Can children eat too much fruit?
With the mercury rising it can be tempting to fill children up on refreshing fruit straight from the fridge. Knowing most children will happily eat their fruit, it’s an easy choice for a summertime snack.
Thanks to the natural sweetness of many fruits, most children are a big fan. But while fruit is packed full of vitamins and antioxidants, it turns out there is such a thing as eating too much of it, especially if it starts to replace other foods in their diet. In fact, less than one per cent of children eat the recommended number of serves of vegetables on a daily basis, and fruit is often part of the reason why.
When it comes to the fruit-vegetable relationship, I’m always keen to emphasise that although I actively encourage vegetables to be added to fruit wherever possible, I discourage vegetable purees and veggie based foods from being ‘sweetened’ with fruit.
Right from the start, when babies are introduced to solids when taste buds are developing, they should be exposed to vegetables in their natural state, so not to set up unrealistic expectations that veggies (and other foods) are sweeter. This could ultimately create challenges around future veggie intake and potentially even result in fussy eating behaviours.
So, is fruit a good snack option for children?
While fruit is a great source of carbohydrates, fibre, minerals and vitamins A, B and C, unfortunately it has little protein and virtually no fat, which are both essential for a growing child. This is why it’s important not to use fruit as a child’s main tummy filler. It’s best to pair fruit with a protein and healthy fat that will keep children satiated for longer. Try berries with yoghurt or ricotta cheese or half a banana with a handful of sunflower seeds.
Fruit often gets lumped with other high-sugar foods, and while it’s true that fruit contains the intrinsic sugar fructose, and that some fruits contain more fructose than others (like mango, banana, lychee, dates, cherries, and grapes), many fruits have a low glycaemic index such strawberries, blueberries and kiwi. So, when it comes to giving children fruit as a snack or dessert, I’m all for it, especially if it’s replacing a refined sugar snack.
How much fruit should children be eating?
The recommended guidelines for children are two serves of fruit per day. But if children are active and playing sport, I recommend an extra serve of fruit as long as it doesn’t replace other foods in their diet.
One serve of fruit is around half a cup. To give you an idea of what that looks like, this roughly equates to: one medium apple, banana, orange or pear; half a cup of berries; two small apricots, kiwis or plums; one medium-sized melon wedge; one cup of diced or canned fruit (with no added sugar) or one and a half tablespoons of dried or freeze-dried fruit.
Once children have had their two-three serves of fruit per day, offer veggies as a snack instead. An engaging way to offer this may include some vibrant fresh veggie sticks with a delicious dip, like a homemade hummus or tzatziki. Including a vegetable-based dip will not only add important protein to their diet but boost their overall veggie intake too.
I am a big advocate of always offering veggies with fruit at morning and afternoon tea, as well as protein and some healthy fats.
What about fruit for babies?
Babies need to be given the opportunity to experience the natural taste of less-sweet vegetables such as broccoli and cauliflower, before sweetening them with pear or apple puree. Teaching babies and young children to enjoy a wide range of flavours and vegetables is important and this provides the perfect opportunity to do just that.
How can ECEC services encourage veggie intake alongside the fruit?There are a few different strategies that early childhood education and care (ECEC) settings can use to include more vegetables in daily snacks, meals and perhaps even alongside children’s beloved fruit.
6 top tips for how to balance fruit intake with veggies
- Include vegetables in their fruity dishes.
Smoothies are a fantastic way to boost veggie intake, alongside other nutritious food groups like protein and healthy fats. Adding some beetroot, carrot, a handful of spinach along with the fruit, some coconut milk, yoghurt and chia seeds will increase the nutritional content substantially.
Making smoothies is also a great way to encourage children to be involved in the kitchen. Let the children in your care pick a range of fruit and veg and see for themselves how different ingredient combos work together to make a delicious drink. I feature a range of nutritious smoothie recipes in our Nourish program and my book.
The great part about smoothies is that they’re incredibly versatile in terms of flavours and ingredients and any leftovers can also be frozen into popsicle moulds for a popsicle re-feature on another day.
- Get cooking with the children in your care
Children learn through play and experience and there’s no better way to expand a child’s repertoire than by cooking delicious meals together. Not only is it fun and engaging for children, but it’s also an important teaching tool for all ages.
Children also learn to accept new foods through role-modelling, repetition, and exposure and there’s no better way to expose children to a variety of ingredients than by choosing a recipe that you would like to make and enjoy together. Children love to eat what they have helped to make.
Some of our Wholesome Child favourites to make with children include our vibrant Beetroot Buckwheat Pancakes and Fruit Mince pies. Both of these recipes are packed with nutritious ingredients with both fruit and veggies alongside each other and are an excellent opportunity to cook with the children you work with.
- Grow your own, or visit a local community garden.
Exposing children to the wondrous concept of earth-to-table is a great way for them to become engaged in eating more veggies. But don’t worry, you don’t have to have a huge plot of land to grow your own veggies – often a classroom windowsill, patio or balcony will be ample space to sprout herbs, strawberries or even tomatoes. Involving children every step of the way, from choosing what to grow, to packing the soil, to watering, weeding, and picking will do wonders.
- Presentation is key: let your chef, cook or educators embrace creativity.
Get creative with serving fruit and veggies alongside each other in the form of simple shapes, perhaps even with a storyline or theme. With a few simple cuts of the knife, you can turn an apple into a dinosaur with celery spikes that children will munch down in minutes. Allow children to make pictures on a plate from blueberries, carrot sticks, grapes, cucumber slices, slices of strawberry and some celery.
You could even make some vibrant fruit and veggie skewers, allowing children to create these themselves from a selection of different fruit and vegetables. Let their imagination (and appetite!) run wild.
- Make salads and veggies readily available.
Exposing children to a diverse range of vegetables and allowing them to learn to expect vegetables at snack and mealtime is important. As with everything, persistence and perseverance are key. Including vegetables at all mealtimes and ensuring that trusted carers model positive healthy eating habits at mealtimes also go a long way.
- Manage expectations.
Rather than getting into a power struggle over veggies (commands, orders, threats, punishments, and bribes) try to ensure that the emotional environment at mealtimes is positive. Often, simply giving children their veggies and acting as if you don’t mind whether they eat them or not can work well.
Don’t forget to praise children for trying small amounts of new veggies. Over time, continuing to do this will lead to familiarity with the new vegetables and a greater desire to eat them. Also, discuss the health benefits of eating veggies with older children in a fun and engaging way – try and avoid lecturing them and don’t forget to mention that they’re delicious too!
Resist the urge to force a child to eat when they’re genuinely not hungry. Instead, look over the day and work out if they had a big morning tea, or cupcake for a class birthday party.
Persistence, perseverance, and patience are all key elements in encouraging more veggies in children’s diets. It’s definitely an ongoing challenge but it’s so important and worthwhile for their lifelong health and well-being.