It probably comes down to food pairings.

Parents who are having problems feeding their children the recommended daily servings of vegetables can get a clue from a new study from researchers at Texas A&M University, which found that limiting kids’ choices may be the key.

The study, published in Food and Nutrition Sciences last Aug. 26, studied plate waste from 8,500 elementary school students and found that pairings of entrées and vegetables are a crucial consideration. For instance: pair the veggies with a pizza slice and the child likely won’t even look at her salad; pair them with something less appetizing, such as a deli sandwich, and the child will likely eat more.

The team led by Dr. Ariun Ishdorj, assistant professor in the Department of Agricultural Economics at Texas A&M University, also observed that popular entrées such as burgers and chicken nuggets contributed to greater waste of green beans and other less popular veggies. On the other hand, plates with entrées combined with popular veggies such as oven-baked potatoes experienced the least amount of waste.

“Understanding entrée/vegetable pairings may assist schools in serving tasty yet nutritious meals while maintaining high program participation rates and staying within constrained operating budgets,” wrote the researchers.

Children’s poor vegetable intake faced by parents isn’t the only challenge here – plate waste is also deemed a concern for schools under the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), whose new nutrition standards raise concerns of increased waste and reduced participation.

The researchers cited different reasons for plate waste, including dislike of the foods served, meal composition, students’ environment, and lack of time to eat.

Food pairing, however, isn’t the only way parents can take to get their children to eat more greens. Psychologist Traci Mann of the University of Minnesota suggested the “get alone with a vegetable” strategy, or serving veggies alone on the child’s plate.

“This strategy puts vegetables in a competition they can win, by pitting vegetables against no food at all. To do that, you just eat your vegetable first, before any of the other food is there. Eat them before other food is on your plate, or even at your table,” Mann explained.

Mann said it “works unbelievably well” during their testing on children in school cafeterias, where the amount of vegetables consumed more than quadrupled.

While it might be impractical to serve lone vegetables in schools due to time and resource constraints, experts believe these techniques can be very well implemented at home.

Photo: U.S. Department of Agriculture | Flickr

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