Eating better is one of the most common New Year’s resolutions, but it’s not necessarily one of the easiest — especially for some of the youngest members of the family. Some picky eaters would subsist solely on fruit snacks and string cheese if given the opportunity.
But studies have shown that parents and caregivers can do a lot for their children by modeling good eating habits. Julie Benard, MD, a pediatrician at MU Pediatrics, has some tips for parents who want to help their children expand their palates and develop healthy habits.
It seems like most parents struggle with fussiness at mealtime. Why is it difficult for some children to try new foods?
It’s very true that mealtime is a struggle for many families, especially for families with toddlers and younger children who tend to be "picky eaters." What caregivers have to keep in mind is that trying new foods involves almost all of our senses: sight, smell, taste and touch. We know that children can take somewhere between 15-20 exposures to a food before they really decide to eat it, and these can include not only tasting the food, but touching it and smelling it as well.
Caregivers also need to keep in mind that one of the few things their child might have control over is the food he or she eats. Many parents become very frustrated when children refuse the foods set in front of them, and this power struggle can actually make matters worse as children cling to that little bit of control they have. Respecting that children might not want to eat the food on their plates and offering a wide variety of foods in small portions at each meal so they can have "tastes" without having to stare down a large pile of a veggie they don't want to eat can save a lot of dinner-table struggles.
From a health perspective, what is the value in being an adventurous eater?
Being an adventurous eater leads to a child eating a good variety of foods, including more nutritious options such as numerous fruits and vegetables, which can help keep children healthy. Not only does this give them all of the vitamins and minerals needed to stay on track for development, it also supports a healthy weight.
What role can family meals and parent behavior play in shaping a child’s willingness to explore new foods?
Children learn so much from the family dinner table that family dinner time is one of my top recommendations not only for nutrition but also for development. Children actually develop quite a few social skills in just watching their other family members interact around the dinner table, including conversational flow and manners. Small children can also be exposed to numerous words as they listen to their family members talk to each other, which can enhance language development. Talking about how things are going at school can also help with self-esteem in school-age children as well.
Not only does all of this help children blossom socially, but it is a great time to model healthy eating habits for their children. When children see their parents eating healthful foods, it makes them more likely to be willing to try those foods. Parents can also talk about the foods with their kids. Possible topics of discussion might include color, the soft or crunchy texture and where the food came from. For example, how and where does that fruit or vegetable grow?
What tips do you have for encouraging children to try new foods?
As stated before, children sometimes need as many as 15-20 exposures to a new food before they really decide they want to eat it. Having the child touch the food, smell the food, and discuss the color and texture of the food are all exposures that can occur before the child even puts the food in their mouth.
Keep offering a wide variety of foods, and offer "tastes" of foods instead of larger portions of only a few foods, as this can allow children to choose what they want to eat without having the caregiver become a short-order cook. Some families find that having a "two-bite rule” works for them, in which kids have to have two bites of each thing on their plates. This can encourage children to taste foods while not entering the power struggle that can come when parents and their kids disagree on which foods the child should eat.
Eating dinner together also not only makes mealtimes fun, but also allows parents to model healthy eating for their children.