It's the most common paraphrase in today's parenting lexicon: "My child is a picky eater. There is nothing I can do, so I just feed him macaroni and cheese. It's all he will eat."
As a parent myself, I know how overworked we are -- after spending 10 hours working and commuting the last thing we want to do is battle our children over something with such a seemingly simple solution. Forget the broccoli, here's the French fries. At least they aren't going to bed hungry, right?
Wrong. Our children's stomachs may technically be full, but they are starving for nutrition. The research is clear about the importance of fruits and vegetables to our kid's mental and physical development and health. And now, thankfully, there is more and more research about how we can help our kids go from being "picky eaters" to veggie lovers.
The bad news is that the old excuses just won't cut it. The good news is it's not your fault your child prefers foods that are bad for them. And the really good news is that introducing new food to your child can be fun and you'll become healthier in the process!
In a recent study published in Physiology & Behavior, Leann Birch and Stephanie Anzman-Frasca explain that for most of our history, humans have lived highly active lifestyles while facing uncertain and irregular food supplies. Therefore, we are genetically predisposed to like the salt and sweet flavors that comprise the energy dense foods that were necessary for the nomadic lives of our ancestors.
However, our lifestyles have changed drastically -- food is now readily available, we live largely sedentary lifestyles and because of this we require nutrient rich foods such as fruits and vegetables over high caloric energy dense foods. Sadly, our genetics haven't caught up. The tastes we are predisposed to enjoy -- sweet and salt -- are found in the lowest nutrient foods, are often the most inexpensive and are in such abundance that it will almost guarantee over-eating.
This is not an excuse. Following the path of least resistance will only help ensure your kids never develop a taste for the healthy foods they need to thrive, increasing your child's chances of obesity and the related health issues, such as diabetes and heart disease. For while our children may have a predisposition to sweet and salt, as the study says, there are a two key ways you help can open their taste-buds and lives to the wonderful world of vegetables!
First and foremost, kids need repeated exposure in a positive environment to enjoy previously unfamiliar, less palatable, nutrient dense foods (i.e. not junk food). Don't worry -- it's not as hard as it sounds! As they are trying these new foods, they need to see the people they love and trust the most -- you! -- eating and enjoying broccoli, spinach and brussel sprouts with them! They may not like it the first time, but don't let that discourage you. After a few nights of trying kale and seeing how much you enjoy it, they will open their little mouths and minds to the super food. Think about it -- would you try a new food when no one around you wants to eat it? Neither will they!
Second, a new vegetable needs to be paired with familiar, palatable food items -- such as the study's example of introducing vegetables with a yummy dip. In pairing a familiar taste with an unfamiliar one, you make the new food instantly more acceptable and give your child's taste-buds the chance to become accustomed to the new taste sensations. As they acquire this taste for the new food, you can slowly remove the dip.
You don't have to do it all at one. Start slowly -- one vegetable at a time, night after night until your child delightfully picks up the green bean with all the joy formerly reserved for fish sticks. Success will build upon itself. As the study says, kids who develop a taste for a few vegetables will be much more open to new vegetables.
Yes, it's really that easy. And while it won't happen overnight, by engaging your children in a nightly ritual of introducing a new wholesome, tasty food, you are setting the stage for your child's eating habits for a lifetime. You'll also be improving your diet to boot! before you know it, without even trying to, that fun, positive environment you created for your child to try new foods will just become the fun time in the evening everyone sits down together for dinner to eat a delicious, healthy meal. Also known as family dinner.
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