18 Dec 2023 Guest blog: Improving children’s diets – time for a different approach?
In our latest guest blog, we hear from Rebecca Stevens, Campaign & Communications Manager for Veg Power, talk about the urgent need to increase UK children’s vegetable consumption, and the success of Veg Power’s ‘Eat Them to Defeat Them’ campaign.
Despite the many health benefits of eating vegetables, the majority of the UK are not eating enough of them. Worryingly, the most recent NDNS data found that 29% of children are eating less than one portion of vegetables per day (1). As vegetables play a number of crucial roles in supporting children’s growth, development, immune and digestive system function, these low consumption figures suggest the health of many of the UK’s children could be compromised (2). Children who consume sufficient fruit and vegetables also have a lower risk of obesity and obesity-related illness and are more likely to have a healthy dietary pattern throughout their life (3,4).
As reported in The Marmot Review, early childhood is a crucial time for development of later life health outcomes. Early life positive experiences are closely associated with better performance at school, better social and emotional development, improved work outcomes, higher income and better lifelong health, including longer life expectancy (5). On the flip side, poor diet in childhood Is likely to continue into adulthood, resulting in increasing healthcare costs and lower productivity (6).
Despite good public awareness of the five-a-day message, more focus on improving vegetable consumption figures is needed. Veg Power was created to improve children’s diets by inspiring kids into vegetable eating habits that remain for life and in turn are shared with their children. To do this we needed to slowly reshape children’s perception of veg. With support from a range of professionals including behaviour change and education experts, nutritionists and psychologists, the Eat Them to Defeat Them campaign was launched in partnership with ITV in 2018. It combines the power of advertising with a schools’ programme using a unique and creative concept designed with children in mind – a concept they find fun and engaging. It brings together a huge alliance including TV advertising, celebrities, supermarkets, chefs, schools, communities and families. Once children have tried the veg in school they are given stickers and reward charts which encourages them to share their experience with their family and to repeat, reward and normalise new vegetable-eating habits. The concept was designed as follows: Fun > sample > repeat > reward > normalise.
Now in its sixth year, Eat Them to Defeat Them has reached over 1.5 million children from nearly 5,000 primary schools, but does it actually work? Is it having an impact on children’s veg consumption?
Our evaluation, involving a national online survey of 3,000 demographically and geographically representative parents and their child of primary school age, says yes! (7). 77% of parents surveyed claimed their kids ate more vegetables as a direct result of the campaign. Another key success from the 2023 schools’ programme was that even the most “veg resistant” kids were improving their diets, with 66% of parents with children who vocally dislike vegetables, stating their child ate more veg. And finally, most of those participating – 89% of parents and 85% of children – want the programme to return next year.
While these results are a massive leap in the right direction, we needed to know if exposure to the campaign had an impact in the long term. Further analysis revealed that repeated involvement in the campaign led to increased long term veg consumption. In children who were exposed to the programme multiple times in their school, 53% of parents reported it had made a long term and lasting improvement to both the variety and volume of vegetables their child consumed.
Despite the progress made with the Eat Them to Defeat Them campaign, we felt parents and carers needed more support throughout the year. Veg Power’s latest research also showed that parents who eat veg and create a positive food culture at home were nearly twice as likely to have children who ate more veg, try new veg and see vegetables as fun – regardless of household income brackets. (8)
Bringing together a multi-disciplinary team of experts to tackle all aspects of feeding children including nutritionists, sensory education and neurodiversity specialists, chefs, psychologists and children’s entertainers, our latest campaign Simply Veg offers a unique and holistic approach to improving families’ diets. Resources and advice about creating a positive food environment within the home, how to gently engage kids, understand children’s natural taste and sensory preferences, effective role modelling and what to do when your child says “no” are all available on the Simply Veg website. In addition, advice aimed specifically at families with neurodiverse children has been included, developed with support from a specialist dietitian.
Simply Veg was launched earlier this year and we are actively looking for support with extending the reach of our resources and materials. We know that changing children’s perceptions of vegetables won’t happen overnight. Encouraging children to eat more veg requires sustained focus and effort. Programmes like Eat Them To Defeat Them, Simply Veg and smaller scale, grass-root initiatives are making a difference, but there is always more work that can be done.
Rebecca Stevens is the Campaign & Communications Manager for Veg Power, the not-for-profit to increase the UK’s vegetable consumption. Rebecca started her working life in the field of healthcare PR but more recently became a Registered Associate Nutritionist (ANutr) with the AfN following her MSc in Human Nutrition. Rebecca enjoys combining both skillsets and is always on a mission to increase her children’s vegetable repertoire.
- NDNS National Diet and Nutrition Survey Rolling programme Years 9 to 11 (2016/2017 to 2018/2019). Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/ndns-results-from-years-9-to-11-2016-to-2017-and-2018-to-2019
- Appleton KM, Hemingway A, Saulais L, Dinnella C, Monteleone E, Depezay L et al. Increasing vegetable intakes: rationale and systematic review of published interventions. Eur J Nutr 2016; 55: 869. pmid:26754302
- Te Velde S, Twisk J, Brug J. Tracking of fruit and vegetable consumption from adolescence into adulthood and its longitudinal association with overweight. Br J Nutr 2007, 98(2), 431–438. pmid:17433126
- Ledoux TA, Hingle MD, Baranowski T. Obesity prevention relationship of fruit and vegetable intake with adiposity: a systematic review. Obes Rev 2011; 12:e143–e150.
- The National Food Strategy, 2021. The Evidence. https://www.nationalfoodstrategy.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/NFS_Evidence-Pack.pdf
- Veg Power (2023). Eat Them To Defeat Them Five Years Evaluation – How a radically fun idea got kids eating vegetables https://vegpower.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2023/07/ETTDT-5-year-Evaluation-report_DIGITAL.pdf
- Veg Power (2023). Market Insight Report Edition 5 – ‘The Importance of Role Modelling’.