When kids begin eating solid foods, when they start feeding themselves and when they develop the skills to tell you in no uncertain terms whether they like the taste of something or not can all be exciting but often challenging times for parents. Some kids will eat just about anything throughout infancy and childhood. Others start this way, but then suddenly get fussy about what they put in their mouths. And then of course there are the classic fussy eaters – those kids that will eat very little and refuse to try anything new.
So is it nature or nurture that dictates kids food preferences? Can kids learn to like new foods? And why does it even matter?
When it comes to taste, we’re all born with a preference for sweet and an aversion to bitter, which is thought to change as we grow older. Genetics may also play some part, but in general our remaining taste preferences – that is, for fat, salty and sour foods – are mostly learned. This is good news, as it means that getting kids to like and eat a range of different foods requires exposing them to, and liking, a range of different flavours.
Much of the research indicates that it’s early and repeated exposure that works best, even as far back as in the womb. For example, one study found infants exposed to carrot juice either in the final trimester of pregnancy or during the early months of breastfeeding had a preference for carrots once they were introduced to solid foods. Breast fed babies tend to be exposed to a variety of flavours from an early age, given the taste of breast milk differs according to the mother’s diet. Studies also show breast fed babies have a greater acceptance of new foods when they’re introduced to solids.
But what if you didn’t eat a mountain of carrots when you were pregnant or you didn’t breast feed? That’s ok – it’s not too late to start introducing new flavours throughout childhood. It just takes patience, persistence and a little creativity.
Repeated exposure to new flavours is still the key to increasing kids liking for and acceptance of new foods at any age. And ‘exposure’ means having kids taste the food, rather than just looking at or smelling it. This process works to reduce food neophobia, or a fear of new foods, which usually peaks in healthy preschoolers around three years of age as kids starts to assert their independence and become vary of what they eat. Up to ten exposures is often required, sometimes more, which is where the patience and persistence comes into play. One of the fantastic lecturers at Deakin University talked about having salad consistently with dinner because it’s a quick and easy way to prepare vegetables – at first her kids wouldn’t have any of it, but gradually learned to like salad the more they were exposed to it.
The Food Environment
Intuitively, kids are comfortable in familiar environments. Therefore, it’s not surprising that they’re more likely to accept a new food if it’s introduced in an environment they’re used to. Kids also understand the mealtime routine from an early age – the location of the meal, who’s participating in the meal and the social interactions around the meal. They learn to associate food with their usual food environment and will start eating more easily when placed in that environment. Therefore, a positive environment and mealtime routines are important in establishing healthy eating patterns.
It’s similarly not surprising that parents or carers have a strong influence over children’s food preferences, as they take care of the grocery shopping, control the availability of food within the household, order food for kids when the family is out and therefore ultimately what kids eat. But role modelling extends further – parents who show their kids that they eat and like fruit and vegetables increase the amount of fruit and vegetables their kids consume. And it’s potentially mum’s influence that’s the strongest – kids are more willing to put food into their mouths if they see their mother doing so compared with a stranger. Evidence also indicates peer group modelling works, i.e. a child that doesn’t like a vegetable will eat more of it if they are eating with children that like that vegetable.
Flavour Flavour Learning
Flavour flavour learning simply means getting kids to like a new flavour by adding it to a flavour they already like. Yes, that’s correct – the old hiding the vegetables in the bolognese sauce routine. But studies indicate it works, particularly when it comes to increasing children’s liking of vegetables.
Using Food as a Reward
“Finish your veggies or you won’t get any dessert”. How often did you hear that as a kid? Well, evidence suggests this isn’t the best way to get kids to eat the foods we want them to eat, with studies indicating this may lead to an increased liking for the reward food (the dessert in this case) and a decreased liking for the food we’re trying to get the kids to eat (the veggies).
Why is it Important?
Establishing healthy eating patterns is important for several reasons. Firstly, recent analysis of Australian dietary patterns tells us kids are eating far too much energy dense discretionary foods (e.g. chips, soft drink etc) and far too little fruit and vegetables. Secondly, there is a strong correlation between childhood and adult obesity. Thirdly (and not surprisingly) kids’ eating behaviours usually persist into adulthood.
Therefore, establishing healthy eating behaviours in childhood – that is, eating a balanced diet and having a healthy attitude towards food – will set kids up for life.
This article first appeared in the January 2015 issue of Tiny Wings magazine…