Before I had children, I knew a lot about parenting. I'm sure I had a superior expression on my face when I saw other people's children refusing to eat anything that wasn’t a hot dog or a chicken nugget. My own children would love vegetables and eat colorful meals.
Then, of course, I had children and realized that I knew nothing. Sure, my first child started on pureed peas and string beans. But once she discovered sweet potatoes and apricots, it was all over. From sweet fruits and vegetables, she moved on to candy corn, and chocolate, and potato chips, while I looked on -- with egg on my face.
I have one son who doesn't eat, one who eats everything he can reach, and two daughters who inspect the calorie content of everything (they are 8 and 10, by the way). So I jumped when I had the chance to talk with an expert in child nutrition, Carole Carson, author of From Fat to Fit: Turn Yourself into a Weapon of Mass Reduction.
Carson pointed out that parents decide what foods come into the house. "A child might very well be determined to eat only hot dogs or chicken nuggets, but if none are available, the parent need not worry that the child will starve to death. Children are survivalists, and they will begin to gingerly pick and choose among the healthier fare -- even if they begin with a small portion of grilled chicken instead of chicken nuggets," she says.
Her advice to parents of older kids who are refusing to eat well: "Go 'cold turkey.' That is, get the junk food out of the house. Serve healthy, appealing food and demonstrate parental leadership."
Got that last bit? Yep -- kids imitate what we do. So it's critical for you to set a good example and eat a variety of healthy foods. You can't teach kids to eat food that you or your spouse refuse to eat. "But there are always compromises," says Carson. "For example, if one parent hates beets and refuses to eat them, pick a different vegetable that the parent will eat."
Kids' tastes change over time as the palate matures. "A child may not be interested in a food at one stage, and then six months later, be willing to explore it," says Carson.
If you really want your kids to try something new, Carson suggests following the lead set by her own son and French daughter-in-law. "They introduce new foods by explaining to their children that they are eating 'adult' food. The children are curious about what adults get to eat that they don't. Of course, then the children want to try the food the adults are eating." Their most recent success was artichokes, which their almost 2-year-old and 4-year-old devoured.
Train your child's palate now, and give him the lifelong gift of healthy eating habits.