If your kids are picky eaters, the best strategy for promoting healthy eating behaviors is to continue offering a healthy and varied diet, including foods that have been previously rejected, according to new findings published in the journal Obesity Reviews.
These recommendations come from an analysis of more than 40 peer-reviewed studies that looked at how infants and young children develop preferences for healthy foods, particularly vegetables and fruits.
“The goal was to review the literature in order to make recommendations to parents and caregivers on how they can best encourage children’s healthy eating starting as early as possible,” said lead author Stephanie Anzman-Frasca, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Pediatrics in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at the University at Buffalo.
In fact, healthy eating starts in the womb. “Flavors of Mom’s diet reach the child in utero,” says Anzman-Frasca, “so if she’s eating a healthy diet, the fetus does get exposed to those flavors, getting the child used to them.”
After delivery, if the mother breastfeeds, the baby also benefits from exposure to flavors from her healthy diet through the breastmilk. These early exposures familiarize the baby with specific flavors as well as the experience of variety and set the stage for later acceptance of healthy flavors in solid foods.
Once babies begin eating solid foods, parents should repeatedly offer foods that were previously rejected; this can help them to accept and like the food.
“This method of simply repeating the child’s exposure to healthy foods has a robust evidence base behind it,” Anzman-Frasca said. “There are many studies with preschoolers who start out not liking red peppers or squash, for example, but after five to six sessions where these foods are repeatedly offered, they end up liking them.”
However, one study found that in low-income homes, parents do not serve previously rejected foods because of the desire not to waste food. The authors call for interventions to promote repeated exposure to healthy foods in these environments, while addressing challenges parents face.
Their findings include the following tips:
- Vary foods during pregnancy, early milk feeding and toddlerhood, taking advantage of periods when the rejection of novel things is lower.
- Strategies such as rewarding the intake of healthy foods might work in some situations, but there is some evidence that this may dilute the power of repeated exposure to healthy foods. The authors suggest starting with simple approaches like repeated exposure — or caregivers and siblings modeling the consumption and enjoyment of healthy foods — while reserving other strategies for cases where they are needed to motivate initial tasting.
“Overall, based on all the studies we reviewed, our strongest recommendation to parents and caregivers is ‘don’t give up!'” says Anzman-Frasca.
Source: University at Buffalo