Model Behavior: How to Get Preschoolers to Try New Foods

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

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

Nearly 60% of preschoolers eat a serving of whole grains daily. While this is a promising start, there is room to improve. One way to increase whole grain consumption is to offer whole grain versions of kids’ favorite foods such as pasta, cereal, or pancakes, instead of refined grains, or mix the two 50/50.

2. Offer water or milk

The ideal beverage for most 2 and 3 year olds is water or low-fat milk. Milk is an important source of nutrients that many children don’t get enough of (like Vitamin D). Consider replacing sugar-sweetened beverages with one of these to set a foundation of lifelong healthful habits.

3. Cook with your kids

In addition to being a fun way to spend time with your children, research shows that that family food involvement may even predict healthier food choices by young kids. That’s a behavior that you can start early. Preparing meals also teaches them about ingredients in foods and introduces them to cultural flavors.

4. Be patient, responsive, and creative

Every child is different, even siblings can differ from each other. Be responsive to the feeding cues of each child and know that being patient helps the whole family enjoy their mealtime experience. It also helps to be creative and focus on the things that matter to your child. In our home, we do “Family Food Fables.” At meal time our children hear about memorable family recipes and the family members that made them. We see how those foods connect them to family traditions. We’ll also tell a story of a vegetable, like how it grew from a seed or sapling in a farm and was made just for them, so that they know it’s a very special treat to eat!

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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