First published Spring 2019


A report last year claims that a government initiative to give children access to free fruit and vegetables could be having an unforeseen and unwanted result. Amelia Glean writes


Last year, the Soil Association published State of the Nation, a report that gives an insight into how children have eaten in 2018, and on the political, environmental and social forces that influence our children’s diets. One scheme to come under fire, however, was the School Fruit and Veg Scheme; a £40 million initiative introduced by the government in 2004. Ensuring that all state-funded primary schools offer four- to six-year-olds a free piece of fruit or veg each school day, it should be a golden opportunity to diversify children’s tastes and instil a love of fresh produce. Yet, according to the Soil Association, in some cases this is a lost opportunity because the produce is “so lacking in flavour and texture, it’s teaching [children] to actively dislike (or at least distrust) fruit and veg”.

And as the saying goes, you never get a second chance to make a first impression.

It’s not unusual for children to say they don’t like a food because of one negative experience — perhaps if every bag of carrots or apples came with a free toy, things would be different. But the reality is that fruit and veg sellers don’t have the budgets to market their produce in the way that many big brand manufacturers can afford to market fast food or sugary snacks. And poor-quality produce doesn’t help the cause.

...perhaps if every bag of carrots or apples came with a free toy, things would be different...

The Soil Association says that A Food for Life survey of teachers conducted in 2018 revealed that whilst 92 per cent of teachers thought the free fruit and veg scheme had potential to increase children’s fruit and veg consumption, some were highly critical of produce quality. One teacher was cited as saying: “Pears are under-ripe and hard, carrots have been sweating in bags for days. Generally, the produce is not as fresh as we would hope, and this means the children don’t eat it”.

Classroom experience

Laurie, a teacher from Bedfordshire, told Optimum Nutrition: “The apples are often mushy and the carrots given to us are left in packaging for too long.”

Similarly, six-year-old Max, who attends school in Buckingham, says that pears are his favourite fruit, but “at school, sometimes they can be a bit brown and squishy”.

Some schools, however, do fare better. Paula, a primary school teacher from Aylesbury, says: “The fruit and veg we get at school is always of good quality and the children enjoy the variety on offer. Regular deliveries of the correct quantities means everything is eaten at its best.”

Paula’s school has also introduced a fun way for the children to eat their snack. “[The children] are allocated responsibility to take the fruit out on trays and set up a market stall. When snack time is over we collect cores and waste for our compost bins, which are used by the gardening club.”

It’s a good example of how to make food fun — something big brands have been doing successfully for years.


Currently, products that are high in fat, sugar and salt cannot appear in any media aimed at children under 16, or where children under 16 make up at least 25 per cent of the audience. But proving a product is aimed at children isn’t easy. Cake manufacturer Mr Kipling, for example, has launched ‘Magical Unicorn’ and ‘Roaring Dragon’ cakes; but although these are likely to appeal to children, a spokesperson for Mr Kipling told Optimum Nutrition: “Mr Kipling is loved by people of all ages. Unicorns and dragons are popular trends at the moment and feature on TV, in film and on many different products in the food and fashion industry.”

And it is fair comment; unicorns do appear on products aimed at adults, too. But this may be cold comfort to parents who regularly have to deal with pester power.

Claire, a mum of two from Bocking, Essex, explains how getting her kids to choose fruit and vegetables is made harder by the relentless advertising of fast food. Whilst her two boys “eat well without too much complaint,” she says, “[fast food] is advertised on the radio all the time. My kids whistle the tune at the end of the advert and continuously ask me for it. They always ask for chocolate at the tills and I have to hide the [pizza] leaflets posted through the door at home.”

And Claire is not alone. According to a Parents’ Jury Survey, 93 per cent are concerned about the effect of junk food marketing on their children.  A report by Cancer Research showed that just one junk food advert per week is likely to add 350 extra calories to a child’s diet from foods containing high levels of salt, sugar and fat. “Tempting” and “addictive” is how some children in the study described the ads they were shown, while others explained how they frequently “plead” or “beg” for their parents to buy food products in response to ads.

Steering towards healthier food

But according to registered nutritional therapist Jessica Fonteneau, it is possible to steer children away from less healthy foods. First, she suggests living by the rule ‘out of sight, out of mind’.

“Avoidance is the first line of defence, by not having snacks that contain higher levels of salt, fat and sugar in the house, the temptation to eat them isn’t there,” she says.

Her next tip is to plan ahead and to have healthy options readily available. Snacks including protein and complex carbohydrates are ideal choices. “Peanut butter on toast, a bit of cheese and fruit or a home-made flapjack made with oats and some dried fruits are great choices,” she says. She also recommends sitting down to eat with your children, if possible. “Eating by example is the best way to encourage your children to eat a variety of foods.” 

One business-led success story, however, is the Tesco’s Free Fruit for Kids initiative which launched in 2017, and which enables children to choose a free piece of fruit while their parents shop at the supermarket. According to Tesco, it has seen 50 million pieces of fruit snapped up by kids since it began; including 21 million bananas, 19 million apples, and 10 million oranges. 

Jack, a nine-year-old from Hitchin, “races to the Tesco Free Fruit section to grab an apple every single time” says his mum, Suzanne.

“I love the apples because they are nice and juicy and have a big crunch,” says Jack.

His description demonstrates the importance of quality and freshness when there are no free toys or gimmicks on offer — especially if we want children to return for more.

Additional reporting by Optimum Nutrition staff.



Banging a gong for playful food

Shannon “Peacasso” Seip and Kelly “Pea Brain” Parthen, the founders of Bean Sprouts cafes in the USA, are expert at getting small children to try new, healthy food. Following Bean Sprouts’ success, last November they launched Bean Sprouts Kitchen: Simple and Creative Recipes to Spark Kids’ Appetites for Healthy Food. (See Book Therapy, p.29.) Seip told us what makes Bean Sprouts successful, and the purpose of a celebratory gong 

How much does fun food encourage children to try new tastes — or try things they previously didn’t like?

“Bean Sprouts believes that... kids can play and imagine better than anyone. That’s why we aim to spark delight when it comes to mealtime. We want children to see wholesome food not as something they’re forced to eat, but as a fun way they can express creativity.

“It can take a child up to 10 times trying a new taste to decide if he or she likes it. If we can help create a playful and positive environment in one of those times, studies show the child is more likely to try and enjoy it!

“We’ve seen our young customers try things that parents couldn’t believe. Our Crocamole is a perfect example. Kids dip a variety of veggies in the avocado hummus bowl that looks like a crocodile. One kid even dipped a sunflower butter and jam sandwich in the hummus as well — just to keep trying new combos!”

How successful has the fun food approach been with your own children?

“Kelly and I have involved our children in every aspect of Bean Sprouts since day one. Our kids are all different kinds of eaters — picky, adventurous, boring, and vegetarian-ish.

“When we’re developing our new menu items or writing a cookbook, I can especially turn to Isaac (my oldest) and his friends to create punny names, like Tirami-shoe, Clementiny Bubbles, or A-SPARE-agus (bowling alley made of asparagus tips and a falafel bowling ball). And the more engagement they have in the process, the more likely they are to try something that otherwise they would turn away.

“Our BeanGO game proved to work well with our own kids. Our twist on the popular game bingo, our BeanGO cards have different themes (items to put in a smoothie, all green foods, etc.). The goal is to get five in a row by trying five different wholesome foods.

“And Kale (Kelly’s oldest), is the biggest advocate for getting kids to try new tastes. We used to have a ‘Bean There, Ate That’ gong that kids would hit at our cafés to celebrate trying something new. Kale often persuades his buddies to sample something — from sushi to eggplant, and lets them hit a gong at their house (a pot hit with a wooden spoon).”

How can busy parents make food fun when there is little time and money?

“Parents need to take the pressure off themselves and not feel like they have to serve a Pinterest-perfect dish by doing all the work themselves!

“Kids are great at making things fun, and we can put them to work! Some ideas to empower kids to play with their food with little extra cost... see the dining table as a craft drawer; offer three to five wholesome ingredients — fruits, veggies, proteins, etc. — and a few kid-friendly kitchen tools, and let the kids create their own ‘masterpeas’.

“Offer a theme and see what they come up with — this is especially helpful during meal planning — can you create a meal where everything is red? Or make a breakfast where everything starts with the letter B. They will have fun coming up with and eating their own menu items.

“And of course, anything on a stick is fun! That doesn’t mean it needs to be deep-fried. Try a ‘fun-due’. Instead of putting all of your dinner items on a plate, use a stick to dip them into a bowl of marinara sauce. Or try dipping breakfast bites and fruit into yoghurt. It adds an element of play that keeps kids engaged.”

Some might say that children should eat what is in front of them and not expect it to be fun. How would you respond?

“Parents work incredibly hard, and the last thing we want is pushback after preparing a home-cooked meal. Especially a wholesome meal that will benefit their growing bodies!

“If you put yourself in your child’s shoes, it’s understandable why it could be frustrating to have someone decide for you what you are going to eat every day without having a say. On top of that, then being pressured to eat something you never asked for in the first place.

“We encourage parents to give their kids a limited choice between two options before the meal is prepared, so your children have some ownership in what’s being served.

Also, try to let go of telling kids not to play with their food. If there is something playful they can do to make the mealtime more attractive (and doesn’t cause disaster), go for it. Maybe they make a self-portrait out of the taco salad ingredients. Allow for imperfections — a ‘Peacasso’ version, if you will. And at the end of the day, realise that we as adults don’t like 100 per cent of the foods we eat, so try not to extend that pressure to your child.”

The Bean Sprouts Kitchen cookbook describes how Bean Sprouts cafes empower children to make their own decisions. How can empowering children help to encourage healthier food choices?

“Bean Sprouts wants to make sure that a wholesome dining experience is engaging and empowering for our youngest visitors! On top of having our Imaginibbles menu — a whimsical creative menu designed with kids in mind, we have lower kids’ counters so we can interact with them and not just see the tops of their heads. We also have a lower kids’ menu so that if they’re too young to read the menu above, they can point to what they want.

“Imagine if you were wanting to try a certain fish for the first time. You wait in a painfully long line to encounter a grumpy staff member who takes your order. When the fish arrives, it’s lukewarm and smothered with an unidentifiable gelatinous glop of sauce. You’re probably not likely to ever want to try that fish entrée again — Bean Sprouts wants the healthy food dining experience to be as positive as possible. For us, that extends from an extraordinary ordering experience, to playful plating, to the way we deliver the meal — with a cheery ‘bean appétit!’.

“We also make sure that all of our options are ones that parents can say yes to. We intentionally don’t have a healthy section next to an unhealthy section, full of candies, cheese puffs, etc. If we did, kids would likely not even look at the healthy section and head right for the unhealthy section.

“Of course we definitely make sure that we have snacks and treats available, but they’re size appropriate with clean ingredients.  Parents always tell us how refreshing it is not to continually have to say no to their kids when at a Bean Sprouts!”


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