The Daily 5 Fruit and Vegetable Servings Challenge

Is it really possible for a family to eat the USDA's recommended 5 servings a day? One mom tries to find out

Like many people in America, I watched Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution. Yes, I was tweeting about the chicken nugget scene as much as anyone else was, but the moment that stayed with me longer was when Rhonda, the director of food services for the Huntington, West Virginia, school system, took Jamie to task for not providing an adequate amount of vegetables when he attempted to upgrade the school’s lunchroom offerings with barbecued chicken and the most delicious-looking stir-fried veggies with noodles. (According to Rhonda, the pre-Jamie cafeteria meal did satisfy the state’s nutritional guidelines, because french fries counted as a vegetable.)

The moment—granted, overdramatized by some Ryan Seacrest-esque editing—made me think about all of these arbitrary regulations and numbers we have to keep in our heads as consumers and as parents. I have two children, ages 6 and 8, and the USDA famously requires that each of them eat five servings of fruits and vegetables a day. (A serving is generally described as 1/2 cup.) Now, I’m relatively lucky. As far as kids go, mine are pretty good about eating produce (canceled out, perhaps, by their enthusiasm for dessert), but were they eating 2 1/2 cups of it a day? Was it possible to consume that much myself? Was it possible to make sure everyone in my family of four was getting his or her five? I took a few days last week to test it out and learned a few things.

Lesson 1: If you’re going to try an experiment like this, don’t present 20 servings of produce (four people times five servings) on a big platter in the morning and announce to your contrarian 6-year-old, “We are going to play a game! Let’s try to eat everything on this entire plate today!” I’m a big fan of the personal challenge (I once made the kids try something new for dinner every day for a month), and usually it’s the adventure element that gets them excited about it. I thought the dramatic platter, as well as the idea of “playing” by the rules, would be a surefire jump-start. For my 8-year-old, it was. She looked at the pile of strawberries, kiwis, mangoes and apples, and replied, “Can we start now?” (Bless her.) But my contrarian?

Contrarian: “Who says you’re supposed to eat that much?”

Me: “The USDA.”

Contrarian: “Well, I don’t know her, so I’m not interested in playing this game.”

The good news is that on day one, a Sunday, it didn’t seem as dramatic a push for the kids as we thought it was going to be. As long as everyone had a fruit or veg serving at every meal and a glass of OJ in the morning, it was just a matter of squeezing in one more place for that last serving. I found it was easy for me to sneak it in during snack or after dinner mixed in with other things (strawberries with a plate of cubed cheddar and goldfish crackers, for instance; or a strawberry and pound cake shish kebab). Again, the trick—at least with my kids—was not to announce it. I would make a little dessert fruit salad for myself and set it on the table without introducing it in grand fashion, as I might, say, with a brownie sundae. I found it allowed them to reach across to my plate and graze absentmindedly without being fully aware that they were pleasing their mother.

Lesson 2: The bad news was that by Tuesday we had depleted our typical weekly produce supply instead of by Thursday or Friday. I detest doing more than one shop a week, so this was a problem. And since I generally like to buy organic when it comes to the Dirty Dozen, it was also an expensive problem.

Lesson 3: When I say it wasn’t as hard as I thought, let me be clear about something. I meant it wasn’t hard to work the extra produce into my children’s diets. As is typical of most parents, I noticed that my own healthy eating habits were falling way short of theirs. My husband and I are so focused on feeding them balanced meals and packing healthy lunches that we end up sort of popping whatever cucumber slices happen to be left on their plates and calling it a veg serving. When I sat back and really took stock of how many servings of fruit and vegetables I was getting a day, I was a little horrified. In my experiment over the course of the next three days, I had to almost double my typical consumption to meet the USDA daily requirement.

Lesson 4: Then there were the schooldays. During the experiment, I started paying more attention to how often the little baggie of baby carrots came home (untouched) in the lunchbox. When we’re not sitting next to them monitoring their intake, it’s hard to get a real sense of how much they’re really getting between 8:00 and 3:00. No matter how much love we put into that lunch and snack, there is going to be the friend influence, the teacher influence, the cafeteria influence.

Which makes it even more apparent to me why we need that lunchroom revolution.

And by the way—on Friday, my 6-year-old (remember? The contrarian?) returned from school with a flyer called “Nutrition Nuggets.” It was the handout at her nutrition class.

Contrarian: “Mom, did you know that we are supposed to eat five servings a day of fruits and vegetables?”

Me: “Yes, that’s what I was trying to tell you last week.”

Contrarian: “You didn’t tell me it was homework. If you did, I would have listened to you.”


Jenny Rosenstrach writes the blog Dinner: A Love Story.

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