As a mom of three energetic, growing boys, one of my most important jobs is setting them on a path of healthy eating that I hope they’ll continue on into adulthood. I believe that it’s much easier to establish good eating habits early in life rather than try to replace bad habits with good ones in adulthood.
In this post, I wanted to take a look at whether kids really are more likely to maintain the healthy eating habits that parents help them establish early on. I also wanted strategies for introducing new foods to my kids’ diets because I know that consuming a variety of different foods, especially fruits and vegetables, is how they’ll get the many nutrients their bodies need to be healthy.
Healthy eating habits learned early stick
In September 2014 the Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics published results of a series of related studies by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The studies followed around 1,500 kids, documenting their eating and drinking habits from age 0 to 6 years of age.
This finding caught my attention: What we feed babies from age 0 to 1 years of age highly influences what they eat at age 6. Kids who started off eating healthy continued to have preferences for those healthy food choices at age 6 years. Similarly, this finding showed that kids given sugar-sweetened beverages in infancy were more likely to consume sugar-sweetened beverages at age 6.
The takeaway message seems to be that to help your kids establish healthy eating habits for later in life, start them off early.
Introducing healthy foods not always easy
How many of you with kids have experienced putting a new food in front of your kid and having them make a “that’s disgusting” face or purse their lips and absolutely refuse to eat it? We’ve all been there. I’ve known a kid to chew the same bite of spinach for 15 minutes before giving in and swallowing it. Yet that same kid loves spinach now—in omelets, salads, and pastas.
I love the chart of facial expressions in infants in this study that was used to determine whether the child did or didn't like the taste of green beans. The study suggests that even though parents may be hesitant to continue feeding a kid a food when presented with such expressions, sometimes you just have to forge ahead.
Strategies for introducing new foods
At our home, we have a few rules that we’ve tried to stick to when it comes to trying and eating new foods. I also learned some great rules and strategies while writing this article that I want to look into later. For example, this set of “rules to cure picky eating” had some thoughts on this topic seemed worth exploring.
You may or may not agree with each of my rules (and that’s completely okay), but here they are:
Take one bite—it won’t kill you!
It takes 10 times to learn to like a new food—familiarity does not breed contempt.
Don’t make separate meals for just one kid—who has the time?
Model what you want your kids to eat—lead by example.
I employ the first rule because it seems to me that a kid has to try a new food before he or she can ever learn to like it. Many parents (yours truly included) can sometimes fall into the trap of assuming a food is not kid-friendly—thus all the kid menus that offer pasta, pizza, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches at restaurants that also serve amazing, nutritious, and delicious food. For the most part, kids simply like the foods they know; and you have to provide the introduction.
The second rule goes hand in hand with the first. You have to try something enough times for it to become familiar, and therefore likeable. At my house, we don’t give up after the first try of a new food. Instead, we still serve it at our table regularly. With enough oooohing and aaahing over a food, we've seen that oftentimes our kid will try it again. It seems to take a few tries before the kid either definitively likes or dislikes the food. This Huffington Post article says that it takes from 7-15 tries for a kid to acquire the taste for a new food.
The third rule seems like a no-brainer. We cook good, tasty, and healthy meals at our home. My kids should at least try to eat it. Giving them a separate meal makes the meal not a shared family experience and basically nullifies the first two rules.
The final rule I came across while looking up this information. Our kids learn so much from us—how we dress, our attitudes about people and politics, our values, and so much more. They also follow in our footsteps with how and what they eat—snacking on unhealthy versus healthy foods, eating in a hurry versus at a relaxed pace, or eating at the dinner table versus in front of a TV or computer. We have to give them the example we want them to follow.
Try this kid- and adult-pleasing salad
What kid or adult doesn’t love pomegranate seeds? What is the salad dressing of choice for young kids? (The answer is Ranch dressing, of course.) And what family, if they prepare a Thanksgiving turkey, doesn’t have tons of leftover turkey the Friday after Thanksgiving? Tuck away my recipe Turkey Salad with Dairy Free Ranch Dressing for the next week, and feel good about serving your family a healthy and tasty post-Thanksgiving salad.