• The Mediterranean diet is the gold standard of eating for adults and children, the world over. (Photo by Schning/ullstein bild via Getty Images)Source: Photo by Schning/ullstein bild via Getty Images
A new study reveals how to get your child to eat their fruit, vegetables and all the other healthy foods featured in the Mediterranean diet.
Yasmin Noone

21 Nov 2018 - 1:24 PM  UPDATED 21 Nov 2018 - 1:40 PM

The Mediterranean diet is the gold standard of eating for adults and children, the world over.

Characterised by generous servings of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, fish, nuts and legumes, the Mediterranean dietary pattern can decrease your risk of cardiovascular disease, obesity and metabolic issues.

This healthy eating plan seems easy enough to follow if you’re an adult, but what about fussy kids who resist eating fruit and vegetables?

According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, over 30 per cent of children nationwide don’t eat enough fruit and 95 per cent of children don’t eat enough vegetables.

As it turns out, getting children to follow a Mediterranean diet that's rich in fruit and vegetables is not just an issue in Australia: it’s even a problem for children living in European countries, where the famed diet originates.

This healthy eating plan seems easy enough to follow if you’re an adult, but what about fussy kids who resist eating fruit and vegetables?

A Portuguese study published in 2017 reports that populations living in the Mediterranean region aren't following the diet. A low consumption of fruits and vegetables and an overconsumption of junk food and soft drinks are contributing to rising obesity rates, especially in children.

World Health Organization data suggests that obesity rates in Greece, Spain and Italy exceed 40 per cent.  

Around one third of children in Spain do not consume any fruits or vegetables on a daily basis. In 2012, average reported rates of daily fruit and vegetables intake in children was just over 64 per cent – 33 per cent did not eat enough fruit and vegetables each day.

A European study published in 2015 also shows that there’s a clear trend of children and young people abandoning the Mediterranean lifestyle.

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So what chance do you have at getting your child to adhere to a Mediterranean diet that’s rich with fruit and veggies if children in the Mediterranean have a hard time following the eating plan?

A new study, conducted on over 1,000 Spanish children aged eight to 10 years old, has attempted to help parents and health professionals around the world by working out how to make kids follow the Mediterranean diet.

The research, published this month in the journal Appetite, looked at some of the issues contributing to childhood obesity – socioeconomic status, eating habits, physical activity and too much screen time – to see if these factors would encourage or even deter kids from eating healthy Mediterranean food.

It even considered whether a mother’s level of education could help a child stick to the diet.

“The main finding was that higher levels of physical activity and meal frequency, and low screen time, and external eating were associated with higher adherence to the Mediterranean diet independently of baseline diet quality,” the study reads.

“Furthermore, greater maternal education was predictive for higher adherence to the Mediterranean diet of their children.”

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Here’s what the results mean for you and your child

Here are some practical, evidence-based pieces of advice for parents who want to encourage their children to stick to the Mediterranean diet, based on the Spanish study. 

1. Kids should have less screen time 

The results of this study suggest that if you want your child to eat more fruit and vegetables, and adhere to the healthy concepts of a Mediterranean diet, you should encourage them to have less screen time.

That doesn’t just mean telling them to get off their iPad but restricting the time spent watching television, using the computer (games and internet), and playing console games. 

2. They should eat more frequently 

The study found that increasing meal frequency predicted good diet quality.

Other research, conducted on Tuscan teenagers and published in 2013, suggests that adolescents who don’t always consume breakfast and snacks will eat less fruit. Lower vegetable consumption was associated with irregular breakfast consumption.

The take-home message from this new study is that if your child eats breakfast, a mid-morning snack, lunch, an afternoon snack, and dinner, they are more likely to consume better quality foods throughout the day, like those included in the Mediterranean diet. 

3. Get your children active

The more physical activity children had, the more they stuck to a healthy eating plan. Again, getting children to live a healthy lifestyle meant they made healthy food choices.

"More aware parents tend to promote a better diet quality and have more frequent family meals.”

4. Don’t eat out so much

Children who had lower scores of external eating behaviour – meaning they didn’t eat out a lot – had a higher adherence to the Mediterranean diet 15 months after the study.

“Parents more aware about the importance of healthy eating are less likely to permit unhealthy external cues during childhood and early adolescence,” the research reads.

“Between 8 and 12 years of age, eating behaviours are usually still regulated by parents, especially by those parents that are more focused on their child's education. More aware parents tend to promote a better diet quality and have more frequent family meals.”

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5. Education for mum

A high level of maternal education increased the odds of a child's high adherence to the Mediterranean diet compared to peers whose mothers had only a primary education.

Although more research is needed into this topic, the study suggests that mothers who understood more about the Mediterranean diet were more likely to encourage their children to follow it.

Mediterranean recipes:
Lemon olive oil cake

The Mediterranean climate in Margaret River is perfect for growing olives, and from olives comes many things! With that in mind, I thought an olive oil cake with a very special olive caramel would be fun. The caramel can also be used in savoury dishes as well. Peter Kuruvita's Coastal Kitchen

Mediterranean tray-bake with haloumi chunks

Preparing a full meal on a single tray and then just letting the oven handle all of the cooking is (or should be) every family’s favourite easy-cooking solution. 

Skinny eggplant ‘lasagne’

Inspired by a great recipe from Cherianne on the Blood Sugar Diet website in which we use thinly sliced eggplant instead of zucchini as it keeps its texture better. An excellent low-cal, low-carb Mediterranean-style vegetarian meal for anyone missing pasta.

Spiralised zucchini puttanesca

For those of us trying to find alternatives to pasta, a spiraliser, which looks a bit like a giant serrated pencil sharpener and shreds chunks of veg into wonderful strands of ‘vegetti’, has become one of the must-have pieces of kitchen equipment.

Baked pasta (pastitsio)

The Greek answer to lasagne, variations of this dish are made throughout the Mediterranean. It has three key layers: the meat filling, the pasta and the béchamel sauce on top.