Psych! You’re eating healthy

How do you get kids to eat healthy? 

You have to teach kids to choose healthy foods. Humans come pre-programmed to like sweets and to reject plant-based foods. But kids’ palates really are surprisingly malleable. Here’s how you can raise a healthy eater.

Kids start developing their tastes early in life; breast milk changes flavor between feedings and educates the palate. But formula-fed babies seem to transition just fine to the variety of flavors in solid foods. When you start solid foods, you’ll notice that babies take quite naturally to sweet foods (like squash and carrots) because babies’ tongues basically are wired to enjoy sweet flavors. But studies show that you actually have to develop a taste for salt. You learn to like and crave salt, which means you can also be raised to appreciate foods without a lot of salt. So try to avoid salty snack foods when kids are toddlers and check baby food ingredients for the salt content.

While we adults know that fruits and veggies are healthy – plenty of plant-based foods are linked with preventing all kinds of grown-up diseases – kids may be wary of eating plants. In the real world this translates into what many parents experience first-hand: their kids just don’t seem to like fruits and veggies. And scientists confirmed this phenomenon in a study. In a series of experiments they observed kids reactions to fruits and veggies and discovered that humans don’t instinctively “like” foods that come from plants.

Evolutionary biologists suspect that humans have this natural instinct to be picky because it protected our ancestors from eating poisonous plants when they were foraging in the forest. Further studies of children’s predilection to avoid fruits and veggies have shown that young children actually need to watch other people to determine which plants are safe to eat. Makes sense, right? If you eat that piece of broccoli and don’t die, maybe it’s safe for me too. That means you need to eat a variety of healthy foods while your kids are watching. Save the salt ‘n vinegar potato chips and cookie dough to eat in private.

You also need to offer the same food many times. Spitting out pureed spinach may make it appear that baby doesn’t like it; but in baby body language it just means she questions whether this green leaf really is meant to be food.

Young infants only have to try a new food a few times before they will incorporate it into their diet. But 2 year-olds will need to see a food 5-10 times before they will eat it and you’ll have to offer up to 15 times to convince a 3-4 year-old. So offer a variety of foods in the early years. And go ahead and take your toddler out for sushi. However, I must warn you from personal experience, that a 1 year-old who likes salmon sashimi grows up to be a 13 year-old with an expensive salmon habit.

And if all else fails with your picky toddler, kids will eat more of a food shaped like a cartoon character, so go ahead and buy the dino nuggets or bunny-shaped mac ‘n cheese and grab some cookie cutters when you’re slicing up melon.

What are you doing that is making your kid a picky eater?

What about food allergies and starting solids?

TODAY.com Parenting Team Contributor

Author: Wendy Hunter, MD

Associate Clinical Professor of Pediatrics, UC San Diego and pediatrician at Rady Children's Hospital, Department of Emergency Medicine.

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