The toughest task of all? How to introduce young consumers to fresh produce

Parents introducing a child to banana and kiwifruit

A newly published cookery book – Never Mind the Sprouts – focuses on simple recipes for parents of fussy eaters

Never Mind the Sprouts authors
Alastair Williams and Claire Plimmer – the co-authors of Never Mind the Sprouts

Produce Business UK asks Claire Plimmer, co-author of Never Mind The Sprouts – a new cookery book aimed at getting children to eat more fruits and vegetables, to share some pointers for the parents amongst you; ideas and concepts that fresh produce suppliers and marketers could perhaps roll into their offer or marketing messages in order to appeal to more children

The struggle of trying to get a child to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables is something to which almost every parent can relate. Prepare as simple a dish as fish fingers with peas and a parent can probably picture the child’s look of disgust at the green matter before the plate is even placed in front of them.

It was with such experiences in mind that authors Claire Plimmer and Alastair Williams wrote Never Mind the Sprouts, a new cookery book that focuses on simple recipes for parents of fussy eaters. The book offers tried and tested techniques for getting children to eat fruits and vegetables, with the aim of helping families enjoy meals without the stress of trying to pressure youngsters to finish their dinner.

However, Plimmer stresses that there is no blueprint to getting parenting right; explaining that most parents thrive on any validation they can find that they are doing the right thing, whether it is to do with children’s behaviour, safety or well-being.

One result of this is that there are very few taboo subjects when it comes to parenting and Plimmer says most people are only to happy to discuss issues they might be having with their children to gain support from fellow parents.

As a parent of fussy eaters herself, she says one of the reasons she compiled the book, with her co-author and husband, was the common topic of conversation among friends and colleagues of how to get children to eat what they perceived to be the right food.

“So many people seem to struggle with this that we felt the topic deserved some thought and we felt we could offer some advice to help out,” Plimmer explains. “Neither of us are professionals in this area, we’re simply parents of fussy eaters who’ve looked into the subject because we love food (both eating and preparing it) and we want our children to enjoy eating with us.”

Fresh is cheaper and healthier

All parents strive to get their children somewhere close to eating their five-a-day and yet kids so often turn their noses up at fruit and, particularly, vegetables. Meanwhile, one of the biggest contributors to childhood obesity is the fizzy drink, which unfortunately has pervaded everyday life as a staple for some families, admits Plimmer. Beyond that, the hidden sugars that are secreted into so many processed foods pose a real threat, she says.

“The recommended daily intake of sugar is now limited to six teaspoons yet one fizzy drink can contain more than eight and a ready meal, even when it’s sold to us as a healthy option, can hide high levels of sugar – so called healthy breakfast cereals are one of the worst offenders,” says Plimmer.

“Shop bought low-fat options can also be dangerous as where they lack in fat, they are often full of sugar to compensate on flavour.”

So how do you persuade a child that fruits and vegetables are better options than processed foods and drinks? Plimmer recommends helping children to develop more of a connection with fresh food, by finding out where it comes from, how it is grown and getting them involved in its preparation.

“Savoury homemade food contains none of the sugar that ready meals rely on for flavour,” she says. “If you can get your child interested in preparing their own food from an early age it not only gets them off the sofa but sets them up for a potentially healthier lifestyle for life.”

However, Plimmer concedes that a major stumbling block to achieving this objective is the perception among some consumers that processed foods are cheaper than fresh, a belief driven by the advertising creatives and brand developers employed by manufacturers.

“There is a huge and very skilled industry manufacturing this perception, all of them desperate to secure shelf space in supermarkets and with the persuasive power to occupy the mind space of consumers for their processed products,” she says.

“Discounting is a clear route to winning our attention too, whether it’s via a Buy One Get One Free, a multipack or via another method – it all weakens our resolve to buy fresh food that needs preparation.”

The simple truth, argues Plimmer, is that fresh is most definitely cheaper, and if consumers can find time to prepare their own food from fresh, it goes further than a pre-packed meal.  “Our recipe for lasagne to serve six includes a set of widely available and inexpensive ingredients – if you were to buy a pre-made version of the same dish to feed the same number of people it would cost much more than the total of the fresh ingredients,” she says.

“If you can find the time to prepare your own food you will know exactly what’s in it – less fat, less salt, less sugar and no preservatives.”

Make your own

Although the benefits of eating fresh fruits and vegetables might seem obvious to those already working within the sector, plenty of processed products make health claims that appear to bear little relation to reality.

Convenience is a major factor when it comes to the appeal of such products and Plimmer says the temptation to opt for processed food is very often down to the fact that time-poor parents will often relent for a quiet life.  

“Our advice is firstly to read food packaging labels very carefully to understand that what’s sold as a potentially healthy option is not always what it seems,” she says. “Homemade food allows you to know exactly what you are putting into your children’s mouths.”

Plimmer suggests introducing foods such as homemade hummus, which has the advantage of being easy to prepare and sugar free. Sliced carrot sticks and cucumber can be used for dipping, which creates a filling snack or light lunch.  

They may evoke memories of the 1970s, but Plimmer says casseroles are another quick, easy and cheap way of serving meat in vegetables in a single dish.

“The flavours generated from slowly cooking ingredients in this dish outstrip any created by additives in processed food and once you’ve chopped up your ingredients and stuck them in the oven you’ve got time on your hands to enjoy with your family,” she adds.

Preparation is key

Plimmer says fruit should also be employed more as snacks since their natural sugars are more easily digested than processed sugars; recommending bananas, apple slices (which are more manageable for small mouths), peeled oranges or even dried fruits in moderation. She also suggests the combination of eating a banana and a handful of nuts, such as almonds, which offers a long-lasting release of energy.

For children’s mealtimes, Plimmer says the way foods are prepared should be considered too. While deep-frying a potato will increase its calorie content, chopping potatoes into chunks, tossing them lightly in vegetable oil and oven roasting them can make them just as delicious as chips but with far fewer calories. Plimmer also recommends sweet potato wedges as another excellent alternative, when prepared in the same way.

Homemade pizza, she says, offers a fraction of the sugars, salts and calories provided by shop-bought varieties, while pasta is “one of the quickest supper fixes out there”.

“There are endless ways you can perk it up and, if you can use wholemeal pasta you’re on to a winner as the health benefits clearly outstrip those of the chip,” says Plimmer. “We love our Chorizo Pasta dish – it’s packed with flavour and couldn’t be simpler to prepare.”

But more importantly than ingredients, the author says children need to feel they have control over what they are eating. As an example, she suggests placing a small variety of chopped raw vegetables in a bowl in the centre of the table, preferably in an appealing design (“Presentation is key – if food looks appetising it’s more likely to be tried”) and inviting the child to choose what they would like.

“If they’ve made the conscious decision about what they’re eating, children are often more inclined to give things a go, even if the choices offered are all vegetable-based,” Plimmer says. She also stresses that portions should be kept to what amounts to a reasonable size. “An appetite can so easily be put off by what a child might think is an overwhelmingly large portion,” she says.

Plimmer also says patience is required as a child may stick with the same vegetable time and time again or indeed dismiss the idea of eating vegetables out of hand. The message, she says, is not to give up after the first dismissal. “It can take lots and lots of goes at repeat ‘trying’ for a food to become familiar and acceptable to children’s taste buds,” Plimmer adds.

Stealth approach

Another key tip for parents is to avoid trying to force the issue and risk entering the spiral of making a bad situation worse. “If you start to make eating vegetables a campaign you are likely to meet resistance from your children which, in turn, is likely to stress you,” she says. “Your children feed on your stress which can subsequently adversely affect their behaviour so they can become less compliant and the whole thing turns into a battle.”

Instead, Plimmer advocates staying calm and adopting a stealth approach, gradually introducing vegetables into a diet one by one to build the child’s trust in what they are being offered to eat as they gradually begin to realise they like vegetables.

Once carrots, for example, have successfully been introduced into a child’s diet, Plimmer says other foods, such as cucumber, can then be added.  

An important factor to remember, she says, is that some vegetables have strong tastes for an undeveloped pallet or textures that are off-putting. To combat this, Plimmer recommends starting with milder-tasting or visually appealing vegetables. If all else fails, she says soup is a fantastic way of introducing a multitude of different vegetables without drawing attention to the fact that the child is being provided with a bowl full of goodness.

“A staple in our family’s menu is ‘green soup’, where the key ingredient is broccoli,” Plimmer says. “When my son was small he didn’t like the texture of the vegetable but when it’s blitzed up with a lovely chicken stock, onions for flavour and potatoes to add body the result was a beautifully smooth, fresh green yumminess that was eaten with relish.”

Never Mind The Sprouts by Claire Plimmer and Alastair Williams is published by Summersdale.

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