Did you know that shaping children’s tastes is the key to improving your family’s nutrition? Children’s organs — like the brain, the heart, and the liver — are only as healthy as the cells they are made of. An excess or deficiency of certain nutrients may affect how cells reproduce, how healthy the cells are and how efficiently they work. Thankfully, it is never too late to reshape our tastes, as our body is constantly making new cells no matter how old we are. Below are 10 ways we can help shape children’s tastes. I recommend choosing one to focus on and continue until it becomes habitat. Small sustainable changes do add up to make big differences in our health!
10 Ways to Shape Children’s Tastes
1. Provide opportunities for food play
Allowing children to play with their food is a great way to expose children to new foods even if they aren’t eating it, they are at least smelling it, touching it and becoming more familiar with the new food. Sometimes, new foods can be scary and overwhelming, so taking the newness out of the food is key. Food play is also a great way to take the pressure of eating and focus on the playing. Children may even start nibbling and they don’t even realize it because they are focused on the creating and playing part. Tic- Tac-Toe is a fun game to play as well as creating food art (rainbows, flowers, people…) and cutting foods into different shapes (stars, circles, flowers) is a fun way to get young children excited about food and get help with picky eaters.
2. Slowly replace snacks with mini nutrient dense meals
Children’s stomachs are only the size of their fists so they tend to get full quickly which is why focusing on fueling their body with fiber, protein, and healthy fat, all important nutrients, are key for our growing children. When I think snacks, chips, crackers, granola bars, and store bought baked goods come to mind. When I think of mini meals I think of nutrient dense foods like cheese, fruit, veggies, nut butter, raw nuts and dried fruit, plain yogurt drizzle with honey and berries, hard boiled eggs, and rice cakes with hummus. Dr. Sears recommends 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight and 9 to 12 servings of fruits and veggies per day. Serving mini meals instead of packaged snacks makes this goal much for achievable.
3. Avoid high fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated oils, artificial sweeteners, artificial flavors, and food dye
Many packaged foods are designed to be addictive: leaving us always wanting more and never leaving us feeling satiated. If children eat a lot of packaged foods with these ingredients, their taste buds are being shaped to appreciate high sugar, high salt, high fat foods. Children become less likely to appreciate real food like an apple or a carrot which are naturally sweet. Our taste buds are programed by the food we eat. Shaping children’s tastes for the better means avoiding these foods (or at least eating them in moderation!).
4. Be a positive role model for your children
Our children notice everything whether we want them to or not! It is important for us to model healthy eating. If we want our children to love salad, we have to love salads or at least eat them and fake it! Young children often prefer food off of their parents’ plate, so fill your plate with a variety of healthy food choices. Model snacking on fruits, veggies, nuts, cheese, and hummus. Buy minimal amounts of packaged foods because if they aren’t in the house then no one will eat them. Present nutritious food as the norm. Dealing with picky eaters often means dealing with ourselves!
5. Provide opportunities to eat healthy but don’t force or control it
Parents who try to control their children’s food end up with children who are more likely to overeat and eat unhealthy foods, possibly leading to an eating disorder. Make sure during meal time, there is at least one healthy food on your child’s plate you know they will enjoy. Shaping children’s tastes doesn’t have to be a fight — allow them some power.
6. Expose children to a variety of new foods
When you are introducing a new food, start by just putting one bite’s worth of their plate. This way it is less overwhelming for the child and there is minimal food waste. I recommend encouraging them to try one bite but don’t force it. A New Foods Chart can be a great way to encourage your child to try the new food so they can rate it. Check out this unconventional idea a fellow writer had to help her children eat more veggies. Encourage children to become involved in the process whether it is growing food, helping prepare food, help shop for food or help with meal planning. The more they are invested in the process the more likely they will become excited about food and eager to try it.
7. Be consistent and keep trying
Food exposure can be a very frustrating process as a parent, but keep trying! If we don’t offer them new foods, they will most likely never learn to appreciate a variety of foods. Try offering the same food in different ways, for example broccoli can be enjoyed raw dipped in dressing, steamed, roasted, added into a grill cheese sandwich, put on top of pizza or mixed into a spaghetti sauce.
8. Surround your children with nutritious food
Be mindful of what is in your pantry. Keep a fruit bowl out on the counter and a container of chopped veggie sticks in the fridge. Make healthy food easily accessible and at eye level. Stock the fridge with real food.
9. Make meal time enjoyable
Focus on the company and not the food. Dinner is a great time to catch up on the day and share what we are grateful for.
10. Encourage a love of cooking in the kitchen
Help your child develop a joy for cooking in the kitchen. If you are looking for a couple healthy baked goods with some added veggies, packed with protein and naturally sweetened with maple syrup check out my blog. The Veggie Muffins and Pumpkin Muffins are both kid tested and parent approved. Enjoy!