewhat uncharitably in my opinion) was called “indiscriminant food parenting.”  This style described parents who used all five types of parenting and used them a lot.  The second group of parents used what they called “non-directive parenting.”  These parents used education and availability as their primary tactics and used very little discipline.  The third and final group used what they labelled “low involved parenting.”  These parents tended to use fewer of all the methods than the other parents although used more disciplining tactics than the non-directive parents.

So which type of parenting was most effective?  When parents were organized into these three groups, differences started to emerge.  The most effective approach was non-directive parenting with children eating 20% more fruit and vegetables then the children of parents using the low involved style and 10% more than the children of parents using the indiscriminant parenting approach.

A couple of words of warning before drawing any conclusions.  Firstly, the study relied on parents describing their parenting practices rather than any direct observation by the research team.  There is obviously room for error as a result of either parents not recalling accurately what approaches they use, or trying to present themselves in a positive light.  While the researchers endeavoured to control for this by taking into account the chance of people answering in a socially desirable manner, it does still make the results potentially less reliable.  Secondly, parents were only asked to comment on whether they used the 32 practices or not.  They weren’t asked to comment on how often they used them, how accomplished they felt in their use or how effective they felt they were.

Assuming however the results are meaningful, what lessons should we draw from them?  Perhaps the main conclusion from this study is the ineffectiveness of disciplining your child.  Making your child feel guilty about not eating fruit and vegetables, insisting they stay at the table until they’ve finished all their food, and withholding enjoyable treats such as sweets or play appear to be counter-productive.

No single strategy appears to be effective in isolation but doing little to encourage your child appears to be the least effective option.  Children with parents who adopted a low involved style ate the fewest fruit and vegetables of all.  So it appears important that parents do actively need to encourage their children.  The two most effective strategies seem to be taking time to educate children about the benefits of eating fruit and vegetables as well as ensuring that they are freely available appear to be the most effective strategies.  Involving children in food preparation, talking about the importance of fruit and vegetables, encouraging them to try a few bites without forcing them to eat all of it, putting food within easy reach and including fruit and vegetables in both snacks and meals all appear to be potentially beneficial strategies.

O’Connor TM, Hughes SO, Watson KB, Baranowski T, Nicklas TA, Fisher JO, Beltran A, Baranowski JC, Qu H, Shewchuk RM.  Parenting practices associated with fruit and vegetable consumption in pre-school children. Public Health Nutr. 2010 Jan;13(1):91-101.

*Figures from the United States

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