As a nutrition scientist whose work focuses on the role of diet in childhood obesity, I wish I could tell parents to avoid introducing sweets, calorie-dense snacks, or sugar-sweetened beverages to their children. However, as a mom of a toddler and a preschooler, I know better. Not only are high calorie “junk” foods impossible to avoid in our food environment, but research supports that restrictive feeding practices often lead to children with a high preference for restricted foods and those who struggle with overeating when these foods are available.1 These findings put pressure on parents, myself included, to strike the right balance between promoting healthy foods while allowing your children to eat the foods they prefer most. The trick…parents can influence their child’s food preferences.
We are born with a preference for sweetness. Other preferences are generally learned through exposure, such that foods that are introduced first and most frequently, often become those a child likes best.2 Simply put, ‘children like what they know, and they eat what they like’.3 Several researchers have spent their careers trying to identify how food preferences are formed. Here are a few things their research suggests:
Instead of introducing infant cereal as your child’s first food, try a pureed vegetable mixed with breast milk or formula first. This will not only increase your child’s familiarity with veggies, but it may affect his/her affinity for the food group. Just remember, it can take multiple introductions for a child to accept, let alone like, a new food.4,5
Foods differ in their taste, smell, and appearance, so it can take time for a child to accept a new food. Help increase the likelihood that your child will accept a new food by providing the opportunity to first experience it (touch it, smell it, taste it) without the pressure of eating a whole bowl.
Studies with older preschool- and school-age children suggest that kids will eat more vegetables when they are served 1) alone before the a meal and 2) in a large portion as compared to when they are served as part of a meal.6-8
A parent eating a food is a strong predictor of child consumption. Research shows that when attempting to get a child to eat a new food, parent modeling is more effective than simply offering the food to the child.9