If you look at children’s menus in restaurants or kid-friendly food packages in the grocery store, it may seem that children only eat a limited number of foods, such as deep-fried chicken strips, macaroni and cheese, and chewy fruit snacks.
“Not true,” says Gayle Coleman, nutrition education program specialist with the University of Wisconsin-Extension. “Throughout history and across the globe, children have consumed the same foods that their family members eat.”
Early in the 20th century, advertisers found success promoting products to children. Advertising expanded in the middle of the century with the explosive growth of television and the promotion of special meals for kids as part of the growing fast-food industry.
Considering the number of ads people see and hear today on the internet, video games and social media, it’s not surprising that many people still believe that children eat different foods than adults.
Coleman says it’s true that children may not like the taste of a food the first few times they try it and that they naturally like sweet and salty foods. But over time kids can learn to like a variety of foods and flavors.
“Children like to explore and have fun,” she says. “If given the opportunity, they may enjoy exploring the wide variety of foods offered on restaurant menus and have fun finding new foods to try at the grocery store or farmers’ market.”
Coleman offers these tips to encourage children to eat different types of foods.
- Make the same meal for all family members. If children are routinely expected to eat the same healthy foods as the rest of the family, they will learn to like these foods. On the other hand, if children are allowed to demand pizza when everyone else is having spaghetti, the stage is set to encourage picky eating.
- Be a role model. Children learn from their parents. If you are willing to taste foods that are new to you, there’s a good chance that your children will be, too.
- Make trying new foods interesting. Explore the standard adult menu at a restaurant with your child to see what they might like to try. In many restaurants there is enough food in a single adult order to feed you and your child so you might want to share an entree.
- Encourage but don’t force children to try new foods. Studies have shown that children are more likely to eat foods if they are not forced to eat them.
- Buy healthy foods and beverages you want your family to eat. If children are hungry and the only foods available for snacks are healthy foods such as fruit, raw veggies, low-fat milk and whole grain cereal, then they will choose a healthy snack. Similarly, children are more likely to drink low-fat milk, juice and water when there are no sugary beverages to choose.
- Plan meals and prepare foods with children. Children enjoy tasting and eating foods that they helped to plan or prepare. Even young children can help in deciding which green vegetable to have with a meal or stirring a fruit salad. Plus, they are learning how to plan and prepare meals in the process.
- Grow foods together. Children also are more likely to taste and eat foods that they help to grow. Even if it’s just a container garden with a tomato plant or leafy greens children will learn how vegetables grow and your family will have fresh veggies to eat.
It’s easy to see why certain foods are popular with children when you consider the influence of advertising and children’s natural preference for sweet and salty foods. But no matter how it may appear, kids’ food is a myth born in the 20th century.
To learn more about nutrition and healthy eating, contact your county UW-Extension office. Contact information is available at 920 929-3174, Amanda Miller,WNEP Coordinator/Family Living Educator.