Model Behavior: How to Get Preschoolers to Try New Foods

A new survey of early childhood eating habits gives parents important food for thought

Ryan Carvalho M.D.
Jun 5, 2018 · 5 min read

One of the most important lessons I learned from my patients and their families that I also remember my parents teaching me, is that children learn by example. I think about this often when I’m with my three kids. They’re always watching me — to see how I react when I lose a game of Go Fish or whether I really wash my hands for 60 seconds — and I know they’ll copy whatever behavior I model.

As a pediatrician household (I’m a pediatrician who focuses on nutrition, and I’m also married to a pediatrician!), we’re mindful of what we do at the dinner table and during snack time. If I eat broccoli or my wife raves about Brussels sprouts, our kids are much more likely to eat them, too. Like most parents, we do what we can to get our kids to eat a balanced diet, even if they (sometimes) make it challenging.

A new landmark study on early childhood nutrition, published June 5, shows preschoolers’ diets while generally better than adults, still have room for improvement. More than a quarter of 2- and 3-year-olds don’t eat a vegetable on a given day, according to findings in the Nestlé Feeding Infants and Toddlers Study (FITS). And when they do eat a vegetable, it’s most often a fried potato.

The Nestlé FITS study is the largest and most comprehensive dietary intake survey of parents and caregivers of infants and young children in the US and is an important gauge of our nation’s nutritional health and well-being. It aims to get a sense of what children are eating and drinking and help parents understand where their young children’s diets may be improved.

The recent assessment found that one-third of 2- and 3-year-olds consumed processed meats — such as hot dogs, cold cuts, bacon, or sausage — on the day of the survey. These products are often high in sodium and saturated fats. When it comes to beverages, the good news is that compared to the 2008 FITS study, fewer preschoolers are drinking juice, so we are seeing some positive progress almost half of preschoolers consume a sugar-sweetened drink, such as fruit-flavored drinks, on a given day.

While some young children are particularly selective about what they’ll eat and can make mealtime a guessing game, parents and caregivers can try some easy steps to improve their little one’s diets. Here are four to keep top of mind:

1. Substitute whole grains where possible

2. Offer water or milk

3. Cook with your kids

4. Be patient, responsive, and creative

The experience of cooking, eating, and making food choices can become one of discovery and adventure for children, especially for those young curious minds who see possibilities around every corner. Parents and caregivers who use this formative period to model healthful eating habits will be providing their children a culinary foundation for making better choices well into adulthood.

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