The secret to getting your kids to eat better

Kids’ sense of taste is pre-programmed from birth to like sweets and to reject plant-based foods. However, their palates really are surprisingly malleable. The secret to raising a healthy eater is simple: you have to teach kids to choose healthy foods. Here are a few tips:

Limit foods you don’t want them to like

Kids start developing their tastes very early in life. When a baby starts eating solid foods, you’ll notice that they take quite naturally to sweet foods (like squash and carrots). However, studies show that you actually have to develop a taste for salt. Kids 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. The same goes for high fat foods or white bread without fiber. If you want them to like whole wheat bread, don’t give them PB&J on Wonder bread.

Let kids see you eat your veggies 

While we adults know that fruits and veggies are healthy, kids may be wary of eating their broccoli. Generations of parents have been frustrated that their kids just don’t seem to like fruits and veggies. And now scientists have confirmed the reason for their dislike. In a series of experiments they observed young kids’ reactions to fruits and veggies and discovered that humans don’t instinctively “like” foods that come from plants.

Evolutionary biologists suspect that humans are naturally 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 tomato 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.

Breast milk, unlike formula, changes flavor with every feeding – and develops a baby’s sense of taste.

Don’t give up on foods they don’t like

You need to offer the same food many, many, many times. When baby spits out pureed spinach, it may appear that she doesn’t like it; but in baby body language it just means she questions whether this green leaf really is meant to be food. (It makes sense, although I still don’t understand why my son spit out bacon but would swallow carpet lint.)

Very young infants only have to try a new food a few times before they will incorporate it into their diet. But once they are over age 2, they 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 first 2 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 15 year-old with an expensive salmon habit.


Let them play with their food

If all else fails with your picky toddler, give them food that looks fun. Studies show that kids 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 to shape their fruit into stars, or the moon.

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

What about food allergies and starting solids? Parenting Team Contributor

Author: Wendy Hunter, MD

Pediatrician at Children's Primary Care Medical Group, La Jolla, CA

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