It can be hard to get your kids to eat enough fruit and veggies, let alone the amount that experts say they should. But here’s another reason to keep fighting the good nutrition fight: The more produce kids eat, the better kids' mental health tends to be.
A recent report in BMJ Nutrition linked higher fruit and vegetable consumption with better mental wellbeing in school-aged kids.
Now, the study does not show that eating enough produce will definitely cause children to have better mental health. But it did show that kids who had five or more portions of fruits and veggies per day had the highest scores for mental wellbeing.
More fruit and veggies linked to improved mental health
The research was the first to look at the link between intake of produce on kids' mental health, the authors say.
And it probably has a lot of us feeling like, yet again, we don’t measure up as parents.
We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: You’re not a failure if your child isn't eating their fruits and vegetables. Not by a long shot.
“We hear ‘five a day’ and freak out about the sheer volume of five pieces of fruit or vegetables,” explains Jill Castle, RDN, a Connecticut-based pediatric dietitian and founder of The Nourished Child.
“Truth: Providing the optimal amount of fruit and veggies really means five servings a day of a combination of fruit and vegetables, which is a different amount based on the age of a child,” Castle notes.
For example, five servings for a 3-year-old is 1 cup of fruit and 1 cup of veggies for the entire day. A 10-year-old, on the other hand, would get 1 1/2 cups of fruit and 2 to 2 1/2 cups of vegetables for the whole day.
It’s not just about diet, though. Even the study authors said that behavioral and demographic factors are important for good mental health, too.
What the science says
In 2017, researchers examined the effects of produce on 7,570 secondary school and 1,253 primary school students. Only 25.2% of older kids and 28.5% of primary school children ate the recommended five fruits and veggies per day.
When they looked at nutrition and wellbeing variables, they noticed the standout factor: There was power in the produce.
Mental wellbeing scores surged higher the more servings of fruits and veggies that the children had; that is, those who had five or more portions per day had higher well-being scores compared to those who only had three or four (and those students had higher scores compared to kids who only ate one or two servings).
"While the links between nutrition and physical health are well understood, until now, not much has been known about whether nutrition plays a part in children's emotional wellbeing,” said Ailsa Welch, a professor of nutritional epidemiology at The University of East Anglia Medical School, in a statement.
More fruit and veggies, please
Hoping to get more fruits and veggies into your child’s diet? Here are a few tips that may help.
Double up. Serving a larger portion of veggies was shown to help children eat more of them. (Seriously, just putting more veggies on the plate can apparently do the trick!)
Add some flavor. In the aforementioned study, putting butter or salt on veggies didn’t boost consumption—but that doesn’t mean it can’t entice your kids to eat up. Every child is different, and a visit to the spice rack could be just what yours needs to enjoy eating veggies.
Put it all out there. It’s your job to put a meal on the plate, but it’s your child’s right to decide whether they want to eat it. Some kids may need to see a food several times to decide if they’re going to eat it. In fact, some children need as many as eight to 15 exposures of a food to accept it—but we often give up long before that.
Keep trying to reintroduce foods, even if your child says they don’t like it. A helpful tip to stick to: Serve a meal with one or two items that you know your child will eat.
Extra, extra. Castle suggests that parents should add a fruit or veggie at breakfast (something like sliced strawberries or raisins, or scrambled eggs with spinach and cheese, or a juice like V8).
Pack a fruit and vegetable item with lunch, or if your child buys lunch at school, encourage them to choose an item from both categories.
“One of the best ways to tackle the challenge of getting our kids to eat enough produce each day is to develop a routine of adding these foods to each meal and snack, if able,” Castle says.
“Add a piece of fruit or veggie to snack time,” Castle advises. “Kids love snack platters and you can toss on carrots, sugar snap peas, grapes and orange slices on the platter with some nuts, cheese and a few whole grain crackers.”
Grow your own. Once the weather allows, start growing (even if it’s only a few fruits, veggies or herbs). I can personally attest to this one: I have zero gardening know-how but attempted raised container beds this past summer. When the produce started popping up, my son was more interested in what “he” grew—and even started tasting some of it.
Keep it positive. Punishing a child for not eating any veggies (or “enough” of them) can backfire on your efforts and impact your child’s eating habits in general. Positive reinforcement introduces a reward for positive behavior, while negative reinforcement introduces a negative consequence if the child doesn’t do what you say to.
In other words, if you tell your child they won’t get dessert without having a spoonful of peas first, that’s a negative reinforcement. Positively reinforcing the intended behavior shows how rewards are earned and keeps the interaction more upbeat instead of adding another battle at the table.
And if your kid just isn’t a fan, hang in there, mama.
“Remember, this ‘feeding kids’ thing is a long game,” Castle says. “Frequent exposure to a variety of fruits and vegetables normalizes them as part of a healthy diet and has been proven to help children warm up to them and accept them.”
“Make sure you're offering both food groups regularly and detach from the disappointment you might feel if your child snubs them,” Castle notes. “Do your job of feeding, offering a variety of foods in a pressure-free mealtime environment, and allow your child to do his job of eating.”
Hayhoe R, Rechel B, Clark AB, et al. Cross-sectional associations of schoolchildren’s fruit and vegetable consumption, and meal choices, with their mental well-being: a cross-sectional study. BMJ Nutrition, Prevention & Health 2021;4. doi: 10.1136/bmjnph-2020-000205
University of East Anglia. Children who eat more fruit and veg have better mental health. Sept. 2021.
U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025. Updated March 2021.
Jill Castle, RDN, a Connecticut-based pediatric dietitian and founder of The Nourished Child.