Perhaps it’s their central role in greasy French fries or buttery mash that has given potatoes a bad rap as a not-so-healthy vegetable. But recently, researchers have taken a closer look at the benefits of the humble spud. And guess what? The butter and milk in those mashed potatoes—not the tubers themselves—are responsible for the increased diabetes risk.
In fact, more and more studies point to the nutritional opportunities that potatoes provide in building a filling, nutritious plant-based diet. And, it turns out, potatoes can do more.
In the field of child nutrition, a new study finds that potatoes may help solve an age-old problem: how to get children to eat more vegetables.
Published in scientific journals Nutrients of the Alliance for Potato Research and Education, this research, led by Gene Ahlborn, PhD, from Brigham Young University, explores the potential of potatoes to boost vegetable consumption among school children.
“Getting kids to eat their vegetables is always a challenge,” Ahlborn said in a statement. “Potatoes not only add nutrients, such as potassium, directly to the plate, but they can also help encourage children to explore other vegetables that are served to them and thus help them get closer to their general nutritional needs.”
Potato: a gateway vegetable?
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggest a daily intake of two-and-a-half to three cups of vegetables for children between the ages of three and 18 years, but the average consumption is worrying about a cup. Addressing this gap, Ahlborn’s study sought to understand the influence of school meals on children’s vegetable intake.
The learning process was carefully designed to mimic the school cafeteria environment. Children were given a base meal of 2 percent milk, chicken nuggets, ketchup, and applesauce, with an experimental component featuring mixed peas and carrots (MPACs) in various presentations.
The experimental food portion had five variations: MPACs and a whole-wheat bread roll served separately (a control condition); MPACs and potato-shaped faces served in separate bowls; MPACs and seasoned diced potatoes were served in separate bowls; MPACs and seasoned diced potatoes are served in the same bowl; and MPACs and potato-shaped faces served in the same bowl.
The results showed that children ate more total vegetables when peas and carrots were served with potato-shaped smiley faces, illustrating how presentation and familiarity of food can affect eating habits of children.
“Presentation is important when offering foods to children; if something looks unfamiliar or strange, kids are more likely to try it,” Stephanie McBurnett, RDN, a nutrition educator for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, tells VegNews.
“Smiley face shaped potatoes, or tater tots, can offer some familiarity in taste with a friendly look,” she said, noting that according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children may need exposed to new foods up to 15 times or more before they become receptive to trying them.
More benefits of potatoes for children
Potatoes, loved at any age, are a versatile base capable of delivering a satisfying combination of starch and salt. But can they be a good starter veggie for kids?
“Potatoes are starchy vegetables that contain healthy complex carbohydrates, protein, fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants,” says McBurnett. However, he cautions against certain cooking methods.
“The nutritional benefits are reduced when potatoes are fried in oil, reducing fiber, vitamins, and minerals while increasing the fat and sodium content,” he says.
McBurnett also emphasizes the importance of a diverse plant-based diet. “Although potatoes are healthy and a vegetable, this does not mean that they should replace other varied and nutritious vegetables such as cruciferous, dark green leafy, orange/red, and non-starchy vegetables.”
Some practical ways to include potatoes in school meals that encourage a balanced diet? “Whole potatoes, such as boiled, baked, and roasted, can be a healthy addition to school meals,” says McBurnett, who recommends combinations like mashed potatoes with roasted carrots, twice baked potatoes with broccoli, and hearty potato soup with corn.
These pairings not only enhance the nutritional value of foods but also increase the appeal of other vegetables.
Vegetables are served at school
The long-term impact of this study’s findings could help shape menus in schools—which are increasingly looking to serve more sustainable, healthy meals while keeping kids happy.
McBurnett believes that introducing potatoes in a child-friendly way can lead to positive changes in children’s eating habits over time.
“One way to successfully introduce unfamiliar foods to children is to pair them with foods they already know and accept,” explains McBurnett. “As long as potatoes don’t overshadow or overpower other vegetables, it’s an appropriate way to introduce foods into children’s diets as they get older.”
“Offering some smiley tots on top of other vegetables can increase consumption of the accompanying vegetables,” he says.
However, the nutritionist warns against over-serving potatoes, which can lead to children filling up on them before reaching other vegetables.
Schools face significant challenges in implementing these findings, primarily due to budget constraints and the need for children to receive meals.
While recognizing the significant challenges, such as budget constraints, that schools face, McBurnett sees an opportunity for them to implement strategies that can encourage children to try and enjoy new and healthy vegetables, thereby improving the overall nutritional quality of school meals.
“Schools hold the critical responsibility of serving healthy foods to children even though these foods may not be common in their home lives,” McBurnett said.
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