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Raising Healthy Eaters

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I’m often asked what parents can do to get their kids to eat healthy. While there are no quick fixes, I’ve gathered a list of proactive, research-based actions parents can take to positively influence their kids eating habits.

While doing my research, I ran across an intriguing article in Choices magazine titled “Smarter Lunchrooms.” It discusses how to use behavioral economics to create healthier habits in school cafeterias. The authors, David Just and Brain Wansink, said something that struck a chord with me:

“When people feel coerced into doing something, they often react to this coercion by intentionally rebelling…. Thus, when people feel as if they have freely and consciously made a decision, they take ownership of that decision and tend to have a greater enjoyment of the outcome.”

The bottom line: we need to ditch the old ways of nagging kids to eat their fruits and veggies and make healthy eating positive, delicious and something kids will want to do when their parents aren’t around.

So with this in mind, let’s see what actions parents can take to help little ones prefer healthy fare:

1. Eat well during pregnancy & lactation: Helping kids accept nutritious fare starts at conception. The amniotic sac not only transmits nutrition but the flavors of the food eaten. Studies show that the wider range of flavors babies are exposed to in utero and through breastmilk, may help to increase their preference for a more diversified diet later on.

A 2001 study published in Pediatrics assigned 46 women to consume either water or carrot juice for 4 weeks, prenatally. When the infants were given carrot flavored cereal at 6 months of age, the babies whose moms drank the carrots juice had few negative expressions and seemed to enjoy the cereal more.

2. Get in as much variety as you can: Most babies, and toddlers under age two, are willing to eat just about anything. Research suggests that the more dietary variety kids get in the very early years, the more accepting they will be later on.

So start with bland fruits and vegetables, but up the ante. Use herbs, spices, garlic and onions to make food taste good. Once kids can eat table foods, let them join you at the dinner table. Your mission is to get them to try as many flavors as possible.

3. Make the unfamiliar familiar (and accessible): Research suggests that repeated exposure is the most powerful tool when it comes to helping children accept new foods. However, experts in behavioral economics say parents need to go a step further by making healthy foods highly accessible, too. Studies show the visibility of food increases desire to eat it. So put an attractive bowl of fruit out on the kitchen table, and veggies and dip when you’re preparing dinner and with meals.

4. Show them how it’s done: “I’ve learned that at this stage, they so much want to be like their parents, so if I’m enjoying a nice green salad and broccoli or asparagus, they want to try it too,” says dietitian and mom of twin preschoolers, Lauren O’Connor, MS, RD.

Now this may not happen automatically for every kid, but research supports the notion that kids are more likely to eat a food when they see their parents eating it.

5. Make time for family meals: Family meals combine the benefits of repeated exposure with role modeling. It also teaches kids how to behave at the dinner table, and gives families time to connect. I know your schedules may be wacky, but get this habit going as soon as you can.

Kathleen Cuneo, PhD, from Dinner Together, says that switching from special kid meals to family meals was the turning point for her now-teenage daughter. “I saw a positive change when I stopped nagging her and we made a commitment to family meals. When I backed off and she was expected to eat from what was made available, she became open to trying new foods.”

6. Entice them with food names: Parents can learn something that restaurant owners already know—you need to make food sound tantalizing. In his studies, Brian Wansink, author of Mindless Eating, demonstrates that the name we give a food can make a big difference in how our children perceive it. In one of his studies, when the researchers called veggies names like “X-ray carrots” or “princess peas” kids were 60% more likely to try it. “Dinosaur broccoli reminds kids of dinosaurs–and they think they are cooler,” he says. “Re-naming food increases its appeal”

7. Use familiar sauces & dressings: Research suggests that children are more likely to accept new foods if they are similar to other recipes they already like. Alexandra Logue, PhD, Psychology Professor and author of The Psychology of Eating and Drinking, discusses how some fussy eaters are super tasters—and she used to be one of them. When she first started eating salad, Logue’s mom put a lot of her favorite dressing in the bowl and a small amount of vegetables. Over time, the dressing quantity decreased and the vegetables increased. This is how she learned to like salads.

8. Engage them in the process: Julie Negrin, certified nutritionist and cooking instructor, knows that getting kids involved in the kitchen can transform their relationship with food. She says that because kids feel little control over their day-to-day environment, helping with meals gives them a sense of ownership, and makes it more likely they will eat the meal.

Negrin says, “I encourage parents to have kids pick out new vegetables at the market or flip through cookbooks for menu ideas. Kids have been helping with the meal preparation in almost every culture for thousands of years. It’s how they find their place in the “tribe” and the world around them.”

9. Help them make the health-body connection: When Angela Lemond, certified pediatric dietitian, works with frustrated parents, she teaches them the three Es: Educate, Expose and Empower. Education helps kids understand how certain foods relate back to the health of their body. “I tell my kids how fruits and vegetables have super-powers. For example, I explain how these super powers put an imaginary shield around their bodies, protecting them from germs and helping their boo-boos heal faster.”

10. Try new foods when they are hungry: You probably notice there are times of day when your child is hungrier than others. Work with your child’s natural appetite rhythm. If they typically eat small amounts at dinner but seem ravenous at lunch, try new foods then. And watch the in-between meal snacking and juice drinking that can be appetite killers.

11. Go for the crunch: It’s not always the taste of veggies that turn kids off, it’s the texture. Researchers from Wageningen University offered kids-ages 4 to 12-carrots and green beans that were steamed, mashed, grilled, boiled or deep fried. The kids preferred the boiled and steamed versions. Why? Because they were crunchier, had little browning, and less of a granular texture. So experiment with different crunchy textures and see how it goes.

12. Pair the new items with old standbys: Lisa Gross, dietitian and mom to two young children, said that when her daughter was two and turned ultra picky, she was tempted to only provide her with her favorite foods (she loved pasta!). “I just kept offering the same food we ate, but always offered fruit, bread and some accompaniment that she would eat. I hoped that she would outgrow this stage, and now that she’s five, it’s much better.

13. Serve fruits and veggies first. According to a 2010 American Journal of Clinical Nutrition study, preschoolers served bigger portions of vegetables as a first course ate 47% more. So put out fruits and veggies while you’re putting the meal together. Your kids might actually eat whole serving of fruits and vegetables, and then some.

14. Make nutritious food fun: When a group of 4 to 7 year-olds was presented two versions of fruit-one cut into fun shapes and the other not-the kids presented with the fun shapes ate twice as much fruit. While the researchers of the study (published in _Appetite_) say that the novelty can wear off, it’s important to remember that kids like fun. And if we can present food in a fun and attractive way, it can pique their interest and desire.

15. Give them a choice: According to Smarter Lunchrooms, requiring kids to take a vegetable to school has no impact on consumption. However, if kids are given the choice between two veggies, they consume 20% more.

When you can, have your child decide between two items, such as peas or carrots, banana or cantaloupe. This makes them feel like they helped make a decision. And they might respond by eating it.

16. Get a ‘big picture’ view: Sometimes when I’m all caught up in what my three-year old is (or isn’t) eating, I have to remind myself of the big picture. She is learning to eat. I’m providing her with a variety of food. Her food environment is positive. She’s going to turn out just fine.

When you think about it, picky eating is really a parent problem. Jennifer from The Mommy Archives said it well, “One of the feeding issues I had was with me. I realized that I was the one that was panicking when I made a meal and he wouldn’t even try it. I would be so worried he wasn’t getting enough nutrients. Once I let that go, and let him set the pace of trying new foods, our meals became so much less stressful.”

If you have other ways we can help encourage our children to eat healthy foods, please comment below.

Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD, is the mother of two, and a registered dietitian. She co-created “The Fearless Feeding Community” in preparation for her first book, due out next year. Maryann is also the founder and creator of Raise Healthy Eaters, a popular blog about family nutrition.

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