The True Key to Instilling Healthy Eating Habits in Children
When an unfamiliar food appears at the family dinner table, often this sacred place of communion summarily shifts to a hostile battleground, pitching parents against their young kids in the struggle to nourish them. Amongst the various domains of child rearing, the inculcation of good eating habits is one of the most common sources of frustration, falter, and perceived failure for parents. Even children willing to eat a broad spectrum of plants typically gravitate toward foods high in sugar, starch and salt, ensuring the clean slate of each new mealtime is fraught with Sisyphean futility.
Parents racked with guilt or resigned to their bad luck should factor in that the opposition they face is rooted in human biology. Human beings are hardwired to avoid bitterness in food as a survival mechanism against poisonous plants. Further compounding the problem, the body was biologically designed before refrigerators and prior to the Industrial Revolution. Though food is now plentiful, our antiquated brains still reward the consumption of sweet and fatty sustenance because it packs the biggest caloric punch and thus offers the most substantial store of fuel.
In a New Yorker article by Michael Specter entitled “Freedom from Fries” (November 2, 2015 issue), Specter explains the brain’s euphoric response to unhealthy food:
“There is also a biological component to our addiction to fast food. Because our brains evolved at a time when food was scarce, we are biologically pre-disposed to consume a diet that is high in calories, sugar, and fat. And that is exactly what Happy Meals, and most supermarkets, offer. When you eat a Big Mac, your blood sugar soars. Your brain then releases a flood of chemicals, such as dopamine, that induce pleasure and contribute to a tendency to eat compulsively. At high enough levels, the salt and sugar in food can be addictive; you crave them like a drug.”
Thus it stands to reason that when adults make healthy eating choices, it is their good sense diverting them from their natural impulses. However, according to British food writer Bee Wilson, the eating choices we make as adults are formulated long before the decision is even made. Delving into the psychology and neurology behind eating habits in her new book First Bite: How We Learn to Eat, Wilson draws powerful connections between memory and food established as early as the fetal stage and extending throughout childhood and adolescence.
As it turns out, the circumstances under which a child consumes food leaves an indelible imprint on a child’s feelings about those tastes. In other words, the memory of eating a certain food—the feelings present at the time of consumption and thus associated with that memory—is a stronger determinant of whether or not a child will cultivate a taste for it than the actual flavor of the food itself!
So much for a parent’s attempt to turn good eating into a rehearsed routine. In reality, if parents want their children to practice ritualistic healthy eating, it is happy new memories—rather than learned habits—they must attempt to instill. Healthy foods become happy, or unhappy, memories at first bite, Bee Wilson claims. It is the moment when a child’s brain delivers the emotional verdict that food will carry with it for a long, perhaps even indefinite, time.
As a parent, how to turn that child’s first bite of something into a positive experience can pose a real challenge. It rules out bartering, badgering, forcing, and guilt-tripping techniques. It calls on a parent’s depth of creativity, imagination, patience and empathy, which are some of the most challenging tools to access at the end of a long day when the focus is on getting the family fed and off to bed. Yet mustering that forethought, cleverness, and playfulness in the context of food introduction can preempt the cycle of antagonism at the dinner table for years to come.
For parents thinking ahead to when their offspring become satellites orbiting home more often than residing there, below are some ideas on how to transmit positive signals while kids are still in range to receive them.
1. Pleased to Make Their Acquaintance
Farmer markets provide a unique opportunity to teach kids about the variety of familiar and unfamiliar vegetables and fruits that comprise the cornucopia from which they can eat. The experience of being outdoors, amongst crowds of people, and on an adventure with Mom or Dad is a child’s idea of good dining ambiance. Tasting off of a table of brightly colored samples, rather than from the mandated selection on a dinner plate, is a perceived privilege and a chance for a child to exercise agency and expand his or her palate.
2. For Every Season
When angling to make a positive first impression, put a food’s best foot forward by introducing it at its peak. Asparagus are woody and bland in the winter, but tender and sweet in the spring. Out-of-season boxed tomatoes from Mexico bare almost no resemblance to the juicy, sugary tomatoes of summer. Though so many fruits and vegetables are now available year-round, it’s better to wait until the season deals favorable odds.
3. Surround Nature's Bounty with Nature Itself
Pack picnics and plan hunger-inducing activities. Lunch is just lunch, but a picnic is an event. Most children relish being outside and the serendipity of doing something special and different. A picnic activates the imagination, sunshine stimulates positive mood, and an eagerness to embrace the experience may spill over into the picnic basket.
4. Eating Hand to Mouth
Visiting farms or growing even a modest garden at home will not only teach kids the provenance of their nourishment, it provides the opportunity for picking and eating right out of the garden, which trumps any other preparation imaginable. Fruits and vegetables are also at their most sublime when perfectly ripe and freshly harvested.
5. The Uptown Advantage
Children revere the privilege of partaking in special adult activities. Though instinct guides us to “family-friendly” restaurants when dining out with children, given the opportunity, children often rise to the occasion in more challenging environments. In situations that command maturity, most children would rather prove themselves up to the task than too infantile to participate. Try the occasional dinner out at a moderately sophisticated, quiet restaurant and let them know that ordering off the regular menu means eating like an adult too.
Above all, keep the eating fun, fresh, and interesting. Remember that the key to imparting a healthy diet throughout childhood that is actually carried into adulthood is better met by instilling happy memories than striving to cultivate a behavior of good habits.