I think a lot of moms would agree that they want their kids to eat healthy. I have a pretty big circle of mom friends and I see a lot of different struggles- some are picky eaters, others won’t eat at all, some may want to eat all the time, others hate vegetables but will eat fruit all day long, some have only 2 foods in their diet they will eat- there is a long list of feeding issues that are commonly seen in kids. Fortunately, when they are young they can be molded to appreciate healthy foods. It gets much harder when they get to be adults (trust me, I spent the first 4 years of my career trying to get adults to change their eating habits). The fascinating thing is, a child’s food preferences are actually already starting to form when they are in utero. The foods that a pregnant mother eats make up the flavor of the amniotic fluid that the baby gets. Hmmm….no wonder Carli loves cupcakes so much. In all honesty (and sympathy) for my pregnant mamas out there, I know how hard it can be to eat a super healthy diet while pregnant. My first trimester I couldn’t even look at vegetables and only wanted cheese pizza (deep dish) and mashed potatoes. Luckily by my second trimester I wasn’t so sick and enjoyed healthy foods again.
Acceptance for certain foods is also developed through the flavors an infant is exposed to through breastmilk. Babies who are breastfed are more likely to accept a variety of different foods into their diet at a young age because they are exposed to so many different flavors through their mother’s breastmilk. There is research to support this, but every child is different. I know of a couple babies who were breastfed until they were 2 and are very picky eaters (even as adults!). On the other hand, Carli is a poster child for this. I was able to breastfeed until she was 14 months old and she will eat anything you put in front of her. I’m not a picky eater either, and consumed a healthy diet with a variety of foods while I breastfed her. Does she like healthy foods and accept any food placed in front of her because I maintained a healthy diet while breastfeeding? I can’t say for sure, I guess we’ll find out with the next! I’m guessing that with the growing amount of evidence around this, it probably did play a role. This doesn’t mean that it’s completely hopeless for your formula fed baby to accept a variety of healthy foods. It also doesn’t mean that if a mother who exclusively breastfeeds her baby and eats only potato chips and Chickfila during that time is going to have a kid that only prefers those foods. When kids start eating solid foods it’s our job as parents to guide them. This happens in a couple of ways. First, we need to be an example of what eating a healthy diet looks like. Kids who see their parents eat fast food for every meal aren’t going to miraculously prefer quinoa and Brussels sprouts over French fries. Kids learn by watching what their parents eat. It’s important to include kids at mealtime (eating together as a family) and provide a balanced meal to help our kids see what foods are included in a healthy diet. I encourage parents to have lots of color in the meal- brightly colored fruits and vegetables make the meal “pop” and can make it more fun for kids to eat. And bonus- the more color your kids are getting through fruits and vegetables, the more nutrition they are getting. Get them involved in the meal too. Help them pick the fruit (in my house fruit is dessert- it’s sweet!)- “Strawberries or pineapple tonight?” When kids get a choice in what they get to eat they are more likely to accept that food and eat it. After cutting up vegetables for a salad ask your child to place the chopped veggies in the salad and mix it. Ask their opinion on what color vegetable they would like to eat for supper that evening. If it won’t take years off your life, take your child(ren) grocery shopping and ask them to help you pick out healthy snacks and ingredients for meals that week. The more kids are involved in making these healthy choices, the more likely they are to accept them. I understand that your child may be so picky that none of these tactics work. Be patient- it can take a child up to 10-15 exposures of a food for acceptance to occur. Each time you introduce a new food just ask them to take one bite. After that one bite is up, don’t fight it. Food battles can make the picky eating even worse. I advise to try putting unaccepted vegetables into some of their favorite dishes. Putting broccoli (chopped up very small is usually better accepted) into macaroni and cheese, adding finely shredded zucchini to spaghetti and putting red peppers on pizza are some ideas. Some kids may prefer raw veggies with a yogurt-based dip or hummus over steamed or roasted vegetables. Some kids may prefer the opposite- when roasting veggies in the oven with a little bit of Olive oil and spices they lose their sulfur taste and tend to become a bit sweeter. For kids that will absolutely not touch veggies no matter what you do- keep trying with the one bite rule. It took me probably 684 bites to finally accept broccoli- now it’s my favorite food! In addition to that I would use the good old hiding trick -aka squeezies- or pouches- or whatever you want to call them. Most kids who hate vegetables love these because they are essentially pureed vegetables with fruit. The sweetness of the fruit overpowers the bitterness of the vegetables. I’m not saying to go out and buy the pouches, you can just as easily make this at home in the form of a smoothie. Blend yogurt or milk (or both) with frozen fruit and vegetables. Vegetables that work best for this are spinach, shredded carrots, shredded zucchini, cucumber, sweet potato and broccoli. I recommend to add more fruit than veggies, otherwise it will probably be rejected. Keep in mind that toddlers need about 1 cup of vegetables per day and school-aged kids need about 1.5-2.5 cups per day. Lastly, don’t get stressed out if your child loves and prefers calorie-laden foods. This is normal and we are born with a natural desire for these foods. Preparing your child to make healthy choices most of the time as an adult should be a goal, and demonstrating balance with foods high in sugar and empty calories will help your child learn how to have a healthy relationship with food.