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How to Get Kids to Eat More Fruits and Vegetables at School Lunch

Kids are notoriously picky eaters, so parents who’ve watched their kids push their plates of uneaten fruits and vegetables away at dinnertime may wonder how much produce gets rejected at school and how we can help provide nutrition for kids at lunch. Well, there’s bad news and good news.

The bad news is that the 30 million kids served by the National School Lunch Program throw away 24-35 percent of the food on their trays — and fruits and vegetables are thrown away more than other foods. The good news is that it doesn’t have to be this way. Several different interventions, including giving kids more choice in the lunch line, can result in more fruits and vegetables in kids’ bellies and less in the trashcan.

When the federal government changed school lunch standards to increase nutrition for kids in 2012, a lot of people were concerned that the requirement to serve more fruits and vegetables would result in a lot more wasted food. After all, kids don’t like vegetables. Everyone knows that. Except it’s not true.

What actually happens when you increase the availability of fruits and vegetables at school lunch? Kids eat more of them, and food waste does not increase. (In fact, after the new rules were implemented, vegetable consumption rose by 16.2 percent, according to a Harvard study!) Even though food waste hasn’t gone up, it remains a real problem. So what can schools do?

· Offer choices. Turns out, kids are like adults: they prefer to make their own choices rather than be told what to do. (Go figure!) Instead of ladling out one kind of vegetable for each and every student, the Harvard researchers found it helps to let kids choose. Broccoli or carrots? Apples or peaches? By giving kids options, schools can get them to eat more fruits and vegetables simply because they’ll be more invested in decisions they’ve made themselves.

· Switch lunch and recess. Another strategy schools can take is to change the timing of lunch. It’s a real no-brainer when you think about it: serve lunch after recess instead of before. That way, kids have a chance to exercise and work up an appetite before lunch, so they’ll arrive hungrier and less likely to waste food. Some schools have found this simple schedule change can reduce food waste by 30 percent.

· Educate kids about fruits and veggies. Kids can also be taught to think differently about fruits and vegetables. Two studies — one in a largely Hispanic school and another in a majority-white school — have found that offering cooking classes and in-school fruit and vegetable tastings can increase kids’ appreciation of vegetables. The effect is particularly strong for boys and children with no cooking experience.

This last finding doesn’t surprise me at all. Sometimes all it takes is a first step. I believe that’s the main reason why the Juice Plus+ Children’s Health Study has found that kids who take Juice Plus+ eat more fruits and vegetables and drink more water and fewer soft drinks. Taking Juice Plus+ raises their awareness around whole food nutrition, which has a ripple effect into their diet. (It’s also possible that once they get much-needed fruit and vegetable nutrients in their systems, their bodies naturally start to crave more. But that’s just a theory.)

Do you have picky eaters at home?  Do you have any tricks to make fruit and vegetables more enticing?

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