A new study suggests we should all eat seven portions of fruit and vegetables a day. It's a tall order for parents to get their kids to do that. But the researchers say: try this...
It's hard enough getting kids to eat the recommended five portions of fruit and vegetables a day. Plenty of adults struggle too. And that's not to mention all those people in regions where it's either too expensive or just too hard to buy fresh produce.
And now we're supposed to eat seven portions a day?
The World Health Organization has long recommended five portions of fruit and vegetables per day. Fruit and vegetables are low in energy, but rich in vitamins, minerals, fibers and other substances that the human body needs to stay healthy.
But a study by University College London has found that five portions are not enough.
The researchers say we need a minimum of seven portions per day.
"Fruit and vegetable consumption was associated with decreased all-cause mortality," the researchers write in the report of their study, which looked at health surveys across England.
Fruit and vegetables lower the risk of developing high-blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, or the risk of suffering a stroke.
Not a question of frequency
But is it realistic to expect people to eat seven portions of fruit and vegetables every day?
Some people find it difficult to make the time to eat at all during the working day.
For Antje Gahl of the German Society for Nutrition (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Ernährung) it's not about the number of portions you eat. She says it's not the frequency of consumption - but the overall amount that is important.
The World Health Organization recommends 400 grams of vegetable and fruit per day.
"Vegetables are even better than fruit because they contain less sugar," Gahl says.
But it is also the variety that counts.
Try not to eat the same sort of vegetable all day, every day. It's easier to eat a variety of fruit and vegetables if you avoid eating one big portion during the day. Smaller portions are better. In fact, this is why the idea of "portions" has become so common among nutritionists.
"Speaking about portions can be confusing," admits Gahl. "There is no definition on how much a portion is exactly."
For instance, if you eat vegetables for lunch, plus a side-serving of salad, you've eaten two portions - not just one portion, even though it was during one meal.
Convincing children to eat vegetables
Here comes the really hard part.
Gahl says children between the ages of four and six, for example, should eat 200 grams of vegetables and 200 grams of fruit per day.
But most parents will know from bitter experience that that's easier said than done.
Telling your kids that vegetables are healthy and help decrease a population's mortality rates are not "selling points" for a four-year-old. For kids, chocolate is just as healthy - and it tastes better too.
"Vegetables are low in energy and children learn to like energy because they need energy to grow," says Sylvie Issanchou, adding however that some vegetables have a fibrous texture and can taste bitter. "And we first need to learn to like bitter."
Issanchou is project coordinator for HabEat, a research project consisting of eleven research institutions in six European countries. HabEat has investigated ways to make children between six months and six years eat vegetables.
Be patient and offer a variety
Parents needs to be persistent, Issanchou says. They should offer a vegetable again and again, "even if the baby's first reaction is not very positive."
Patience is especially important when the child is aged between 18 months and two years. They may refuse all kinds of food, even types of food you thought they liked before.
"This is a normal period in their development," Issanchou says. "Parents must wait but continue to try."
But Issanchou says never force a child to eat vegetables.
Children - and all people - have different sensitivities to things like bitterness and smell.
"If the child doesn't like one vegetable it is not so crucial," says Issanchou. "Try to offer them another."
Variety - as the cliché suggests - is the spice of life. The researchers found that children are much more willing to eat novel vegetables that they don't know yet.
"They can become bored of tastes," Issanchou says.
It may also help to change the taste of a vegetable by cooking it in a different way, or adding cheese.
Eating healthily takes time - and money
Antje Gahl suggests parents can puree a vegetable to hide it inside casseroles. Or they can make food look more attractive by preparing skewers.
"But of course that needs some time," she says. And if both parents have full-time jobs, time can be scarce.
Then there is the issue of cost.
"Each additional 100 grams of fruit and vegetables was associated with a 0.18 to 0.29 euro per day increase in diet costs," the researchers write.
Diets high in fats and sweets still represent a low-cost option for consumers. Fruit and vegetables are much more expensive than chocolate and candy.
And let us not forget: advertising.
Companies have been found to spend a lot of money on convincing us that sweets and French fries are what we really want to eat, says Elio Riboli, who heads the School of Public Health at Imperial College London.
"On the one hand we say that people should try to have a healthy life and on the other hand we bombard people with advertisements, inviting them to drink and eat food which is not good for their health."
Perhaps it's time to admit that the responsibility for eating healthily is a shared burden.