As I watched my 5-year-old grandson, Patrick, chow down on a bowl of macaroni and cheese I envisioned his father in my kitchen on the same chair in the same spot eating the same food with the same gusto 25 years ago. Little Patrick doesn’t just resemble my son, his tastes are very similar.
My son loved his pasta and cheeseburgers, though jelly beans and cookies topped his favorite food list. As a young boy, he loved fruit, but vegetables were “eh.” Same story for Patrick.
Research reveals that genetic and environmental factors are both significant in predicting food preferences during the early years. A parent’s DNA passes down a strong influence on nutrient dense foods like fruit, vegetables and protein foods. The environment has a stronger influence on energy dense foods like snacks, dairy and starches.
Vegetables are preferred the least by children, followed by dairy, protein and starch. Not surprisingly, chocolate, cookies, cakes, ice cream, and chips are desired the most. Though when food is scarce as during a war or famine, nutrient-rich foods are preferred for survival.
Parents and grandparents need to consider that even if a study shows that heredity plays a big part in not liking vegetables and that there is a preference for starchy and sweet food, this is no excuse for an unbalanced diet.
The more kids are exposed to certain foods, the more accepted they are. This is especially true for snacks and sweets. Constantly offering these treats on a regular basis to young children reinforces less healthy preferences.
As a nutritionist I have been laughed at by parents who dare me to get their children to eat healthier. Just because a child may be genetically predisposed to dislike certain foods doesn’t mean their likes and dislikes can’t be changed. Children can learn to eat rejected or new foods by repeatedly tasting them. It can take up to 10 to 14 tries of a food before approval occurs. Persistence and repetition bring acceptance.
Too many parents are defeated by a pout or clamped lips. Bribing, bargaining, or scolding does not work. Punishment for not accepting healthier foods is defeating. Consistent exposure without threats is often successful, not immediately but in time.
Parents should be supported while introducing and exposing new and healthier foods to children. Restricting access to sweet or salty snack foods will not make children like vegetables. Limiting snacks or serving them along with healthier foods might be necessary.
As I watch my grown son devour broccoli, carrots, and beets, I wonder what happened to my sweet boy who refused them. Little Patrick will learn, too, that his parent’s persistence will outlast his refusal of healthier options.
Be positive. Be mindful when eating healthy foods in front of children. Be sure to smile and don’t give up. It works.
Bobbie Randall is a registered, licensed dietitian, certified diabetes educator in Wooster, Ohio. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.