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2018-19 Eat Smart. Play Hard Magazine

2018-19 Magazine

2018-19 Eat Smart. Play Hard. Magazine

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Healthy Eating for Infants and Children: A Guide for Parents

Where do you start on the journey toward a more nutritious diet for your child? Research suggests that lots of exposure to a variety of healthful food is the way to go.

If you are struggling to get your child to eat healthfully, you are not alone.

The majority of American households do not meet the Healthy Eating Index Guidelines provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). These dietary guidelines are updated every year to meet the current nutrition recommendations.

So where do you start on the journey toward a more nutritious diet for your child? Research suggests that lots of exposure to a variety of healthful food is the way to go.

Mother and Baby

For those who are expecting or planning to conceive soon, the answer is to start now. Research shows that children’s healthful eating habits start in the womb. Because the fetus develops taste buds as early as 15 weeks, the flavors from the foods mom eats during pregnancy reach the child in utero. Flavors of many of the foods mothers eat are present in the amniotic fluid, so babies are exposed to these flavors before they are born.

This process does not stop there. After birth, if mom is breastfeeding, the flavors from her diet still are reaching the child and can influence the child’s food and taste preferences through breastmilk. In exposing your child to a variety of flavors during pregnancy and after birth, you are familiarizing the child with these flavors and giving the child exposure to those foods before the child can eat.


Food Neophobia vs. Picky Eating vs. Finicky Eating

Food neophobia - It is related to the fear of new things and situations. It is defined as the avoidance or unwillingness to eat new foods.

Picky eating - It occurs when a child is not eating an adequate variety of foods and rejects familiar and unfamiliar foods.

Finicky eating - This involves a child being specific about the preparation as well as other aspects of the food (for example, wanting food cut in squares)


Serve Healthful Foods: Try, Try, Try Again!

Children cannot eat healthfuly if they are not exposed to and given healthful foods. Even if your child has rejected the food previously, you can keep reintroducing it.

However, do not continually try to introduce a food your child has rejected during the same feeding in which the food was rejected. Wait until the next feeding or a meal a day or two later. Through time, and with repeated exposures, children will learn to like the foods they rejected at first (with some exceptions).

Do not give up. Evidence indicates that the repeated exposure to food eventually will lead to acceptance of the food. Getting children to finally eat the food may take anywhere from 10 to 20 sessions of offering the food.

Tip: Offer new foods with already well-liked food.

*Please Note: Do not force continued eating if the food is rejected at first taste. Doing so may delay acceptance of any solid food. Try again at another time separate from this feeding/meal time. For more tips on introducing solid foods, see the NDSU Extension publication “Safe Food for Babies and Children: Introducing Solid Foods to Your Baby.”

Should I offer rewards for trying new foods?

Research has shown that offering your child incentives can help increase the acceptance of food. This is because the child will associate the food with a positive outcome.

However, offering a reward is only helpful if it is not a food item. Offer a sticker instead of a cookie or ice cream. Constantly rewarding eating broccoli with a cookie could lead to more robust thinking that broccoli is “bad” and cookies are “good.”


To Eat or Not?

A widespread practice in trying to make your child eat more healthfully is pressuring your child to eat. Encouraging your child to try the food is very different than demanding your child finish the whole portion. The stronger that parents demand their children finish the whole serving of the rejected food, the less willing children are to try new foods.

The practice of having children sit and eat everything on their plate could lead to them being afraid to eat in front of their parents. This is because they fear their parents will be upset with them.

Avoid “Clean Your Plate”

If children constantly are told how much to eat, even past the point of being full, they will begin ignoring their natural cues. If parents constantly are regulating food consumption, children will stop regulating intake on their own.

Set an Example: “Do as I say, not as I do” is outdated

You cannot expect your child to eat something you are unwilling to try. In addition to serving healthful foods, you also must be willing to eat, or at least try, the food. Always eat the food you are trying to get your child to eat in front of your child.

Studies suggest that children follow their parents’ dietary habits and leads. So, if you constantly are talking about disliking a food and unwilling to try new foods, your child will follow your lead.


Savanna Jellison, Doctoral Graduate Research Assistant, NDSU

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