Eating More Fruits & Veg Could Give Kids a Mental Health Boost, According to New Research

Having healthy meals is important for more than just physical health—for kids and adults alike.

Midsection of girl having healthy lunch while sitting on bench
Photo: Getty Images / Westend61

Just like for adults, fruits and vegetables are super important for kids to be able to grow up healthy and strong. In fact, science recommends getting at least two servings of fruit and three servings of vegetables each day. But getting kids to actually eat their fruits and vegetables might be easier said than done. If you need additional reasons to help your kids boost their intake, new research has found that students who eat more fruits and vegetables might have better mental well-being than those who get less. And given the significant increases in loneliness, anxiety and depression among school- and college-age kids due to COVID-19, these findings are more important than ever.

A recent study published in BMJ Nutrition, Prevention & Health looked at 9,000 students from across the U.K.. About 7,500 were in secondary school (middle- and high-school equivalent in the U.S.) and 1,500 were in primary school (or elementary school, as we know it here in the U.S.). Students self-reported their diet and were given age-appropriate tests for mental well-being, that looked at happiness, relaxation and healthy interpersonal relationships.

They found that there was a strong association between eating more fruits and vegetables and higher mental well-being scores. However, only about 25% of the students met the recommendations of at least five servings of produce per day.

Another interesting finding was about breakfast, which is an especially important meal for school-age kids—it provides the fuel kids need to learn and function in general. However, the research found that more than 1 in 5 secondary schoolchildren and 1 in 10 primary schoolchildren didn't eat a standard breakfast at all, and many just had a snack or drink in place of a full meal. Those who had a full breakfast had significantly better mental well-being scores than those who skipped their morning meal.

In short, their findings suggest that eating a healthy diet that includes a full breakfast (including an entree like toast, cereal, yogurt or a cooked main) and at least five servings of fruits and veg per day leads to the best mental health outcomes for children. Unfortunately, many students they surveyed were missing the mark with either fruits and veg intake, breakfast or both. This could be for a variety of reasons, too.

Why are kids missing the mark?

Many students and families rely on school nutrition programs for their meals. If a school does not have a breakfast program, it may mean a child's first meal of the day isn't until lunchtime. And given current challenges with the food supply due to COVID-19, it's not guaranteed that that lunch, or any school meal, will include fruits and veggies. And if there are limited culturally appropriate fruit and vegetable options, it can deter kids from making healthy choices. Not to mention, many kids are still learning-from-home given school closures due to COVID, which sadly may mean even fewer meals per day, let alone ones with fruits and veggies.

Not only is access to and availability of fruits, veggies and certain meals in general a challenge, but there's also the acceptance piece. Kids, who are still learning to like or even try certain foods, can be quick to write off fruits and veggies. That's where tasty, kid-friendly recipes can come in handy in helping them meet the mark.

How to help kids meet the recommended intake

Beyond making family-friendly meals and adding in vegetables where you can, there are many other ways to get your kids and families the nutrients they need to be at their best. Food insecurity affects more than 20% of families in the U.S., so know that you are not alone if you are struggling. Programs like WIC and SNAP are meant to help families get sufficient funds for healthy meals. Also, familiarizing yourself with school and community meals in your area is a good way to find help within our community. Frozen and canned foods can be just as nutritious as fresh foods, so they're another good option to increase your fruit and vegetable intake and help your money go further.

It can take 15 or more tries for a person to know if they like a new food, so it's important to expose kids to new fruits and veg multiple times. To help make new foods feel more familiar, pair them with foods that they already enjoy. Check out our ideas on how to help pickier eaters embrace healthy foods, like blending fruit into breakfast foods and adding vegetables into dessert. Last but not least, it's no secret that parents and caretakers are under a great deal of stress right now too. It might not always feel realistic to make sure your little ones are getting five or more servings of produce per day. Luckily, the study found that the relationship between mental well-being and fruit and veg intake was linear. This means that even though the highest intake had the best result, some veg intake was better than none.

Healthy Recipes to Try

Avocado Fries with Sriracha Aioli

There are plenty of ways to make healthy eating delicious and fun for kids. We even have a 7-Day Healthy Dinner Plan for Picky Eaters for more inspiration. Whether it's a vegetable side your kid will actually enjoy, like our Avocado Fries with Sriracha Aioli pictured above, or a veggie-packed dessert, getting kids involved in the kitchen can help them enjoy their foods more.

Bottom line

While it might be a challenge to increase your child's fruit and vegetable intake, the extra effort is worthwhile. Beyond keeping their bodies healthy and preventing disease, new research suggests that it can provide a mental health boost as well. A morning meal is also important to keeping your kids focused and healthy in all senses of the word. Check out these kid-friendly breakfast recipes to help put it all together.

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