Did you ever wonder what drives kids’ decisions about what they want to eat? It is a good question to ask because once we know that, we are better able to steer our kids in the right direction. Many of us believe that kids come into the world with a strict set of “likes” and “dislikes” for food and drink. This belief causes a lot of struggle at dinner tables across America with children refusing to eat the food that is served to them, especially if it is healthy. All a child today has to say is “I don’t like this” and we back off because we have been told by pediatricians and dieticians that we should not interfere with their eating habits.
Encouraging and steering children in the right direction is exactly what we need to be doing on a daily basis. Kids are born with a preference for sweet tasting food and beverages and an aversion for things that taste bitter, but beyond that their tongues are like an artist’s palette. The food that you introduce to your child at an early age makes an impression for their tolerance and ‘liking’ of tastes as they age. If we let their preferences for sweet food and drink dictate what they will and won’t eat, most will end up eating lots of processed food loaded with unhealthy fats, added sugars and salt and drinking tons of soda and juice.
A recent study published by researchers at New York University looked to see if the presence of calories on menu items at fast food restaurants would influence teenagers’ purchases. They conducted this study in New York City, before and after the city mandated in 2008 that fast food establishments list the calorie content of food and beverages on their menu items. They were a pioneer in this movement and now, after the healthcare reform act, restaurants that have more than 20 or more locations must post calories on their menus. Many nutritionists and policy makers believe that this step will help consumers to make healthier decisions when ordering food outside of the home. What these researchers found was that only 9% of the teens in the study considered the calorie content of menu items before ordering.
So what did the research show was the major contributor for kids’ food choices at fast food restaurants? Taste! 72% of the adolescents said that taste was the most important factor when choosing a meal. That comes as no surprise to anyone who has worked with children and their eating habits. All you have to do is observe children from the time they eat table food until they leave the house to see that taste leads the way. And exactly where does a sole focus on taste lead our kids? It puts them on a path where 40% of the calories they consume come from added fats and sugars; stuff that their growing bodies do not need in excess. It leads to a tripling of obesity rates in the last 3 decades and it puts our kid’s health at risk whereby a Caucasian child has a one in three chance of developing diabetes in his or her lifetime and this increases to a one in two chance for Hispanic and African American children.
We need to teach our young the difference between food that is healthy for them and essential for life, and food and beverages that are junk and do nothing to help them reach their potential. Once they know this basic fact, they need to be taught from an early age that they need to eat the healthy stuff first before they can get to the occasional treat. Children need to learn “how” to eat and “why” they need to eat that way so that when they are older and are faced with a decision of what to eat; they will have the cognitive ability to make sound choices. Whether or not they make those choices however is out of our control when they are older but just like any other behavior we teach our kids like good sleeping habits and clean hygiene, we can do just so much to prepare them and after a certain age they are on their own. Make sure you prepare your child before they leave the nest so that they can reach their potential and have a better chance of living a healthy life.