Infant feeding patterns directly impact taste preferences, and taste preferences developed during infancy last much longer than we think. Additionally, a partiality toward sweets is an evolutionary preference. (It is a basic physiological survival mechanism for most animals allowing them to distinguish between safe, suitable foods and poisonous, unsuitable foods. Through evolution, humans have inherited these preferences too.) Between these two facts it would appear that we are fighting a losing battle to establish healthy eating habits in children! The pressure sure starts early!
There are two components integral to a lifetime of eating right – the behavioral aspect and the nutritional factor.
Behaviorally, perhaps the most important change that can be made is to gather as a family at a meal and model behavior for the children. Feeding children on the go—while they are in the stroller, in the car or in the park—just to get the calories in prevents the children from valuing or enjoying their food. Turning the T.V. or Ipad off once everyone is seated and making mealtimes fun can make a big difference too. Shifting the focus off the food and talking about the day gone by or the upcoming week reduces pressure off the parent (to force the child to eat) and the child (to be force fed). Encouraging children to wait until everybody has finished isn’t just polite, it also helps build social skills and improves their ability to sit still for longer periods (which ultimately influences their ability to sit through other events and activities).
Parents worry about the quantity of food their child has eaten each day but it’s important not to allow this to become a power struggle. As long as they don’t have any nutritional issues and are energetic, they are probably getting enough nourishment.
When planning a meal, it’s helpful to serve at least two options where at least one is an established favorite. It’s also important to be careful to serve realistic portions and let the children decide when they are full or if they would like another serving. Children are less averse to sitting down if they see something they like and it’s a manageable amount.
When transitioning babies from milk to table food, introducing a variety of food items with different tastes and textures early on is imperative. Infants often reject a new food the first time they see it, but it shouldn’t be a deterrent to present it again on another occasion. If there is continuous exposure to it they are more likely to try it. Persuading older children to try a bite while allowing them to leave the rest will help them become open to trying new things. Regardless, serving it again a few days later even if it’s left untouched is important because familiarity will encourage them to be more adventurous. If the whole family is served the same meal and alternatives are not provided, children are more amenable to eating what’s presented because they realize that those are the only choices available.
Eating right also includes discipline around snacking habits, particularly eliminating random snacking and providing healthy snack options whenever possible. For most kids three large meals and a small snack is usually sufficient on a daily basis. If the intervals between meals are well planned and consistent the body begins to expect food at that time every day. When children are hungry, they don’t need to be chased after to sit down for a meal. Establishing a rule that children cannot open the fridge or the snack cupboard without a parent’s permission and talking to them about oddly timed snacks ruining their appetite for dinner helps teach self-control. Similarly, if someone offers a snack to them and asking them save it for dessert or snack time the next day will help them monitor their own intake of unhealthy foods as well create their own discipline.
Teaching children the difference between healthy foods and unhealthy foods will help them understand the value of making the right choices. Explaining this in the context of becoming stronger, more energetic, running faster, kicking a ball harder etc or having your body slow down, motivates children to make better choices.
From a nutritional perspective, substituting unhealthy foods with healthy food items is easier than eliminating some things all together; particularly, if you want to avoid desserts and snacks becoming a “special treat”, thereby putting a higher value on those foods. Providing fruits for desserts instead of cookies and replacing ordinary crackers with whole wheat, rich in fiber ones will inculcate a preference for these items when introduced early on.
If healthy habits are ingrained in children, many adult-onset diseases can be prevented and/or controlled. For meals, simple substitutions such as regular pasta with wheat pasta, white bread with multi-grain bread, and whole wheat cereal instead of regular cereal are easy changes to make. Similarly, while cooking using white meat more often than red meat or grilling food rather than frying helps reduce the risk of clogged arteries. Retaining the nutrients of vegetables by steaming rather than boiling is also of considerable value.
When buying products off the shelf, it’s important to see the ingredient list and avoid products high in trans fat, saturated fat, artificial sweeteners, high MSG and high fructose corn syrup which increase cholesterol, cause tooth decay, cardiac disease and obesity among other things. Similarly while buying children’s yogurt off the shelf is convenient, it’s also very high in sugar content. With a little bit of time and effort a similar taste can be created using plain yogurt and blended fruit. Or, choosing fresh cheese products rather than the factory produced cheese sticks can reduce the amount of processed food and artificial products children ingest.
Remember, instilling a lifelong habit of eating well (in terms of behavior and nutrition) requires patience and discipline!