Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Why Kids Eat What They Do (or Don't)

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.


Frugal Mom said...

That post makes so much sense. My older kids are pretty good eaters as far as variety goes. But I do have to admit that when they were smaller our eating habits were quite different. Due mainly to the fact that eating healthy is much more expensive than the alternative. I mean, we have our fruits and veggies and all that, but to eat how we do now...we never could have afforded that option. So, I see a pretty big difference in my littlest and his food choices. He just has more options and I think that will impact him greatly. Whereas the older two are a little more hesitant to pick up and try the newer choices just because they are older when it all began!

The Expatriate Chef said...

It is expensive. We only eat out once a week. I try to pack my lunch. Our grocery bill seems really high, but when you realize you are saving money eating in, it makes a bit more sense. Still, I am sourcing meats direct at a lower cost and looking forward to getting my fresh produce cheaper than at the store once the farmers market opens!

Kathleen O'Connor said...

Great post. I just linked to it for readers here in New York's Lower Hudson Valley at http://kidnutrition.lohudblogs.com.
Persistence has worked pretty well for me and my kids (I have 3 -- the oldest 5, youngest 5 months) when it comes to new foods. Lately though eating together as a family every night, religiously, has had even better results. It's one of those things that once you get into the routine of it you can't believe there was a time when you didn't all eat together!!! (I used to do the "kids" meal at 6 and then an "adult" meal after they went to sleep.) Well I guess the first (and second) are the ones to weather all the parenting mistakes, right? Our third is going to be a perfect eater! LOL.

The Expatriate Chef said...

Hey, thanks Kathleen! I'll be sure to stop by and see your site as well! Glad you found the post helpful, I'm always happy to hear about parents who make family dinner a priority! Glad you stopped by!

Anonymous said...

Great post. We are trying to teach our 18 month old healthy eating habits and so far, he has been a pretty good eater. I'm just curious about introducing new foods. Would you suggest giving the same food consecutively or waiting a day or two in between? I'm never sure if it's better to keep letting him try something new or waiting a few days and then going back to it. In any case, I really am enjoying your blog. Thanks.

SnowBug said...

I'm a little late to the show, but this topic fascinates me. I linked to it on our family site and have heard some great stories.

One of the things that amazes me most: one of our family members, her oldest two eat anything, her youngest eats most anything, but her middle-ish gags at a ton of stuff. He only eats cheese on his tacos... a stray piece of lettuce and he's in the bathroom gagging... We laughed so hard at the story, but it's the point that persistence may work in some cases... but in others, the kid just is born to be picky! :)

Alison said...

This is great. We've had the battle of the orange vegetables, as well. But you're spot on. I can tell you that my little one did not start out as a good eater - she liked sweet things, grocery store rotisserie chicken (which I can barely eat anymore, but that's because I've learned too much), rice, mac and cheese, sweet yogurt, MAYBE carrot sticks, and - oh, yes - those dreaded chicken nuggets. She's becoming a great eater, though. Well, not great, maybe, but much better, and much, much more open to trying new things. The thing that has made the difference, I am convinced, is family dinners. I just got a whole lot more committed to it. And what we serve, we serve - she doesn't get the option of substituting (but we will reserve some of the raw ingredients without spices for her). These dinners have made all the difference in the world - but man, are they hard, and the truth is, she's often plopped down in front of a Disney movie while I cook. Trade off? You bet. But at least we eat better food these days.

Frugalmom is right, though: they are more expensive. It is also expensive in another way: it requires at least one parent who can spend some time in a kitchen (cooking and clean up), which is not a luxury that everyone has. It bothers me that real food, healthful food, is more and more something that is available only to families with resources. There's the $ factor, the time factor, and then there's a kind of viscious cycle (in which the families that grow up not having $ or time then never learn HOW to prepare anything).

The Expatriate Chef said...

It is a juggling act. I think we save money by not going out, I pack my lunches daily, too. But I know I could be smarter with our food budget, too. I rarely cook on weeknights, I rotate leftovers and quick dishes. I plan our purchases and meals and we try to use all of the food we buy. It would seem like processed/prepared foods would be MORE expensive, tho, wouldn't it? Summer is coming. The market is less expensive direct from the farmer. My meats are going to be bought that way, too. All natural, sustainable "grass farmers." No feed lots.

The Expatriate Chef said...

Kathysab, as a rule, I have chosen a new fruit and vegetable of the week, and concentrated on that new food for one week, then something new the next. The food might be prepared a couple different ways in the course of the week, but it keeps a good rotation of new in the mix with familiar. I do serve the same thing a couple nights in a row as well. I don't want to raise a child that thinks leftovers are substandard. That's just too high maintenance for reality!

The Expatriate Chef said...

Alison, one other thought. I LOVE family dinner and eating with the kids, everyone having the same meal. You are so right with this approach. As far as spices go, I had an interesting reference from culinary school on the Montessori method. It talks about sensory education, and expanding all the senses to help build the creativity and independent thinking in the child. The one sense that does not get so much attention is smell. I started taking my child to the spice store (Penzey's) and my own pantry to sit and smell all the different spices as a fun game. It helps build her palate as well. She ate curry the first time she had it, like anise, fennel, allspice ... Here is a post where you can find out more about this.

Alison said...

I love that spice idea. Thanks!

Willa said...

Both of my wsons are grown and gone from home. As infants, we made all the baby food they ate, basically just ground up whatever we were eating. When they were children, we exposed them to lots of different kinds of ethnic foods, and since thier dad and I are "old hippies", we "forced" a whole-wheat, granola sort of eating style on them. It never occurred to me that they would be picky, or refuse to eat something.
When they first got out on thier own, they ate lots of white bread, fast food- "cheap food" is what they told me. They also aligned themselves with women who didn't eat lots of different things. But now that they have been on thier own for a while, I hear them saying things like "I miss the good eggs we always had at home" and "The steak I buy at the supermarket just doesn't taste right, yours is always better" (Yea, it could be a ploy to get me to bring food along when I go visit!) The one I liked best; "I can't believe how many of my friends have never eaten X". And thier wives are learning to branch out, as well. I really do think that catering to kid tastes, feeding them fun foods is detrimental. I never thought about the eating dinner together aspect as influencing eating habits, but I think it makes a lot of sense. We were able to eat dinner as a family as long as they lived at home, and everybody always ate the same thing.


A said...

Kids are simply enticed with what they see, more than what others tell them of or warn them against. That's why they also like to play chefs or cooks in kidkraft retro kitchen to satisfy their curiosity.