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Are Your Kids Really Eating Their Vegetables?

Jennifer Margulis
Ashland Middle School student Joshua Canete-Wilson (R, front) and some of his friends in the school cafeteria at lunchtime.

Eat your vegetables! It’s a refrain parents tell their children all the time.

Government guidelines recommend kids eat three to five servings of vegetables a day—as much as a cup of veggies with every meal. But are Oregon children eating any vegetables?

We sent reporter Jennifer Margulis on a mission to find out.

Seventh and eighth graders at Ashland Middle School are tearing down the hall to the cafeteria. The morning’s learning has made them hungry. As anyone with older children and teens can tell you from the sticker shock of grocery bills, kids this age eat a lot—between 2,200 and 2,800 calories a day.

These Ashland middle-schoolers jostle each other in line, pile their trays with food, and throw themselves into their seats. I ask 13-year-old Joshua Canete-Wilson what he’s having for lunch.

“I’m currently enjoying two slices of pizza,” he tells me. “What kind of pizza is it?” “It’s pepperoni.” “And what are you drinking?” “Lemonade.”

Joshua is a seventh grader at Ashland Middle School, with curly brown hair, brown glasses, and a wide smile. He tells me he ate pancakes for breakfast.

Joshua says he likes vegetables, especially broccoli and Brussels sprouts, but he has not eaten a single vegetable today.

“A lot of kids, they don’t really eat a whole lot of vegetables,” he admits, “and their parents don’t really enforce it very much.”

In order for kids to get all the nutrients they need, the federal Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion recommends that children ages two to six eat two servings of vegetables a day. Older children and teens need four to five servings. A serving of vegetables is more than you might think: one cup of raw leafy greens, half a cup of other kinds of cooked or raw vegetables, or three quarters of a cup of vegetable juice. 

Jeff Miles is the cafeteria manager at Ashland Middle School. He points out the six choices of fruit and vegetables available at the salad bar.

“Kids should be eating vegetables with every meal, regardless of its breakfast or lunch or dinner,” he says. “Fruits and vegetables should account for about 50 percent of your meal.”

Miles has been working in food service management for over 25 years.

“It’s a well-known fact that over 90 percent of kids in the United States don’t get enough fruits and vegetables in their diets, and so that’s what we advocate.”

My fact finding mission is far from scientific. But I talk to over a dozen sixth, seventh, and eighth graders, and not a single one has eaten a single vegetable today. One sixth grader has a noodle dish that contains scallions. The only one who even comes close is 12-year-old Amelie Kirkland. She inventories her lunchbox for me.

“Here’s some Capri Sun, berry flavored. I have some Lay’s chips. And I have a sandwich. I have some gummies, and jerky … I never really have vegetables but I usually always have a fruit,” she says.

In Amelie’s ham and cheese sandwich is a single piece of lettuce. The only problem is that Amelie says she’s not planning to eat it.

Amelie admits she doesn’t ever eat vegetables for breakfast or for lunch. But she does think eating them is important.

“You should have vegetables because if you just have junk food or things like that you’ll never be healthy and strong,” she says. 

In fact, all the kids I interview say they like some vegetables and they think they probably should be eating more. So the message that vegetables are an important part of a healthy diet does seem to be getting across. But that doesn’t mean Oregon children are actually eating any.

I asked Moorea Malatt, a Los Angeles based parent coach and educator, what parents can do.

“Your job is to decide which foods are healthy for your child and put them on the table frequently,” she says. “And your child’s job is really to decide whether they are going to eat them or not.”

Malatt says it helps to have a garden at home or at school so children can see how vegetables are grown and taste them fresh from the soil. It’s also really important, Malatt says, to model good eating habits. But you can’t fake it …

“It doesn’t help to try and force some vegetables down your gullet just so that you can show your child that you’re eating them,” she says. “If you’re modeling, you really need to be modeling that you’re enjoying it.” 

Want your kids to eat vegetables? Serve them up for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Offer vegetables to snack on throughout the day. And eat lots of vegetables yourself, with every meal.

Not because you have to.

But because you love them.

Jennifer Margulis, Ph.D., is a regular contributor to the Jefferson Journal and also produces radio features for JPR. She's a former senior fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and on the cover of Smithsonian magazine.