Post No.: 0105
Our early life experiences with food greatly shape our food preferences when older – we tend to like what we got used to consuming when young. This can possibly even extend to during pregnancy when inside our mother’s womb (when a foetus essentially consumes what the pregnant mother consumes, which is why activities like smoking are not recommended during pregnancy). So prenatal, postnatal and childhood exposure to a variety of flavours has a positive impact on a child’s food choices. Being exposed to a wider variety of flavours when young will lead to a greater acceptance of different types of foods, which in turn will lead to a greater chance of a more varied and therefore healthier diet. Like learning and forming habits and preferences in general, we can still change when older, but it takes progressively more time and effort the older we get hence why it’s better to foster desired habits from young.
Perinatal conditions can also affect the risks of various diseases for an offspring. Both under-eating and over-eating during pregnancy can predispose a child to obesity. This effect can even work across multiple generations (transgenerational epigenetics). The foetus is born adapted to the uterine environment, which means that if he/she experienced malnutrition in the womb, he/she’ll be more driven to consume and seek food when born, which is adaptive in environments of real famine, but maladaptive in food-rich environments, hence an increased risk of obesity for a child raised in these kinds of environments.
Or if the foetus experiences a lot of particularly sweet and fatty flavours in the womb then he/she’ll be born with a greater predisposition than otherwise to preferring these flavours, which means he/she’ll prefer high-calorie foods and drinks more as these tend to be sweet and/or fatty, which in turn will also lead to an increased risk of obesity if he/she’ll live in an environment rich in sweet and fatty products. Yes all humans naturally like sweet and fatty flavours because breast milk is sweet and fatty – so maybe the more precise issue is whether a mother exposes her foetus to other types of flavours too. Breast milk, which contains lots of sugars and fats (and other good nutrients) helps babies to grow rapidly, and for older children, consuming lots of sugars and fats will help them to grow rapidly too, except this time unhealthily if the intake is unchecked and unbalanced.
Thus both a low birth weight and a high birth weight are not ideal for a baby (regarding e.g. coronary heart disease risk). But if a prepubescent child is found to be moderately overweight then, although his/her diet should be modified to be healthier, the goal should not be for him/her to lose weight but rather to grow into his/her weight.
Paternal influences are relatively understudied at the moment, but there may be some epigenetic effects (heritable changes in gene expression/switching) carried in the sperm cells – thus improving paternal health prior to conception may be beneficial for an offspring too i.e. the father must do his bit too! Woof!
So get babies to taste and eat as wide a variety of flavours as possible from 6-12 months old – particularly bitter foods because many vegetables have bitter notes (many vegetables evolved bitterness to dissuade animals from eating them, and many truly toxic things are bitter too, but this doesn’t mean that all things that don’t want to be eaten or are bitter are bad for us, hence we need to train or adapt to liking some relatively bitter foods because our instincts are too crude and over-generalising). The sweet and/or fatty flavours of refined sugar candy, cookies, cakes and such things are innately liked so don’t need to be trained to be liked though.
If one has missed this 6-12 month window then try positive peer effects (peers, and commercial advertising aimed at children, start to have a greater influence on shaping preferences than parents as a child ages), positive encouragement (no pressuring but praising efforts) and positive role-modelling (leading by a good example). Otherwise be patient until they’re ~5 years old when a child will usually start to become more adventurous again (when they’re hopefully past the ‘neophobic’ stage).
It can take about 10-15 attempts at trying a food or flavour before a child begins to accept it and understand that it’s safe to consume. So if a child initially rejects a new food or flavour, he/she should be offered it to try again and again on other days because he/she’ll eventually get used to it – but do make sure it’s always done in a calm and pleasant environment and manner because our minds close to trying new things or listening to new perspectives when it’s a battleground and we’re under stress (when our sympathetic nervous system activates/dominates). We generally like or are okay with whatever we’re used to because we know it’s safe (and this applies to things like receiving lots of exposure to different racial ethnicities too and getting used to diversity, for instance); plus the types of food we ate and liked when young become associated together and so tend to become our comfort foods when older too (e.g. a now-elderly person who was raised eating offal rather than cheeseburgers will likely be more willing to eat offal than cheeseburgers).
In particular, expose your children to lots of different fresh fruits and vegetables to make them comfortable with them. A diversity of fruit and vegetables enables a diversity of gut bacteria, which seems to correlate with a multitude of health benefits, both physical and possibly mental. Maybe make a big, exciting deal about bringing a new fruit or vegetable home to try? On the other side, don’t make a big deal about going to a famous fast food outlet or the like because that gives the impression that these are the desirable meals and that other meals are not desirable. Our own hype and subconscious way of presenting different foods to children shape their anticipations and associations with those foods. So don’t hype up junk food as a ‘treat’ and instead portray them as just ‘food’ (for a bit of junk food on the odd occasion is fine); and maybe try hyping up fruit and vegetables as the prizes for good behaviour and the types of things to eat when going out (e.g. on a picnic) or when celebrating something.
It’s a less-than-ideal and short-term tactic to hide vegetables in meals (e.g. blitzed spinach in a burger) because this doesn’t show children how to appreciate vegetables in their own right. Vegetables should be as desirable as other food groups in a balanced meal. So don’t just give vegetables to children and say that they’re good for them – serve them to everybody and show that you enjoy eating vegetables all the time too, and this will have a better effect on them.
Certainly don’t make giving them fruit or vegetables sound like a threat or some sort of punishment! Make good things for them sound and seem enjoyable. Children can often read even the subtlest words, tones and body language of a parent, so if you present e.g. some broccoli as if it’s disgusting or as if you don’t expect your child to eat or enjoy it then your child will read that broccoli is not to be enjoyed and thus behave accordingly when or if they stick it into their mouths. And bribery (e.g. ‘do this good thing and you’ll get some sweets’) will only lead to a pattern that, if the bribe suddenly ceases (e.g. there are no more sweets), the child will also cease to do that desirable thing. If you’re adamant in employing extrinsic rewards in this context then the technique is to give your child a surprise small reward, on some random occasions, after your child has performed a desirable thing.
Trying to reason with a child who is too young (under ~2 years old) about them missing something greater in the future if they have this thing today won’t work because their brains haven’t developed enough to look beyond the here-and-now or really beyond themselves yet and what they want (as they pester and pull you all over the shop as if they don’t care if you have other people to also attend to!) And most cries from children over ~2 years old and sometimes under are not about fear or danger but about manipulation – this is proven when they just suddenly stop crying and don’t recommence when they sense you’re not paying attention to their fuzzy whinges! (And if you laugh, not at them but at their strategy, they might try to laugh it off too as they learn that it won’t work on you.)
It’s a balancing act though to not give in to children too much on things that are bad for them over time (e.g. high-sugar snacks) yet not crushing their self-esteem by never letting them get what they want sometimes – but the key is rewarding their patience rather than their whines (for more about this, please read Post No.: 0062). Being slightly tough, balanced with unconditional love at other times or contexts, will make them strong, whilst the ease of them getting what they want from you will make them weak and most of all ill-prepared for the real world, where most good things require patience. So the key is not no gratification but delayed gratification – being able to delay gratification is a major factor in having a robust self-confidence. When people get what they earned in the right ways, rather than get something easily or through whining, it generally helps to build their self-confidence.
So don’t give in to their demands for junk food or sugary snacks easily because they must learn to earn and/or wait for things, and not through whingeing or crying either. And this will also set them up to be more resilient in life because whingeing or crying won’t get your child anything or anywhere as an adolescent or adult(!) Hence you shouldn’t want to reinforce in your child that whingeing or crying strategies work for such demands.
Give them what they want all the time and they may grow up feeling entitled or never content. Make them earn or wait for some things and they’ll grow up with more confidence that they can actually survive without those things, at least temporarily. Trust and challenge that your child can wait and will survive without what they don’t really need (like the most expensive toys or the unhealthiest foods) and they’ll grow up with the self-confidence that they have survived and will survive again without those things should they need to. Give them whatever they want (or whatever you think they want) that they don’t really need, and they may become dependent on those things for their happiness and perceived self-worth.
Overall, I hope you can see that it’s always the parents who need to change first, not the child.