Growing Healthy Eaters
by Mommy MD Guide Stacey Weiland, MD
Getting our kids to eat right is no easy task. Our schedules are tight, and we are constantly driving from one activity to another. Poor food choices are readily available, and are often just easier to prepare. The last thing we as parents of today want to deal with is our child refusing to eat something we have put together.
We know what our kids are supposed to consume. According to the American Heart Association, children between the ages of 2 and 3 should have 2 cups of milk or dairy, 1 cup of fruit, 1 cup of vegetables, 3 ounces of grains, and 2 ounces of lean meat or beans daily. Fats should be limited to 30 to 35 percent of all calories.
Probably the most difficult food on the list is the vegetables, particularly the dark-green varieties. According to the 2004 Feeding Infants and Toddlers Study, children typically eat more fruits than vegetables, with 25 percent eating less than one vegetable per day.
Why is it so difficult for us to get enough vegetables into our children? Some hypothesize that our preference for sweet- over bitter-tasting foods is evolutionary in nature. Sweet flavors connote the presence of sugar, a quick form of energy, while bitter-tasting foods may harbor the presence of toxic substances or poisons. In fact, studies demonstrate that a person’s preference for bitter foods (e.g., dark-green vegetables) and beverages (e.g., coffee) are largely learned.
Putting our children on the path toward healthy eating may begin even before birth. A child’s prenatal exposure to certain food flavors have been shown to lead to greater acceptance and enjoyment of these foods during weaning. In a study by Mennella et al, published in the Journal of Pediatrics in 2001, infants whose mothers drank carrot juice during the last trimester of pregnancy were more likely to enjoy carrot-flavored cereals than those infants whose mothers did not drink carrot juice or eat carrots.
Food ingested by mothers who are breastfeeding also has an impact on a child’s later diet tendencies. A variety of food flavors are transmitted to human milk. Breastfed infants tend to be less picky, are more willing to try new foods, and tend to consume more fruits and vegetables compared with formula-fed infants.
Transitioning babies to solid foods is the first real opportunity that children have to taste these foods for themselves. It is generally recommended that babies be given yellow vegetables first, followed by green vegetables, and then fruits. One interesting study by Forestell et al, published in the Journal of Pediatrics in 2007, found that children who were fed peaches shortly after they were given green beans, during the first 8 days of exposure to green beans, tended to be more accepting of this dark-green vegetable later on. Associating the bitter food with sweetness appeared to make this food more palatable.
Repeated exposure and modeling are also very important. Children tend to be more accepting of foods if they are offered it on multiple occasions. Don’t forget that you as a parent need to eat healthy, too. Your child is constantly watching you. Good habits in eating are learned not just by what you say, but by what you do.