Yummy or Yucky—What Kids Think About Food

by Jo-Ann Heslin, MA, RD, CDN on October 29, 2006 · 0 comments

“I hate broccoli! I want spaghetti with no sauce! Take the crust off the bread!” Sound familiar?

The eating behavior of young children is often unpredictable and frustrating. Parents sit by anxiously, convinced their child is starving. Yet, this seemingly “starving” child is the picture of health and has boundless energy.

Preschoolers are mimics, learning and copying behaviors and attitudes from those around them. Between the ages of 1 and 3, eating becomes part of your child’s overall development. In all cultures, this is when kids learn what is “food” – edible, appropriate, neutral, taboo, or desirable.

When a small child eats, he sees, touches, feels, smells, and may finally put the food in his mouth. Peas roll, spaghetti wiggles, and crackers break. These textural experiences– though messy–are a normal part of development.

Children cannot categorize food into groups based on nutrition. This is far too complex for their level of development. They classify foods into sweet and unsweet, or good and bad categories. If she likes it, “yum.” If he hates it, “yuck.” As children grow these classifications become more complex but they stay grounded in likes and dislikes.

Many things trigger likes and dislikes – color, texture, mouth feel, appearance, and smell. What you regularly eat will be a major influence. Combination dishes are more often rejected than accepted because kid’s taste buds are more acute and blends may be perceived as unpleasant rather than flavorful. Simple foods, like “naked” spaghetti, are more likely to be eaten. But don’t think you can slip in green noodles and get away with it.

Color is a key to food acceptance. Browns, gravies and meat, may meet with a “no, “but red foods are a go. Experimentation with new foods often comes through association with peers. Your child may come home from a playmate and declare he loves green beans.

Avoid the temptation to snap, “You’d never eat them at home.” Hard as it may be to get it out, try “That’s great!” instead.

Research has verified that those parents who try hardest to get their kids to eat right wind up with the pickiest eaters. Kids are smart. If you worry openly about what and when they eat, you’ve just given them a powerful weapon to use against you. Stay calm, hold on to your sense of humor. This too, shall pass.

Don’t use food as a pacifier, reward or punishment. These tactics give food an emotional value that can become a lifelong response to eating.

Don’t worry about how little your kid eats. Babies triple their weight in their first year but small children increase their size by only 12% annually.

Be a good example. If you eat erratically and make lousy choices, how can you expect your child to do otherwise?

Limit less desirable foods. But, don’t forbid them. Off limit foods only become more desirable.

If your child won’t eat vegetables, serve fruits. Both offer similar nutrients.

At each meal, eat 3. Have your child pick 3 different foods at each meal. The combinations may be laughable – chicken, banana, bread – but variety is the cornerstone of good eating.

Let your child help you cook. Kids who help prepare food are more likely to eat it.

Don’t make vegetables the thing you eat to get ice cream. This devalues those healthy choices and may lead to lifelong rejection.

Bizarre meals and food jags are normal. It’s simply a way for your child to exercise some autonomy in their struggle to separate and become independent.

Pediatricians report they get more questions about eating than anything else. Your concern about what your child eats is as normal as her strange eating behavior.

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