Children cannot control what food is put in front of them, but they learn from a young age they can reject or accept the food in front of them. Children also learn that this rejection or acceptance of food can strongly influence the adults’ emotions. If adult emotions run high at the table, this can influence a child’s eating pattern and food memories.
Below are some of the main factors that influence food intake in children and how that can influence them long term. Whether a child eats “good” or “bad” right now, keep in mind these food patterns CAN change later in life. We still don’t know everything about food choices as a child and how that influences us later in life.
Around one year of age, a baby goes through a drastic change from a sole food source (milk) to trying various adult food tastes. This is their main way of learning and discovering new tastes and foods and they, for the most part, try new foods eagerly. As the toddler grows, eating behaviors can become unpredictable which can be stressful for parents and caregivers.
An encouraging reminder: During toddler years, parental modeling has been shown to play a significant role in establishing long term eating behaviors. Whether your toddler is eating the vegetables you put in front of him or not, an important consideration is what are YOU eating in front of him/her? Even if they don’t eat the same foods at the time, your eating choices can influence their eating choices later in life.
Peer and siblings also have a strong role in influencing child-eating. If kids in their classroom eat vegetables, this can encourage a child to try new foods. Vice versa, if siblings or peers are not eating healthy, this can also influence a child’s eating habits.
Taste preferences in childhood
In any given family, taste preferences can vary tremendously. True, there is some genetic component to taste, and some people truly have more taste buds and acuity than others. However, even with the genetic and taste differences, eating is still mainly a learned behavior. The main way to see what people eat is not what your genes are (biological) but where are you from (environmental).
A child’s (and adults as well) favorite foods are ones they know; liking is a consequence of familiarity. Children with severely limited food patterns can lead to adults that continue to have severe, limiting food choices. Continuing to expose children to different foods can encourage more varied food intake even through adulthood.
On average, it can take 12 exposures to a food before a child tries a new food. An exposure does not mean taste; it can mean seeing a food, talking about it, etc. Therefore, one way to positively influence a child’s food patterns long term is to continue to expose them to new foods instead of only offering foods to them they already like.
Similar to taste preferences, food memories can have a lasting influence throughout adulthood. Think about your own food memories from childhood. What foods or food patterns are associated with pleasurable memories? If eating peas, for example, is associated with memories of conflict and force, chances are the child will continue to associate peas with these memories through adulthood.
Food memories also involve memories of food preparation and HOW a food was eaten. Are we leaving kids in our life pleasant memories of food eaten as a family meal? Are we passing down memories to kids of making food with mom/dad/grandma/grandpa/etc?
How can I get my kids to eat healthily? This is a question I hear from many parents, and there are varying opinions on the best methods for getting kids to eat healthily. However, research suggests pressuring children to eat fruits and vegetables does not lead to increased intake. Again, parental modeling has been shown to promote long term food influences.
Whether your toddler is eating the vegetables you put in front of him or not, an important consideration is what are YOU eating in front of him/her?
Exposing children to different foods does not have to be done at mealtimes. If mealtime emotions run high and feel like a battle zone, you can implement trying new foods throughout the day. For example, in between meals, you may set a norm that the child needs to try new food. It can be a tiny, tiny minuscule bite. In fact, this may be the best approach instead of trying to force a child to eat 3-5 bites of a new food.
Doing this instead of always at mealtimes may help ease tensions all the way around.
Hope for picky eaters
Even though taste preferences are really formed in the early years of childhood, take hope that child picky eaters don’t have to stay picky eaters. There are so many variables that can play a positive role in continuing to shape food choices. For example, a powerful variable for influencing food choices may be travel, exposure to other cultures and interacting with people from varied food backgrounds. Life experiences and education can also play a strong influence on shifting someone’s eating pattern. Sometimes psychological or nutritional help is needed from a professional and may be the best help.
For more guidance on picky eating, speak with a registered dietitian. First Bite: How We Learn to Eat by Bee Wilson is also a great resource for going deeper in this topic.