If my two-year-old daughter could eat macaroni and cheese every day she would. It drives my husband and I crazy when she refuses to try new foods, but I've recently noticed if we get excited about dinner, she does as well.
If your children choose the same foods daily, they're not alone. Parental behavior and other factors influence children's food choices, according to experts at the recent 2013 Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) Annual Meeting & Food Expo. Sweet and salty foods, repeat exposure and serving sizes also influence kids' food decisions.
“Children’s decision making has few dimensions,” explained Adam Drewnowski, director of the Center for Public Health Nutrition and professor of epidemiology at the School of Public Health, University of Washington, Seattle in the Expo's news release. "Not surprisingly, children lean toward sweets like cookies, chocolate, fruits and juices as well as salty foods that make them feel full like French fries and pizza. But environment, peer groups, family and exposure to a variety of menu items play a key role in children’s food choices."
Preference trumps all, according to Jennifer Orlet Fisher, an associate professor of public health at Temple University in Philadelphia. "Children eat what they like and leave the rest," she said in the news release.
Fisher found children choose fat and sugar and somewhat surprisingly, fruit is at the top of the list of food choices, followed by starches, meat and eggs, dairy and vegetables.
“Children do not naturally like healthy foods," she said. "They need to learn to like those healthy foods. They also like what they know.”
Eating the same foods every day, such as chicken nuggets and cheese, creates a food familiarity that also drives food choices for children. "Taste preferences are evident shortly after birth, with children preferring sweet and salty tastes first and rejecting bitter and sour tastes," Fisher said.
But with that familiarity often comes picky eaters. Familiarity peaks between 2 and 6 years old when eating habits become established, according to Fisher. "This can be overcome by presenting small tastes of foods or in the case of one broccoli study, offering a side of ranch dip to entice the child," Fisher said.
And, you may not realize it but your decisions also influence what your child eats.
“When children are watching adults, they more quickly try new foods and accept new foods particularly when the adult is enthusiastic,” Fisher said. “What doesn’t work is pressuring kids to eat. And if you bribe kids with dessert, they will end up disliking the vegetables even more.”
Fisher's advice for parents: Get kids involved in food preparation and tasting, be positive and promote the acceptance of healthy foods.