OPINION | How to get your kids to like vegetables and fruit- the younger they start, the better

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Good nutrition during the first two years after birth is critical to ensure optimal health, growth, and behavioural development.

So, what nutrition do young children need?

From 6 months onwards, in addition to breastmilk, your child will need different types of foods, and vegetables and fruit should form part of most or even each meal.

Introducing solids at the right time in the correct amounts and of age-appropriate texture is important. As you prepare your family meals be sure to include soft, mashed dark-green leafy vegetables like spinach or broccoli, and orange-coloured vegetables such as pumpkin, butternut or carrots as frequently as possible. Do not add salt and/or sugar to your baby or child’s food.

Babies have an inborn preference for sweet and salty tastes, while they have an inborn dislike of bitter and sour tastes. These inborn tendencies can be modified by early taste experiences therefore, parents should help young children to establishment good dietary habits by providing a variety of vegetables and fruit from 6 months of age.

The majority of infant and young child foods available in shops are sweet, since a sweet taste makes these foods more palatable. Some store-bought baby foods also contain added sugar and/or salt to further appeal to baby’s inborn taste preferences.

A research study found that more than 70% of baby foods in South Africa were sweet. It was also found that while only about 25% of baby foods in South Africa contained added sugar, almost 80% had a high total sugar content.

The use of added sugar and salt is discouraged as it boosts the consumption of sweetened foods by reinforcing the inborn preference for sweet and salty tastes and discourages the acceptance of foods with bitter or sour tastes.

The unbalanced availability of sweet tasting baby foods opposed to savoury tasting ones creates an environment that promotes primarily sweet taste preferences.

This explains, in part, why children who have been exposed to sweet tasting jarred and packaged foods do not want to readily accept vegetables and fruit in their diets.

It is well established that children in our country do not eat enough healthy whole foods. Nutritional surveys in South Africa have shown that children from poorer households, or who were stunted (low height for age) or too thin, had lower intakes of vegetables and fruit compared to better nourished children or those from more affluent households.

Therefore, one of the South African Paediatric Food-based Dietary Guidelines, specifically aimed at children younger than five years of age, states: “Give your child dark green leafy vegetables and orange-coloured vegetables and fruit every day”.

The main reason for the mention of the colours (dark green, orange and yellow) is because these fruits and vegetables are high in vitamin A. many children in South Africa have a vitamin A deficiency.

Vitamin A promotes growth of all cells in the body, including membranes. Membranes are the linings in our body found in, among other the eye, nose, mouth, stomach and lungs.

A vitamin A deficiency can therefore increase the risk for or worsen diseases like lung infections or diarrhoea. This vitamin also plays an important role in eye health and good vision and keep the body’s immune system healthy to fight against diseases.

A major concern about children’s diets in South Africa is also the lack of diversity. A lack of diverse foods in a child’s diet can cause multiple deficiencies, including growth failure, vitamin and mineral deficiencies and constipation. Fruit and vegetables specifically provide diversity in the diet.

That is why the World Health Organization recommends that the minimum acceptable diet for young children should contain, among other food groups, vitamin A-rich fruits and vegetables as well as other fruits and vegetables.

Parents often struggle to incorporate fruit and vegetables into their children’s diets. A piece of fruit or sliced vegetables are convenient and healthy snacks for kids, that is why they are also called “take-aways” from nature.

Mash a banana for babies between 6 and 8 months. For babies aged 9 to 13 months, offer pieces of soft fruit like paw-paw or mango. For toddlers and older children, you can give naartjie segments or pieces of cooked carrot as easy and affordable snacks.

REMEMBER: FEED SMART FROM THE START!

Feeding your young child the right types of food from birth until 2 years old and beyond lays the foundation for a healthy brain and body.

Here are a few more tips on how to include fruit and vegetables in your child’s daily meal plan or lunch box:

  • Avocado on whole-wheat toast is a healthy, filling sandwich.
  • Carrot or cucumber sticks and hummus introduces interesting tastes and textures.
  • Apple slices and nut-butter dip can be a mid-morning or afternoon snack.
  • Frozen yoghurt grapes (dip grapes in no-sugar, plain or vanilla yoghurt and freeze) can be provided instead of other high sugar frozen treats.
  • Fruit and/or vegetables with cheese blocks on a stick is a fun alternative to pack for a picnic.
  • Make sweet potato chips instead of buying commercial chips.
  • Peanut butter, banana and oats balls can be a nice treat or dessert (recipe in block).

RECIPE

1 cup oats (95 g)

1 ½ tablespoons of no salt & sugar added peanut butter

2 Bananas, mashed

Combine all and roll in balls

  • Naturally flavoured water is a great alternative to plain water and cool drinks.
  • Flavour examples include: Pineapple and mint; cucumber and lemon; blueberries and raspberries; strawberries and orange; kiwi and lime.

Use these drinks in place of sugary, high-calorie options, such as fruit juice, sugar sweetened sparkling drinks, sweetened milks, and sports drinks.

*Prof Lisanne M. du Plessis is ADSA spokesperson from the Division of Human Nutrition, Department of Global Health, Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, Stellenbosch University

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