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Hiding Veggies in Kids Meals to Increase Intake

If you have a hard time getting your pre-schooler to eat their veggies, you may want to start pureeing and hiding those “yucky” foods into their favorite meals.

This advice is based on a new study that showed when substantial amounts of pureed vegetables were hidden in meals, young children could not detect the change and liked them equally well as unmanipulated meals. These modified meals not only increased young children’s daily vegetable intake but decreased their daily caloric intake.

Encouraging young children to eat their vegetables is a problem for many parents especially if those vegetables are the healthy kind like kale, spinach, broccoli and cauliflower. Indeed, research has consistently shown that vegetable consumption in young children is well below recommended amounts. One reason is that many kids just don’t like the taste or texture of vegetables.

In the current study, researchers examined the effect of increasing the proportion of vegetables in entrees served to children on vegetable and caloric intake.

Forty children, aged 3 to 6 years, enrolled at a daycare center participated in the study. On one day a week, for three weeks, children were provided all of their foods including breakfast, lunch, dinner and snack foods.

On the test days, the energy density (ED) or calories of meals were altered through the incorporation of vegetables with an 85% calorie reduction and 75% calorie reduction version created. The reduction was achieved by substituting pureed vegetables (zucchini, cauliflower, broccoli, tomatoes and squash) for ingredients with higher caloric values.

For example, in the meals that reduced calories by 25%, the pureed vegetable content was 39 grams for breakfast (zucchini bread), 94 grams for lunch (pasta and sauce) and 98 grams for dinner (chicken noodle casserole).

In addition to the manipulated entrees, unmanipulated side dishes, snacks and milk were served. Throughout the day, children were allowed to consume all foods and beverages as desired.

After tracking food intake, researchers found that there was no significant difference in intake of the manipulated food entrees across the different reduced calorie meals. In addition, there was no difference in the amount of side dishes consumed. Children ate a consistent weight of food at each meal and over the day regardless of the reduced caloric meal they consumed.

The incorporation of vegetables into the children’s meals increased vegetable intake at each meal and over the day. The amount of vegetables consumed in the unadulterated meals was 65 grams or 0.8 vegetable servings. In 15% reduced meals, vegetable intake increased to 109 grams or 1.5 servings. In 25% reduced meals, vegetable intake doubled to 132 grams or 1.9 servings.

Because children consumed a consistent weight of food regardless of the meals eaten, substituting lower calorie meals resulted in a lowered energy intake for the day. The 25% calorie reduced meals, resulted in 142 fewer calories consumed daily or a 12% decrease.

Using cartoon faces, children were instructed to rate meals as yummy, okay or yucky. The good news is that all versions of the entrees were generally well-liked. More than 70 percent of children rated them as yummy or okay.

“The controversial aspect of this is that it’s deceptive,” said Maureen K. Spill, the lead author of the study. “But it’s just another way of making recipes healthier. It’s still important to get children to learn what vegetables look and taste like.”

The Bottom Line

If you’re responsible for cooking meals, then swapping out calorie-laden ingredients with healthier alternatives is nothing new. A good example is using apple sauce instead of oil or butter to reduce the fat content of baked goods.

This study demonstrated another method of incorporating vegetables into meals to reduce their calorie content. Certainly this is a great strategy to increase vegetable intake in preschoolers but it works equally well for children of all ages.

This is important because two studies that came out earlier this week indicated that kids are eating poorly. One reason is that fewer meals are consumed at home. Generally, home prepared meals are healthier than those purchased away from home.

In one large study, increased energy intake (+179 calories a day) by children from 1977-2006 was associated with a major increase in calories eaten away from home. Unfortunately, the meals selected in these instances was usually fast-food and store-prepared food.

Another study found that college students aren’t eating enough fruits and vegetables – and in some cases, they aren’t even eating one serving per day!

Whether you’re kids are preschoolers or young adults, here are some suggestions to get them to eat more veggies:

  • Introduce children to a wide variety of foods at an early age and encourage healthy eating by setting a good example.

  • Repeatedly expose children to a disliked vegetable to increase the liking of the food.

  • Serve vegetables at the start of a meal, without competing foods.

  • Serve large portions of well-liked vegetables.

  • Substitute pasta with spaghetti squash.

  • Offer veggies such as baby carrots, sugar snap peas and celery as snacks and as side-dishes.
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