Would you tell your child to give up on riding a bike just because she fell on her first try? Probably not. Giving up is not something we teach our kids when it comes to learning a new skill. This is true with the exception of one skill: Eating. Ever wondered why we allow children to give up on broccoli, or any other food, simply because they didn’t like it on their first try?
When it comes to encouraging healthy eating habits in our children, we shouldn’t give up. Eating is a learned behavior and children are not born picky eaters. Babies begin to develop an appreciation for food as early as the womb and continue to refine their eating skills throughout the rest of their life. Yet as parents, we tend to think of eating as behavior that is established and not as a skill we can improve. Research finds the latter to be true. As parents, we can foster a new generation of healthful eaters by simply speaking to children about eating as a skill they can learn and not as a trait that defines them.
The Tricycle Stage
As humans, we first begin to practice this skill called eating during the infancy stage. Research shows that babies are most receptive to trying new flavors between the ages of 4 and 7 months. As parents, this is a time when we control what we feed our children. Combine that ability with babies’ curiosity and it becomes a key opportunity to introduce varied and bold flavors, rather than bland or highly sweetened foods. Consult with your pediatrician first, then give yourself as well as your baby the chance to experiment with a gamut of tastes during this stage.
Keep in mind that just because your baby spits out the beets three times doesn't mean it's a failed mission. Just like falling off the tricycle three times doesn’t mean it’s a lost cause! Similar to any skill we learn, babies need to taste new flavors several times to become accustomed to them. If the beets end up on the floor on the first day, give it a few days and try again. Your baby will likely recognize the flavor on the second or third (or fourth!) try and realize it's just good food after all. Never force your baby to eat something she's rejecting, but don't give up on food or your baby, either. Food and babies are a delicate balance of exploration and palate formation. This is the beautiful part about learning. With repeated practice comes familiarity, and with familiarity comes expertise. If we compare it to riding a bike, introducing solids is what we call the “tricycle” stage.
The Training Wheels Stage
As children get older, their flavor preferences are more defined and introducing anything new becomes more challenging. But being older doesn’t mean we can’t ever learn to ride a bike, right? It just means it may take more time to condition our bodies. Similarly, eating is something children can learn and get better at at any age. All we need to do is change our approach. If we begin to speak to kids about eating as something they have control over and not something that is rigid, we are empowering them with the skills they need to make healthier choices. If we explain that eating anything is something they can learn to perfect by practicing, then eating anything becomes more accessible, attainable and even fun. This is what we refer to as the “training wheels” stage.
In practical terms, if your toddler or school aged child turns his face at the sight of spinach, then explain that he’ll only get good at eating spinach if he practices. He’ll probably even learn to like the flavor if he’s consistent and keeps trying. He doesn’t have to eat a whole dish on the first try, but a tiny bite on a regular basis will make the flavor of spinach more familiar and palatable over time. Make the analogy to any sport or activity he likes. Remind him how he got really good at that very skill by practicing and not giving up. Becoming a healthful, adventurous eater requires the same amount practice and determination as any other skill.
Eventually, if we speak to children enough about eating as a new skill, and encourage them to become strong eaters, they may start to approach meal times very differently. Instead of sitting at the dinner table with a resistance agenda, they may sit at the table with an open mind. They will start to realize that not liking something doesn’t define them, and that they have the ability to affect what they do like by practicing. This is the “bike riding” stage. The training wheels are off, the bike may still be shaky, but they’re ready to take a ride!
Studies show that by exposing our children to the same flavors multiple times and in different settings, they become more accepting of those same flavors over time. What you introduce now, will impact what they gravitate towards as they get older. In other words, practice makes perfect. And yet, 1 out of every 4 parents draws premature conclusions around their child's food preferences after merely two or fewer exposures. Would you ever give up on your child’s bike riding abilities after two tries? We need to keep practicing!
The Eating Trail
If you’re starting in the infancy stages, consult with your pediatrician first. Once your child is ready, we recommend starting with bold, flavorful foods so that acceptance and appreciation sets in from the beginning. Your baby will begin to enjoy the taste of garlic, thyme, broccoli, and kale from those early meals and acquire the taste for savory foods that will prepare her for what she will encounter as she grows older. If you’re starting in the toddler or school aged phase, then speak to kids about this incredible skill they can learn called eating. Empower them to make healthier choices that can help them grow bigger and stronger, and most importantly, encourage them to practice instead of giving up.
In the book “First Bite: How We Learn To Eat,” author Bee Wilson has compiled decades of research on human predisposition to flavors, studies on infant nutrition and the way we learn to eat from our first bite through adulthood. It is a great resource for parents who are now beginning to introduce their children to solids. It is further proof that we need to change how we approach eating with our children and even ourselves!
Eating is a learned behavior and one in which parents play an active role. To foster a habit of healthy eating in the future, we can’t quit at the first sign of resistance. We need to get back on that bike. Together, we can all ride into a healthier future if we just keep practicing!