Consuming vegetables is important for the health and development of children. Several economically-developed countries have implemented public health strategies that promote the consumption of vegetables in early childhood. This is required since the insufficient consumption of vegetables can negatively impact well-being, health, and development.
Research has indicated that in the UK, less than one in five children consume five portions of fruit and vegetable daily, which is the recommended intake. Moreover, one in three children aged between five and ten years was found to consume less than one portion of vegetables each day. Similar data have also been obtained from other Westernized countries. Children's diets comprising energy-dense highly-palatable foods and lacking vegetables and fruits are a serious concern since they can cause noncommunicable diseases such as cardiovascular diseases, obesity, and certain cancers.
A new study published in the Public Health Nutrition journal aimed to determine effective and suitable ways to increase the everyday vegetable intake of children.
How do we increase children’s vegetable consumption?
Several studies have developed practical guidelines for highlighting the importance of children's exposure to vegetables at an early age. One of the studies found that the children of mothers who drank carrot juice during pregnancy were more likely to eat carrots as compared to those who were not. Another study indicated that children's exposure to raw vegetables while complementary feeding can increase their consumption in later childhood.
However, up to 15 attempts might be required to try a food before children start liking it. Additionally, although children's exposure to vegetables can take place by their addition or masking other foods, repeated exposure is required to make them start liking the taste of vegetables.
Most children have been found to not meet the World Health Organisation’s recommendation for consuming vegetables and fruits over the last two decades. The policies and strategies developed by many countries in this regard have been observed to be ineffective in increasing the consumption of vegetables by children daily. Therefore, pragmatic and innovative approaches need to improve to increase the intake of vegetables by children.
Breakfast in various countries worldwide, especially Westernized countries, is known to comprise high glycemic index foods. Consumption of such foods takes place for breakfast due to social norms and cultural influences regarding food choices and time constraints in the morning. This results in the development of food-related routines that determines the appropriateness of consuming particular foods at a particular time.
Food-to-mealtime associations can play a significant role in influencing the eating behavior of people such that intake of a particular food outside context can affect how it will be perceived as well as eaten. However, one important fact that needs to be considered is that the nutritional composition of the food remains unchanged irrespective of where and when it is consumed. Whether a particular food will be consumed as well as how it is going to be consumed was found to depend on the context or time during which it was eaten.
Offering children vegetables during breakfast
Although the consumption of vegetables by children is associated with evening meals, midday meals, and snacks, there is no medical, physiological, or nutritional reason why it should not be offered during breakfast. Few countries worldwide, such as Japan, China, Finland, and Romania, are found to have similar breakfast, lunch, and dinner foods that include vegetables.
Moreover, the offering of vegetables at breakfast for children is reported to be a part of the current government guidance in England.
Consuming vegetables at breakfast can be a useful public health intervention for several reasons. It can increase the daily vegetable intake of the children. It does not allow the development of a negative association between breakfast time and vegetable intake. Primary caregivers and people who belong to a child’s social network have been observed to play essential roles in setting norms surrounding vegetable consumption.
Moreover, nurseries/kindergartens and other early-learning settings before school can be important in normalizing the intake of vegetables at breakfast. Vegetables can be included at breakfast along with other typical breakfast food or by replacing the common breakfast foods to improve the health of the children.
Impact of vegetable intake by children at breakfast
Previous research has highlighted that increasing vegetable offerings in a childcare setting can increase consumption and familiarity. Offering vegetables to children at breakfast is reported to increase children’s learning that eating vegetables for breakfast is typical behavior, exposure, and willingness of the children to eat vegetables. It can also help to increase their vegetable exposure during other times of the day.
Therefore, national policymakers and accreditation boards worldwide must develop a strategy to spread the information and implement guidance on the intake of vegetables at breakfast in all nurseries/kindergartens.
Furthermore, other issues regarding implementing such a proposition each day must also be considered. For example, some parents are reluctant since consuming vegetables at breakfast would require a higher cost and preparation time. Also, nursery/kindergarten staff are mostly quite busy during the morning and might not get enough time to prepare vegetables for breakfast for the children.
Children worldwide, especially in Westernized countries, have been found to not consume enough vegetables and fruits. This can cause serious health impacts during their early years. Although policymakers and governments have come up with strategies, most of them have been observed to be ineffective. One approach to increase the vegetable intake of children can be to offer them breakfast. However, whether it is acceptable to children and their caregivers as well as feasible is yet to be determined. Further research must be carried out to develop ways to increase the daily intake of vegetables by children.