This guest post is brought to you by the Natural Hydration Council.
How many young children do you know who have happily eaten all the vegetables offered to them? How many shun sugary drinks and prefer water? Most parents will be familiar with children who refuse to eat vegetables but would eat plenty of sweet and often fatty foods, given half a chance. This can be a source of frustration for parents keen for their children to eat a healthy diet, who run the risk of dinner time becoming a battlefield.
So, are children born inherently contrary when it comes to healthy eating and drinking? Well, in a way, yes. All humans are born with an innate liking for sweetness, and a dislike of bitter and sour tastes. We have evolved brains that are tuned to recognise and learn rapidly when we have eaten an energy-rich food (or drink). If we are hungry at the time of eating (and children’s brains are usually hungry for nutrients), we can quickly develop a preference for these foods or drinks.
This is bad news for parents, because vegetables often have some bitterness but tend to have little energy, so from an evolutionary point of view, our children have little motivation to try them.
Children’s strong liking for sweetness at least makes it easier to encourage them to eat fruit but it also means they will avidly drink sugar-sweetened drinks. This is something that health professionals are increasingly concerned about. Ideally, we should avoid habitually serving such drinks to children, and instead serve water, milk and limited amounts of fruit juice. What’s more, giving your child water to drink when thirsty, and at meal times, is a good way to encourage them to choose water themselves (advice on ‘healthy hydration’ for children can be found on the Natural Hydration Council’s website).
Here are a few tips and tricks that can help your child become a healthy eater and drinker:
- Above all, parents should remember that they are the most important role models for their children: eating and drinking healthily in front of your child is the best way to encourage healthy dietary habits.
- The key to encouraging children to eat new healthy foods is to persuade them to take at least a little taste each time the food is offered (but don’t fight over it – try making a game of it, and offer something tangible as a reward).
- Avoid bribing children into eating vegetables by offering a food they really like as a reward: it is much better to use something other than a food as the reward (e.g. a sticker or small gift).
- Young children are influenced by what food looks like: making food look fun and attractive can encourage them to try it. If this tasting is repeated often enough (e.g. at least 5 times), the child should finally start to eat a whole serving.
- Children need some rules and guidance about what to eat, but remember that being overly restrictive can be counterproductive, even making the child want the banned food more.
- Finally, remember that eating and drinking is all about habit – it can take a while to establish new habits, but then they can set the child up for a healthy life!
By Dr Leigh Gibson, PhD, C Psychol, R Nutr (http://www.roehampton.ac.uk/staff/Leigh-Gibson/)
This is a sponsored guest post.