5 ways to get kids to eat better.

5 ways to get kids to eat better.

Having not had children myself, I should probably refrain from giving you parenting advice. However, like a true millennial, I’m incapable of not sharing my opinions.

If you’ve read any of my other articles, you’ll know that I’m a big fan of vegetables. It’s especially important that children get in the habit of eating vegetables early on, as this can impact the development of their nervous system.

You’re probably no stranger to the fact that it can be quite a struggle to get kids to eat vegetables. Parents frequently become masters of deception, crouching over their special pots preparing mixtures of beans, meat and broccoli, while their innocent children are none the wiser. Spooning aeroplanes of mush towards their little faces in the hopes that said mush will actually make it into their mouths and provide enough nutrients so that they don’t end up with scurvy or rickets.

Why are they so darn difficult?

I know it sounds harsh, but it could partially be your fault. Or even your parents fault. Or your grandparents fault. 

Studies have shown that the more vegetables a mother eats during pregnancy and breastfeeding, the more likely it is that her baby will grow up liking vegetables too.

Equally, if the mother eats a lot of sugar or gains too much weight during pregnancy, her child is more likely to be overweight and develop diabetes. Our taste buds and food preferences are developing even in utero! We never rest, do we?

Frighteningly, our lifestyles (diet, stress, alcohol, smoking, activity) can turn genes on and off in our DNA. When we have kids, we pass these genetic tendencies onto them, then they pass them onto their kids. This area of research is called epigenetics and it’s probably one of the most fascinating things on earth. Move over gut microbiome and quantum physics, you’ve had your time. 

The more research that’s conducted into epigenetics, the more we see how compliant our genetic makeup can be. You may not be destined for the same health problems your parents and grandparents had, should you decide to live your life differently.

1. Your diet changes your genes, and your children’s genes.

You may be able to influence how easy it is for your children to eat healthy by how healthily you eat prior to having children. You can turn genes on and off that dictate how predisposed they might be to liking almond Magnums, for example. Sigh, the responsibilities of parenting begin even before you have kids…

Have the dads tuned out yet?

I hope not, the paternal diet has shown to have a significant influence on a child’s health too.

One study indicated that a food shortage for the grandfather was linked to an extended lifespan of his grandkiddies. Food abundance, sadly, was linked to a shortened lifespan of the grandkids (from diabetes or heart disease).

Are these epigenetic processes recording nutritional information about the environment to pass on to the next generation? It certainly seems like it. 

If you’re considering having children, you might want to take a good hard look at your diet in the year or two before you have kids.

Now that I’ve freaked you out with the epigenetics stuff, let’s talk about how kids dislike vegetables again.

2. Should you force your child to eat vegetables?

When babies are born, they have an instinctual preference for sweetness (e.g. mother’s milk). Sweet substances usually contain glucose, which is the key molecule that supplies energy for growth – exactly what a baby needs. Unfortunately, this natural desire for sweet stuff never seems to completely disappear. This may explain my love/hate relationship with Toblerone. We actively need to compete with this sweet preference to maintain a healthy diet.

Once upon a time, this sweet preference might have kept us alive until reproductive age, but now we’re inundated with sugar laden foods, it’s become something of an epidemic.

Evolution has set us up for disaster!

The problem with vegetables is that they’re bitter. Kids are born with a huge number of ‘bitter’ receptors on their tongues. This results in them having an extremely unpleasant, bitter experience when chowing down on that broccoli. Vegetables really do taste gross to them.

Natural selection has led to babies being born with this heightened sensitivity to bitter flavours, as often bitter foods are poisonous. Basically, over time, all of the bitter-loving babies died because they loved eating poison, whilst the sweet-loving babies lived on to procreate. Evolution is cruel.

So what can you do to get your little one to eat more vegetables?

Many studies have shown that the more vegetables that a child eats growing up, the more they learn to like them. Yes, if you force them to eat broccoli repeatedly, in a socially positive setting, eventually their tastebuds will change, and they will like broccoli. This is true with adults that don’t like vegetables as well. Your tastebuds replace themselves every 3 weeks or so, so it doesn’t take long to see a transformation occur. It’s just a matter of persevering.

Did your parents ever say to you “If you eat your vegetables, then you can have dessert”? Research tells us that this will make a child eat more vegetables then and there, but it significantly decreases the child’s preference for vegetables in the long term. Avoid saying this to your kids.

3. Should you ban junk food from the house?

Perhaps your parents restricted your access to junk food when you were a youngster? Research shows that when a child that has been restricted then has free access to unhealthy foods, they show a stronger preference and consume much more than a child that has never had restrictions. If you want your child to grow up being able to maintain a balanced diet throughout their lifetime, banning junk food is not the answer.

The best thing you can do for your child is to provide an abundance of healthy foods and to create positive interactions around these foods. Have a little bit of junk food available, but perhaps just to have on the odd occasion.

4. Don’t serve your child food, let them do it!

Research shows that adults often overestimate how much food a child needs. Letting your child serve their own plate, from as from as early an age as possible, will help them to naturally learn portion control and listen to their hunger signals. A very useful tool for their future.

5. Be a good role model.

As your child grows older, they will look to your plate to see what you are eating, and they will copy you. When children see you frequently eating certain foods, they become familiar with these foods and consider them ‘safe’. What we see as safe and familiar can dictate our food preferences. Be sure to set a good example for your kids (no pressure). 

Food marketing and the school environment have also been shown to have a big impact on children’s food preferences. As 1 in 4 children are overweight or obese in Australia, the need for responsible school canteens has never been greater. 

Still, there is hope.

Children are very capable of liking vegetables; it will just take persistence, effort and time. You may have to try to make ludicrous smiley faces with your child’s vegetables, or sneakily hide them among other less bitter foods, but you will get there! 

If you’re an adult and you don’t like vegetables, there’s hope for you too. Please waiter, a round of salads to celebrate my new vegetable-loving friends and their vegetable-loving children!

Lucy x

References

McGowan P.O., Meaney M.J., Szyf M. (2008). Diet and the epigenetic (re)programming of phenotypic differences in behavior. Brain Research, 1237: 12-24 (subscription required).

Kaati G., Bygren L.O., Pembrey M., Sjostrom M. (2007).Transgenerational response to nutrition, early life circumstances and longevity. European Journal of Human Genetics, 15: 784-790.

Dolinoy D.C., Weidman J.R., Waterland R.A., Jirtle R.L. (2006).Maternal Genistein Alters Coat Color and Protects Avy Mouse Offspring from Obesity by Modifying the Fetal Epigenome. Environmental Health Perspectives, 114:567-572.

Dolinoy D.C., Huang D., Jirtle R.L. (2007).Maternal nutrient supplementation counteracts bisphenol A-induced DNA hypomethylation in early development. PNAS, 104: 13056-13061. 

Kucharski R., Maleszka J., Foret S., Maleszka R.Nutritional Control of Reproductive Status in Honeybees via DNA Methylation (2008). Science, 319: 1827-1830 (registration required).

Mennella, J. A., & Bobowski, N. K. (2015). The sweetness and bitterness of childhood: Insights from basic research on taste preferences. Physiology & behavior, 152, 502-507.

Ventura, A. K., & Worobey, J. (2013). Early influences on the development of food preferences. Current biology, 23(9), R401-R408.

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