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How to Get Kids to Eat More Vegetables



As I noted last week, small children won't eat what they don't like, and vegetables are at the top of the list of things that small children don't like and won't eat. So it's probably no surprise that children don't get enough vegetables in their diet. As we found in last week's Health and Nutrition Bite, kids tend to eat about the same amount of food by weight, regardless of its caloric density (number of calories contained by weight). With childhood obesity such an object of concern right now, one strategy to help kids lose weight or maintain a healthier weight is to reduce the caloric density of their foods. And how to do that? Add more vegetables, which are low in calorie density.

Sounds like a real conundrum, but researchers at Pennsylvania State University thought of a sneaky way for kids to get more vegetables and reduce the calorie density of the foods they eat: hide vegetables in them! (Am J Clin Nutr 2011;94(3):735-41)

But would it work? Would kids eat the lower calorie density foods, or would they be able to tell the difference? Would they eat more of the lower calorie density foods than they would the foods they're intended to imitate? And would they eat more of other, unmanipulated foods and end up eating about the same number of calories as they would if they were eating the regular foods?

To find out, the researchers recruited 39 children between the ages of 3 and 6 (along with their parents) to participate in a feeding study. Once per week for three weeks, the children received all of their meals for that day from the research team.

For the study, the researchers designed recipes whose caloric density could be manipulated by adding pureed vegetables, which included zucchini, cauliflower, broccoli, tomatoes and squash, without altering flavor. These recipes were: zucchini bread for breakfast, pasta with tomato sauce at lunch, and chicken noodle casserole for dinner and evening snack. In addition to the standard, full-calorie versions of these basic recipes, the researchers manipulated the amount of added vegetables to create two reduced-calorie versions of each recipe: one with 85% of the calories of the original, and one with 75% of the calories of the original.

Each of the three times that the children received their meals from the research team, they randomly received one of the three variations of the recipes: the full-calorie version, the 85% calorie version, or the 75% calorie version. The children were allowed to eat as much as they wanted at every meal, and the amount that they ate was calculated to determine how much they had eaten by weight as well as to determine the number of calories they consumed.

After the children had participated in all three weeks of the study, they were given samples of each version of the recipes and were asked to rank each version in comparison to the other versions: 1 (favorite), 2 or 3 (least favorite). All of the versions of the recipes were considered "yummy" or "okay," but that didn't seem to make a difference in the amount of the food they ate. Further, the researchers found that the children did indeed eat about the same amount of food by weight regardless of the energy density of the food.

What's interesting is that for each of the three versions of the recipes, about one-third of the children declared it their favorite: one-third of the children liked the full-calorie version the best, one-third liked the 85% calorie version the best, and one-third liked the 75% calorie version the best. Which child liked which version varied across the recipes.

What this means for you

This looks like a great way to get your kids to eat more vegetables (and help them maintain a healthy weight): when the children ate the 85% calorie version of the foods, they got 68% more vegetables that day and 15% fewer calories than they did on the full-calorie version day. Similarly, on the 75% calorie version days, they got just over twice as many vegetables as they did on the full-calorie days, while eating 25% fewer calories. Dr. Gourmet recipes are designed to be lower in calories by maximizing flavor and adding vegetables to reduce calorie density - try my Sloppy Joe recipe for an example of adding veggies to reduce calorie density!

First posted: September 14, 2011