Why it's not a good idea to limit your children to 'kid food'

The perception that children are picky eaters has given rise, in the United States anyway, to an industry of foods — most of them unhealthy — marketed specifically to kids.

As I geared up to make dinner one evening, my 6-year-old daughter loudly voiced her displeasure about the chickpea burgers we were having. We had first tried them a couple nights earlier. Though my 2-year-old son liked them, my daughter — who loves chickpeas by themselves, in pancakes and smashed with avocado on toast — took a confident bite, then rejected the burger and ate only the bun and fixings.

But three out of four of us liked them, they were healthy and, most important on a busy evening, they were quick. I wanted her to get on board, but I needed a plan.

The perception that children are picky eaters has given rise, in the United States anyway, to an industry of foods — most of them unhealthy — marketed specifically to kids. Squeezable yogurt, colorful cereals and snack bars all have exorbitant amounts of sugar; fried and salty or processed foods dominate kids’ menus at restaurants.

This all raises the question: Why is children’s food, as its own category, even a thing? Children on a typical developmental track are perfectly capable of eating what adults eat. In most countries, that’s exactly what they do. But U.S. culture has developed to encourage families to buy, cook and order separate foods for children. A number of experts say this can have negative long-term effects.

Those kid-targeted foods are convenient for parents and appealing to children, but they may come at a cost. If current trends continue, more than 57% of today’s children in the United States are projected to be obese by age 35, according to research from Harvard University.

Having a separate food category for children implies that children can’t or shouldn’t eat what everyone else eats. Decades of research, as well as other cultures, show that’s not true. But when we set low expectations for what children should eat, most kids aren’t going to surpass those expectations on their own.

“I understand where the concept comes from, but I think there’s a better way to feed our kids,” said Nimali Fernando, a pediatrician and founder of the Doctor Yum Project, a nonprofit in Virginia. “Do you know what I feed the kids in my baby food class? I feed them brown rice with lentil spinach curry. That’s a first food. Babies love it.”

Early childhood is when kids are most open to new flavors and textures. That doesn’t mean they like them immediately — although they may. It means they are willing to try them — which offers an opportunity to like them. “We are born with a predisposition to accept sweet and reject bitter tastes, but children’s food preferences are malleable from there,” said Stephanie Anzman-Frasca, a pediatric and behavioral medicine specialist at the University at Buffalo.

There are encouraging signs that practices may be shifting. The booming category of children’s food increasingly includes more natural ingredients and healthier formulations. Sales of conventional baby- and kid-targeted foods and beverages declined by nearly 2% in the past year, according to data provided by SPINS, while sales of kids’ products marketed as natural increased more than 9%. But even the healthiest-seeming products, such as fruit and vegetable pouches and organic, whole-grain granola bars, are tailored to fit what children already like, rather than challenge them to expand their palates. And in all areas, including food and emotional and mental development, children need stimulation. They need chances to push their limits.

I’ve spoken with children’s feeding and health experts about the challenges of teaching healthy eating habits, and I’ve tried applying their advice to my own children. Melanie Potock, a pediatric feeding specialist in Longmont, Colorado, sat in on lunch with my family one day and shared some thoughts on how we could improve.

Below are suggestions from Potock and other experts on how to raise kids with a broader, healthier palate.

Make the healthy option the normal option, and be patient. Offering new and healthy foods regularly is the most tried-and-true way for kids to learn they like a food. Developing a palate is a gradual process. It isn’t easy, but experts say that’s the point so many parents are missing. “We don’t ask them to know how to do calculus before they can add two plus two. There’s a process with everything the child learns, so why wouldn’t there be a learning process about food?” said Kathleen Keller, director of the Metabolic Kitchen and Children’s Eating Behavior Laboratory at Pennsylvania State University.

Remember, children are drawn to what’s familiar. If they’re exposed to healthy foods regularly, eventually those foods become familiar. Exposure does not mean they need to eat it — seeing it or even playing with it can count. The idea is to build familiarity.

Talk about nutrition. Children can often handle more than they’re given credit for. “Help kids learn in an age- and developmentally-appropriate way how foods help to fuel their bodies,” said Natalie Muth, pediatrician and spokeswoman for the American Academy of Pediatrics. That can mean explaining that fruits and vegetables are full of vitamins and minerals that help them grow — so they can tackle the monkey bars sooner or faster, or boost their game in soccer or gymnastics, or whatever it is they can relate to. This can make for fewer mealtime battles and empower children to resist the many unhealthy options that will tempt them outside the home.

Make food a positive experience. The best way to ensure kids’ minds are open to trying new foods, both in the moment and in the future, is to help their brains form positive associations with those foods. Involve them in planning and cooking meals to boost their investment. In cooking classes run by Denver-based Sticky Fingers Cooking, children often begin a session unwilling to try anything new. After being engaged with the cooking and with peers who are also trying the foods, they may taste a new fruit or vegetable, or develop an association with a new food. “Even if on that day, they didn’t want to touch it, taste it, smell it, they still had a positive experience,” said Chloe Sundberg, the company’s scheduling manager.

Try the family dinner. Everyone should be eating the same meal — or at least choosing what they want to eat from the same set of options. If kids say they don’t like the meal and are provided an alternate dish, they’re learning they can hold out for something else in the future. Eating together probably boosts the health content of their meal, but it also lets them experience the positive social interactions that food can create. And don’t get hung up on having a perfect meal ready every night. “It’s as much about the sitting down and connecting as it is about the food,” Fernando said.

Avoid solutions that can backfire. Pressuring children to eat certain foods or hiding vegetables behind more enticing foods are not long-term solutions. Doing so is fine for adding a nutritional boost to something they’ll be eating anyway, but it can be problematic as an exclusive means for getting children their veggies. A recent study by researchers in Denmark found that eating vegetable-fortified snack bars increases children’s liking for the bars — but not for vegetables.

As for those chickpea burgers, I went with a tip from Potock and nonchalantly served them with sprinkles. If my daughter thought I was tricking her into eating the burger, it could cause her to reject it and develop a negative attitude. Potock also emphasized that children respond to attention. If I praise her for eating or scold her for not eating, it encourages her to focus on external cues more than the food. “Attention is their paycheck. We need to be careful what we pay them for,” Potock said.

My daughter was excited but suspicious. I said casually that I thought some of us might want sprinkles. She helped herself to every sprinkle-covered serving, and by the end of the meal, she’d cleaned her plate.

I’m trying to brainstorm other means to a similar end — to avoid serving children’s food, and instead present adult food in a kid-centric way. It feels like a sensible and realistic way to approach all of this.

“There is nothing wrong with having macaroni and cheese or pizza once in a while, but the idea that kids can only accept foods like this is not giving them enough credit,” Anzman-Frasca said.

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