How to trick your family in to eating vegetables

by Jennifer Bowden / 17 June, 2017
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If you want to overcome your family’s reluctance to eat more healthily, there is a simple answer.

About the only surprising thing about fruit and vegetables is that we know they’re good for us yet we still don’t eat enough. But the good news is that Dutch researchers have found an easy way to increase our vegetable intake.

People who eat more fruit and vegetables are healthier, both physically and mentally. They suffer less depression and feel altogether happier. And that’s a good thing because prodigious fruit and vegetable eaters have a lot more life to live – years and years more – thanks to their lower rates of cardiovascular disease, a range of cancers and other chronic diseases and therefore mortality.

Yet whereas almost everyone is sold on the idea of eating more fruit and vegetables, less than half of New Zealand adults (41%) ate the recommended three or more servings of vegetables and two or more servings of fruit a day in 2013/14. It could be worse – a recent US survey, for example, found American toddlers were more likely to eat French fries than green vegetables on any given day.

When it comes to upping a family’s fruit and vegetable intake, studies have reliably found more than one stick-in-the-mud: children and male partners. Whereas women are still more likely to prepare the main meals and do the food shopping, many describe having little control over what is eaten, instead bowing to the wishes of their male partner and children when it comes to food choices.

However, as parents know, children aren’t particularly good at considering the long-term risks and benefits of their dietary choices. And men typically place a lower priority than women on health, preferring taste and convenience, when it comes to deciding what to eat and tend to be less interested in a healthier lifestyle.

Certainly, a growing proportion of men are interested in increasing their vegetable intake and/or reducing how much red meat they eat. But these types of dietary improvements are typically seen only among men with higher education levels.

So if women accede to the wishes of children and male partners, they’re almost certainly agreeing to a less nutritious diet containing fewer fruits and vegetables. But instead of giving up, female crusaders should consider these thoughts:

  • your goal of increasing fruit and vegetable intake is valid for all the health reasons outlined before;
  • accept that your children’s and male partner’s preference to limit fruit and vegetable intake is common but still clearly at odds with mainstream health messages; and
  • just because your children and male partner don’t want to eat more doesn’t mean they won’t eat more.

Dutch researchers recently conducted a study in which three restaurants in the Netherlands were randomly assigned to provide either standard meals or, for certain periods, healthier meals. During healthier-meal times, the vegetable portions in main dishes were doubled from 75g to 150g, while the meat portions were reduced by about an eighth, without the restaurant diners’ knowledge.

Nobody said anything to anyone – no advice on healthy eating was given whatsoever. However, the restaurant diners automatically increased their total vegetable consumption – from main meals and side dishes combined – from 137g during the standard-meal control phases to 178g during the healthier-meal times, while their meat consumption dropped from 211g to 183g.

Although satisfaction levels with the main meal were still very high during the healthier-meal phase, they were slightly lower than in the control phase. Overall, however, the restaurant diners were just as satisfied with their restaurant visits during the healthy-eating periods as the standard-meal ones.

Therefore, chances are if you serve more vegetables with main meals and slightly reduce the meat content, you will subtly encourage change. Sure, your family may not eat all the vegetables on their plate – but they’ll almost certainly eat more vegetables if you serve more vegetables and less meat.

This article was first published in the June 10, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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