Broccoli and apples don’t typically make a 10-year-old’s favorite foods list, but a new study published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior outlines a new approach aimed at boosting nutritious food intake by kids this age. Researchers from the Department of Agriculture teamed up with Texas Children’s Hospital and Baylor College of Medicine to design a videogame that would encourage fruit and vegetable intake, ultimately closing the nutrient gaps among children.

For the study, researchers recruited 400 fourth- and fifth-grade children and asked them to play 10 levels of the video game Squires Quest! II. Over the course of six months, children were instructed to meet the fruit and vegetable requirements for their character during the videogame. In order to reach their goals, kids had to choose between an action and coping path.

Meanwhile, parents kept track of their kids’ progress through weekly emails, which also contained suggestions for how to help their kids meet fruit and vegetable intake goals and overcome any barriers holding them back from hitting their targets. Researchers followed up with the children three times during the study period and went over what they ate in the 24 hours leading up to the phone call. By the end of the six months, 79 percent of the children met all of their dietary goals during the game.

"By using a serious video game, we saw increases in meal-specific vegetable intake at dinner for the children in the action and coping groups and fruit intake at breakfast, lunch, and snacks for all intervention groups," said the study’s lead author Karen Cullen, a dietitian at the Children's Nutrition Research Center at Baylor College of Medicine, in a statement.

Cullen and her team believe the game was able to successfully encourage healthy eating among the children because it did so by means of entertainment. But the extra component of involvement from their parents may have also attributed to the increased consumption of healthy foods because it promoted behavioral changes.

“The normal development and growth of all of a child’s tissues is just critically dependent on vitamins and minerals,” said Dr. Balz Frei, a biochemistry professor who specializes in nutrition at Oregon State University, who was not involved in the study. “Starting from conception, micronutrients are crucial to the trajectory of your health for the rest of your life.”

Meeting nutritional standards during development is key to growing into a healthy adult body. More than half of all primary children and 80 percent of secondary children do not eat the recommended amount of vegetables each day. But by the time they’re adults, only 8 percent of Americans eat their recommended fruit intake each day, while only 2 percent of kids meet both the fruit and vegetable recommendations.

According to Parents Magazine, if kids still put up a fight when it comes to eating their vegetables, experiment with different types of dips. Hummus, salsa, and yogurt-based dressing are all viable, healthy options for kids to dip their carrots and cucumber slices into. Also, involving children in the cooking and preparation process may encourage healthier behaviors.

“If your children become involved in choosing or preparing meals, they'll be more interested in eating what they've created,” wrote registered dietitian Julie Burns for Parents Magazine. Take them to the store, and let them choose produce for you. If they're old enough, allow them to cut up vegetables and mix them into a salad.”

Source: Cullen KW, Thompson DI, and Liu Y. Meal-Specific Dietary Changes from Squires Quest! II: A Serious Video Game Intervention. Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior. 2016.