Food surrounds us 24/7. Therefore food decisions are constant, it’s estimated that we make over 200 food and drink choices per day, many of these subconsciously. That means that much of our choices are habitual and many likely rooted in our childhood, and as we know habits die hard. For those parents out there who want to raise a healthy, adventurous eater, read on as I explain four of the most important steps in cultivating a healthy relationship of food within your child(ren).
The first way to expand a child’s food repertoire is involving them in the process and allowing them to experiment. Begin with grocery shopping, ask for their choice between carrots or celery as a snack. If you enjoy gardening, involve them in planting, caring for and harvesting the food you’ve grown together. Then include them in meal prep; being sure to involve them in a variety of age appropriate meal preparations is a great way to make them more open minded about food. Give them tasks such as seasoning a chicken stir fry, sautéing mushrooms for the spaghetti and baking cookies. Trust me, when they’re proud of their participation their more likely to eat the food (no nagging required)! These are places to teach them science (“why does that bread rise”?), math (using measuring scoops) and biology (where food really comes from). Children should not be in the way when it comes to food, they should be involved, it’s our role as parents to provide that involvement.
Just as meal preparation is important, meal time offers many benefits as well. Studies have shown that family meals lower the chance of high-risk behaviors such as substance abuse, decreases the risk of obesity and simply offers a chance to connect as a family and build self-esteem in our children. For children of a younger age group, benefits of meal times include a growing vocabulary, table manners and socialization skills. Family meals should be about nourishing our bodies to the point of satisfaction, having fruitful discussion and moving on with life. Try to avoid placing the focus on what, and how much your child eats, children are very intuitive eaters (and that’s a good thing)!
Have you ever seen a child make that squished-face-of-dissatisfaction? As parents we interpret this face as a distaste for the food their trying, but in fact this is simply a child’s way of exploring a new food. It can take up to 20 times or more of food exposure to like a food. One study showed that even exposure of new foods through pictures books led to an increased consumption of these foods, after just two weeks. To introduce new foods, try preparing familiar foods in unfamiliar ways; such as fruit sushi. Conversely, offer unfamiliar foods, in familiar formats; such as veggie smoothies or curry pasta. Provide your child with a variety of foods, tantalizing all five senses (taste, sight, touch, smell and sound). This means exposing them to hot, cold, wet, dry, sticky, stringy, crunchy and creamy options, you get the picture. Ultimately, exposure leads to familiarity, which results in acceptance.
Finally, and quite possibly the most important is to lead by example. Children have an innate desire to be and do just like their parents, food is no exception. You cannot expect your child to eat carrots while you’re eating cookies. That means the whole family eats the same meal. Depending on your child’s age, their plate may look a bit different, but most foods are present on each plate. Always have one familiar food you know they’ll enjoy and build from there. Remember too, that if one parent doesn’t like a food, have them at least participate in the meal and avoid vocalizing their dislike. This gives your child a chance to come to their own conclusions about the foods they enjoy. Being an example means you may have to get out of your own comfort zone.
I’ve always said “they don’t know they don’t like it until they don’t like it” … give your children a chance to make their own decisions. Succumbing to your child’s food jag, (the phase most youngsters will experience when they desire only a couple foods over and over) will only prolong this phase and may eventually lead to manipulation and selective eating. You must trust your child to trust themselves, I promise “they’ll eat when they’re hungry”.
To learn more about childhood eating, some great resources include the Ellyn Satter Institute, Jill Castle, and myself, Jessica Gutsue, the dietitian at Restorative Health Care.