March is National Nutrition Month, a month-long nutrition education and information campaign created to encourage families to develop healthy eating habits. Healthy eating is vital to supporting young children’s physical and mental development, and when healthy eating habits are established at an early age, they often continue onward into adulthood and beyond. Still, when families are busy juggling hectic work schedules, child care needs, and the daily stresses of parenting, it can be difficult to plan healthy meals. The problem is compounded when families are struggling to make ends meet financially. Poor families are much more likely to live in “food deserts” where access to fresh produce and healthy staples is extremely limited; they also may not have the time or resources to make healthy home-cooked meals.
A recent Op-Ed in the New York Times by sociologist Caitlin Daniel highlights another barrier for poor families trying to encourage their children to eat healthy foods. Prior research findings show that it can take 8-15 attempts at introducing a new food for a child to accept it; for many poor parents, Daniel explains, “children’s food rejections cost too much.” Daniel spent two years studying how 73 families from different socioeconomic backgrounds chose what foods to give to their children, interviewing them and observing the patterns in their daily lives. “When I asked her about offering cauliflower 10 times to shape her son’s tastes, a poor mother from a town outside Boston said: ‘No. No. That’s a lot of wasted food.’ This mother faces an uncomfortable choice: She can experiment and risk an empty cupboard, or she can make her food last by serving what her son likes, even if it’s not the healthiest and even if she feels guilty about it.”
So how can parents and child care providers introduce new vegetables to young children without taking on an onerous financial burden? Stephanie Lorek, an educational consultant at All Our Kin, has discovered a few key strategies through her experience with the Garden Project, an All Our Kin initiative to enhance family child care programs’ outdoor curriculum, promote healthy eating, and encourage outdoor exercise for very young children in urban communities. Through the Garden Project, Stephanie helps providers build raised vegetable garden beds in their own back yards and teaches
them how to garden and use the outdoors as an educational tool.
“It’s pretty established that it can take 8 or more exposures for a child to accept a new food,” Stephanie says. “If you go to the farmer’s market and buy healthy foods, but then the kids spit it out, of course you’re going to think, ‘That was a waste.’ That stuff’s expensive. But if you have a vegetable garden, there’s so many plants that there’s no need to ration. The kids can try it and spit it out, and that’s fine, and I don’t consider it wasted. It’s okay if they don’t like it at first. One of my favorite things to say is ‘You don’t like it yet.’”
Stephanie points to a combination of factors that make the Garden Project effective at promoting the acceptance of new foods. “With the Garden Project, you see the whole process – the seeds being planted, the plants growing and ripening, and the harvesting. The kids are involved the whole time, and they’re invested in it, so they’re more likely to try the vegetables.”
Stephanie also points to the social aspect of the Garden Project. “If I can get one kid to try a new vegetable, all the others will try it too – it’s a secret I’ve learned.” Peer modeling is important, but modeling by adults is also fundamental. “Many adults don’t like veggies themselves, so they’re inadvertently modeling their own negative associations to children. When I’m on a Garden Project visit, I always try the foods myself first, and then I have the provider try it. The kids become curious, and they see that it’s not so scary. If I hand a kid a cherry tomato, they’ll pop it in their mouth without even thinking about it.”
Tips for Parents
If you don’t have access to an organic garden of your own, there are still many ways you can promote healthy eating with young children.
- Adopt family-style eating at mealtimes.
In her work with family child care providers, Stephanie tries to encourage family-style eating, where the children and the provider sit around a table and everyone serves themselves; when all of the available foods are healthy options, there’s no need to worry that the children will make a poor choice. Family-style meals are also opportunities to have dynamic, vocabulary-building conversations with young children.
- Practice modeling enjoyment of new foods.
“It’s great if adults are eating the same thing as everybody else,” Stephanie says. If a father serves vegetables and whole grains to his children but eats unhealthy foods himself, his children will receive mixed messages about food choice. On the other hand, if everyone eats the same thing, that father can model enjoyment of healthy foods and an open attitude to trying new things. “Modeling is the single biggest thing an adult can do to build healthy eating habits in children,” Stephanie says. “It can also make parents change their own eating habits. When adults practice modeling a positive attitude around food for kids, they can convince themselves to try new things. Maybe they even find that they like something now that they didn’t like when they were younger.”
- Involve children in decisions around food.
When children are engaged with the food preparation process, they feel invested in the outcome. “In the garden, they see the whole cycle, starting with planting the seeds,” notes Stephanie. “Even the two year olds grasp the basics of gardening.” But gardening is just one way to help children feel excited about the food process. Parents and providers can also involve them in meal planning, grocery shopping, and cooking, letting them make some decisions and reminding them how their food got to their plate. “Kids have so little control over their lives and their schedules, and sometimes they reject foods just to get back some of that feeling of control,” explains Stephanie. “But that can create bad habits in the long run.”