Healthy Eating Habits are Formed Early

As a parent, you shape your child’s taste palate with the foods you introduce at infancy. As your child grows, you become the role model, shaping his attitudes toward food with your own behaviors.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), childhood obesity affects approximately 12.7 million children. While obesity can be blamed on a number of factors from computer games to soda, the strongest influence is how adults teach children to eat. Yes, eating habits are learned.


Developing a broad taste palate and a willingness to try new foods are key to lifelong healthy eating. Variety not only offers a greater spectrum of nutrition, but it also helps keep bad habits, such as sugar dependence, at bay. When you routinely vary the types of food your children eat while incorporating lots of whole grains, vegetables, and lean protein, you are more likely to curb cravings for sweet, salty, and high-fat foods — hallmarks of junk food.

You set the example.

Face down your own pickiness. Don’t like asparagus? Maybe you’ve never liked the way it was prepared. The point is, when you display signs of fussy eating, your child will model that behavior. Be brave and try new foods in front of your kids. If you don’t happen to like it, tell them, “that’s okay, we’ll try making it another way next time.” This way, you’re acknowledging that not everything tastes good the first time, while exhibiting a willingness to give it another chance.

Give it another chance. And another. And another.

Experts agree that it can take as many as 12 tries to develop a taste for something new, so don’t give up. Encourage your child to taste at least one bite, and then try again a week later.

Another reason for picky behavior could be that your child just isn’t hungry enough. Toddlers aged one to two years aren’t growing as rapidly as they did as infants, so they don’t eat as much as you might think. Try serving smaller portions, and don’t let them snack for two hours before mealtime. The best way to get your child to try something new is to make sure he’s hungry.

Get your kids involved.

For younger children, make mealtime fun. It’s not broccoli; they’re “trees.” Red bell pepper slices and cherry tomatoes make a great smiley face. The more interesting and colorful food becomes, the more engaged your child will be.

As your kids get older, include them in meal planning and preparation. Give them a choice: “Do you want peas, carrots, or green beans tonight?” Search for new recipes together, let them make selections at the grocery, teach them how to select fresh produce, give them a few age-appropriate cooking responsibilities. They’ll complain less and participate more when they play a role in the decision-making process.

Fizzy’s Lunch Lab and MyPlate Kids’ Place are good sources for games and other learning activities that help get children motivated.

But perhaps the best way to get your kids involved is to sit together at the dinner table for meals, no electronics or TV allowed. Savor the food. Turn mealtime into an opportunity for conversation by asking them about their day.

Instilling an appetite for healthy foods isn’t always easy. If you have questions, your family physician is ready to help.

Laura Calili, MD

Author of this Article

Laura Calili, MD, specializes in pediatrics. She is a guest columnist and located at Riley Physicians Pediatrics – MMP South, 8820 S. Meridian Street, Suite 125, in Indianapolis. She can be reached by calling the office at 317.865.6600.

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