Healthy eating tips for families

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

March 2006

Pediatricians learn early in their training that children are not just little adults. Parents need to learn that too, especially when it comes to their children's eating patterns.

Few toddlers take quickly to adult type servings of fruits and vegetables. After all, during their first year they've gotten used to formula or breastmilk, bland cereal and mush that passes for fruits and vegetables. Given the unfamiliar appearance, coarse texture and sharper flavor of cooked vegetables it's no wonder that they are reluctant to eat them. In addition, toddlers have a natural aversion to new foods and will not even try them until they have had multiple exposures to items that we consider very familiar.

If parents simply give up after a child has refused some food only once or twice, that aversion pattern, called food neophobia, can last well into the early school years. Sometimes a child will try a food that he has rejected in the past after he sees his friends eat it with some enjoyment. In a family setting that may mean offering the same food 15 or 20 times. Of course it's frustrating! Now you know how your parents felt!

When children are old enough to help out in the kitchen parents should encourage them to participate in shopping for food — especially fruits and vegetables — preparing them and serving them to the family. It doesn't always work but children are more likely to eat what they have been helping to prepare out of the sheer desire for approval.

Parents also need to recognize that fruits and vegetables are very filling because of their fiber and water content. Since a child's stomach is just a little larger than his or her fist, there just isn't a lot of room for a serving that Mom might think is appropriate. That's especially true in a restaurant, where a long wait means eating a roll or two and downing a Shirley Temple before the rest of the meal arrives. For the child who had a big lunch that may be all they need in order to feel full.

One of the most frequently missed opportunities to show good example is in the matter of desserts. On most days of the week dessert should consist of fruit. Not just a piece of whole fruit but a variety of at least two kinds, perhaps with a few berries added. For the same reasons that I mentioned earlier, a child-sized dessert should be much smaller than the ones set before the adults. Don't expect your child to take to this right away, either. Just keep up the routine and eventually your darling will reward you by eating the whole thing.

School is another matter. Some school administrators don't get it yet. It might help if they were forced to eat, day after day, what they set before the kids. It wouldn't take long before the macaroni and cheese disappeared from the food line. You can avoid the problem by packing a healthy lunch but be sure to make it interesting enough so that your little one won't trade it away for another child's candy bar.

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at drphil@stoneagedoc.com.