Evolution has given infants an innate preference for things that taste sweet, as it helps identify highly calorific foods. Children then develop a reluctance to taste unfamiliar foods as they approach the age of two. ‘Food neophobia’ protected children from ingesting harmful substances when they became more mobile and able to explore their environment independently. This gave a child the best chance of survival when food was scarce and it wasn’t a problem later because the family diet consisted of fresh fruit, vegetables and some meat or fish.
Now, more than half of all the food bought by families in the UK is ‘ultra-processed’, extremely high in saturated fat, salt, and sugar. Our evolutionary background means the availability of these foods make it more difficult to develop a liking for more healthy food such as vegetables, which often have a bitter taste. As a result, a third of children are now overweight or obese before they start school. Worst of all, this sets their food preferences for the rest of their lives.
So, it couldn’t be more important to help children develop a taste for healthy food. Of course, this isn’t always that simple but there are several techniques and best practices that you can follow to help encourage healthy eating habits.
Allowing children to understand the process of what goes into a dish and seeing these different ingredients can help familiarise a child with a wider range of food. Plus, children love to help with cooking.
If children are unsure about trying new foods, try to make the food familiar first. Children need to be familiar with a food with all their senses. So, seeing it, smelling it, and touching it may all be needed before a child is willing to have a bite or even a lick.
If you are more relaxed around mealtimes, children will be too. Sitting together at a table and modelling a healthy attitude towards eating and trying a wide range of foods can have a big impact on how children will perceive eating and mealtimes in general.
The way we talk about different foods can have a huge impact on a child. Often, we talk more positively about less healthy ‘treat foods’ than fruit and vegetables. Using words such as ‘yummy’ and ‘delicious’ when discussing a new food can make it seem like a more appealing option.
Even if a child has just tasted a tiny amount of food for the first time, it is so important to encourage them by praising this effort. Use positive praise rather than using bribes such as, ‘eat your vegetables and then you can have dessert’.
It can take up to 15-20 exposures before a child accepts a new taste, so don't give up too easily in trying to encourage healthy eating habits. Children's palates and experiences with food are constantly shifting and evolving.