Part I of II: Parents' Influence on Diet
There are several sources of influence on our children’s eating behaviors. Genetics play a small role, parent and family influence, social relationships, neighborhood, community, institutional (schools), as well as large-scale influences like culture, food systems, economics and marketing.
Let’s start with the same source of primary influence that a child’s experience begins with: the parents. Genetically and physiologically, our children inherit a few food-related traits such as the ability to sense hunger, appetite and fullness. Children also possess the ability to sense smell, sight, and taste of food items, and for our systems to respond to the chemical signals from compounds like insulin, glucose and peptides.
Inheritable “taste” preferences are limited, with the most common trait being an aversion to bitterness that is displayed by less tolerance for vegetables such as broccoli, and a stronger affinity for sweet and fatty foods. So, you can blame your spouse for producing a child less likely to eat broccoli. Now, room-cleaning, math skills, athletic ability, I will leave those to you parents to debate. Back to food.
Children seem to inherently possess a preference for sweet foods, fat and salty tastes while avoiding bitter or irritating tastes. They are likely to be neophobic, or afraid of new foods instinctively. In many cases this trait endures through adulthood. Parental response to this particular set of preferences, such as only serving foods children immediately “like” or foods that appeal to just these preferences can foster some very unhealthy food and intake preferences in the long run, re: Happy Meal Mongers.
The interesting thing is that all of these signals, even the inherent food preferences, can be altered or overridden by environmental and psychological influence. In fact, research has shown that of all the factors that influence diet preferences, it is these genetic preferences that are the weakest.
The strongest influence on food preferences? Exposure to a given food. Simply put, children can and will learn to like healthy foods if parents are persistent. Conversely, if served a limited and unhealthy diet, this will become a child’s preference.
Nutrition studies show that repeated exposure will overcome even the strongest of food preferences, the desire for sweet. New research (Menella et. Al.) also suggests that a fetus’ experiences with food flavors in the amniotic fluid can help encourage acceptance and enjoyment for similar foods later on. This is encouraging news since pregnancy is the only period of our parental experience where we do have full control over our child’s diet. This new finding gives women all the more reason to maintain a healthy diet during pregnancy.
Early childhood marks the foundation years for a child’s food preferences. In fact, many of these preferences and food-related behaviors are set as early as age two, with few of these preferences changing even after the next five years. Indeed, the number of foods a child will like at age eight can be predicted from the number of foods they eat at age four. Even at age four, however, some of a child’s preferences are for foods not introduced by parents. Beyond age two (and those parents going through “terrible two’s” would say during) external influences enter the picture. As I am coming to realize, It’s a narrow window for us parents, a very narrow window.
For the first year, feeding time is a central component of the parent-child relationship, a shared experience that not only nourishes, but establishes trust and a sense of security. As table foods are introduced, and as children ages 1-5 experience rapid intellectual and physical development, food behaviors and preferences move away from this complete dependence to a need for more control. We parents have all heard it; yes, it’s the dreaded phrase: “I do it!” This particular phase can be the backdrop to a tableside power struggle that is all about control and nothing to do with food.
This newfound independence has an associated set of food behaviors. There is the fear of anything new known as neophobia, Better known to parents as Vegaphobia, or, in my case, The Battle of Orange Foods. Next, there is the tendency to favor only certain foods as exemplified by the week-long Mac-n-Cheese strike many of us parents encounter.
And, perhaps the strangest of all, the odd anxiety created by having foods on the same plate touch. For this last one, the answer is as simple as a $1.99 melamine “lunch tray” available at Target. For the other two, well, those are only solved by endurance and perseverance. Whoever said parenting is for the weak? Those of you prepared for battle, read on.
It is a battle of inches, and a few inches forward one day only to fall back the next. The goal is a finish line way off in the distance, and in between all we can do is try and have a balanced diet in them over the course of a week. The reasons kids do not like a certain vegetable often has nothing to do with the vegetable itself. Among these reasons are the inherited sensitivity to bitter tastes, bland preparation, or negative conditioning attached to the food as in the parental classic, “If you don’t eat your vegetables, you can’t have dessert.”
In the latter context, the target food becomes an obstacle in the path of a desire, not a good context. At this point, you, the parent, are conditioning your child to dislike that vegetable even more. Healthy encouragement to try new foods without punishment or a controlling context, and a positive eating environment are key ingredients for raising a healthy eater.
Other key ingredients to the resolving the situation are persistence and a well-stocked pantry. In one study, children were given ten exposures a day to the taste of a new vegetable, red pepper. The study showed that frequency of exposure led to increased liking and consumption of the vegetable. Similar results were seen when the same vegetable was presented to a group of kids once a day for fourteen consecutive days. Fourteen. Seems like it would be a challenge to figure out fourteen dishes, or even ten different ways to get red pepper on a plate without including it in every dish plus a couple desserts. Suddenly, it all sounds more like an episode of Iron Chef than a family dinner.
While you don’t have to be an Iron Chef, creativity and a bit of research on all the ways to prepare a given food item can certainly make things easier, and even an enjoyable cooking challenge for parents — if they like cooking.
Finally, the most important ingredient is you. In fact, the strongest predictor of fruit and vegetable consumption by children ages 2-6 is the amount of these foods that are consumed by the parents. It makes a lot of sense. Why would a child want to eat a food that no one else wants to eat? You, yes, you have to eat your vegetables, too. This role modeling is important, both for direct learning, “this is what we eat,” and indirect role modeling, “new foods are a fun adventure, it is healthy to eat well, and these foods are enjoyable.”
Of course in order to model good food behavior, you also have to eat with your children. Family dinners are important both for nutrition and social reasons. Significant numbers of separate studies have found that regular family meals at home are associated with a healthier diet and a tendency for kids to make better grades and be less likely to try drugs and alcohol.
Importantly, if parents are maintaining a healthy diet, it means that the foods available in the home include healthy choices. Children are pretty much a captive audience, at least for the first few years. They will learn to eat what is in the home — even if it is not their favorite.
Some additional, helpful resources on the topic are listed below:
Eric Schlosser's "Super Healthy, Not Supersize" on Epicurious.com
Marion Nestle's "What to Eat" links
Dr. Sears' "Feeding Toddlers" 17 Tips for Pleasing the Picky Eater
(This is NOT, however, a recommendation for Juice Plus or any products he sells). The tips are good. Talk to your doctor about any supplements for your child.
Part II of this article will cover the other influences on food choices that we parents have to deal with including; social relationships, neighborhood, community, institutional (schools), as well as large-scale influences like culture, food systems, economics and marketing.