Contrary to popular belief, the supermarket’s freezer section or the canned goods aisle could be the path for parents who want to improve their children’s diets.
In a new study, University of Nebraska-Lincoln nutrition researchers asked parents of overweight pre-school and elementary school students why their children didn’t eat more vegetables and fruits. They found that a key stumbling block was parents’ belief that fresh, raw and “natural” vegetables and fruits are healthier for their children than canned or frozen produce.
Parents concerned about wasting money and food often are reluctant to buy fresh produce because they think it costs too much, requires too much prep work and spoils more quickly than their children can eat it, Nebraska researcher Weiwen Chai and colleague Martha Nepper found.
Parents were also reluctant to buy produce preserved in bags, cans and jars because they believed those foods weren’t as beneficial for their children.
“The misunderstanding of healthy foods and processed foods potentially prevented parents from feeding more fruits and vegetables to their children in the home,” Nepper and Chai wrote in the study. “The fact that canned and frozen fruits and vegetables may have similar health benefits and nutritional qualities with a longer shelf life and lower cost compared with the fresh ones needs to be addressed when providing nutrition education.”
Parents can avoid some of the pitfalls by buying frozen or canned fruits and vegetables that will keep longer and can be used in lots of dishes, Nepper said. They should look for items with as few ingredients as possible – no cheese or cream sauce and no added sugar or fat, for example. And they can reduce the salt content of canned produce by rinsing the vegetables before cooking or by buying low-sodium varieties.
They also can reduce cost and waste by buying fresh produce in season, by storing fruits in an easily accessible bowl, and by promptly washing and slicing produce to be used in a hurry, she added.
Though children often eschew vegetables, Chai and Nepper said parents should resist the urge to hide vegetables in other dishes. Cooking together is a good strategy for kids to become accustomed to the foods.
“Children need to get used to fruits and vegetables in their whole form,” Chai said.
Nepper, a registered dietitian at Methodist Hospital in Omaha, conducted the research in 2015 while a doctoral student at Nebraska. She earned her doctorate in 2016. Chai, an assistant professor of nutrition and health sciences, was her adviser.
The pilot study was funded with a grant from the Ann A. Hertzler Research Foundation Grant from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. The research could lead to more study into the causes of childhood obesity, Chai said.
Nepper conducted focus groups with two groups of parents – 13 parents of overweight or obese children 3 to 5, and 14 parents of overweight children 6 to 12. All 27 participants – 21 mothers, four fathers and two grandmothers – were their home’s main food shoppers and preparers.
Parents told Nepper about struggles in getting children to eat vegetables and frustration with extended family members who provide junk food and candy against their wishes.
Their purchases of fresh vegetables often go to waste, respondents said, because they spoil before they’re eaten or take too much time and attention to wash, peel and slice. Sometimes they shred zucchini and carrots to hide them in foods like taco filling or coax their child to drink a fruit-flavored vegetable drink.
The study was published in the Journal of Global Qualitative Nursing Research.