Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Cultivating a Taste for Real Foods in Children

The following article was published in the May/June issue of Real Food and Health Magazine.

Why real foods?
People have relied upon real foods throughout history to ensure good health and proper development. To ensure the best health and development of children, their diets should have the same characteristics as traditional diets. This means that children should eat real foods, which are those that have not been refined or adulterated with chemicals. There should be an emphasis on consuming animal foods and fats, organic fruits and vegetables, and fermented foods.

Real foods are the best way to nourish our children since they can provide all the nutrients needed to grow up healthy. As the research of Weston A. Price showed, people who ate traditional foods had virtually no cavities or tooth decay, nor even cancer, diabetes, or heart disease. It is wise to cultivate a taste for real foods in children, and thereby ensure their lasting health.

Limit exposure to processed foods
Processed foods can wreak havoc on the body, and they can also wreak havoc on the tastebuds. A child whose palate is used to processed foods may have a hard time eating real foods, because the taste is so different. Processed foods tend to be overly salty or overly sweet, and this can make real foods taste bland by comparison. Limiting the amount of processed foods that children eat is a very good way to encourage their palates to savor the taste of real foods.

For instance, after limiting sweets in our diets for quite awhile, the sweetness of candy was downright shocking. Our tastebuds have gotten very sensitive to sweet tastes over time, and this means that we need less sweetness to be satisfied. Since our children have been raised on a nutrient-dense diet of real foods, they don't even have a taste for many processed foods. The first time my daughter tried a soda, she was 3 years old, and her reaction was to ask if she could trade it for a banana.

Don't assume that kids won't like real foods
As adults who grew up eating processed foods, my husband and I sometimes assume that our kids will not like certain real foods. For instance, when our eldest child was a baby, we wanted to get her started early on taking cod liver oil, since it is such as wonderful superfood rich in Vitamins A and D, plus Omega 3's, DHA, and EPA. Since we assumed our daughter would not like the cod liver oil, we initially tried mixing it with cooked, pureed prunes. She really did not like this, and we figured out that actually, she'd much rather have the cod liver oil straight out of the jar. She loved it, and would ask for it every day.

Don't let your own biases taint your children's exposure to foods
Children are very perceptive of their parent's feelings and reactions. When a parent gives food to kids while having a grimace on their own face, the facial expression of the parent can easily prompt the child to reject the food. There is no need to feel grossed out when our kids are eating foods we do not like. It is wise to stifle our own negative reactions to foods to give our kids the best chance of receiving new tastes with an open mind. Foods like sauerkraut, cod liver oil, and organ meats are fabulously nutritious, but sometimes we need to actively work to make sure our kids have a chance to like them.

In our home, I work actively to give our kids a chance to like foods that their dad dislikes, like cruciferous veggies, organ meats, beets, and most fermented foods. I make sure that the kids have many chances to eat all sorts of foods when their dad is at work, and when he is home, he makes sure to be positive and not emphasize his own negative biases for foods.

Let the kids help in the kitchen and garden
Taking the extra time to let kids help in the kitchen and garden can really make them excited about eating real foods. This gets the kids connected to the foods in a real way. They get to watch the plants grow and bear fruit, and then take part in the wonderful process of turning foods into delicious meals.

From the age of 2, my daughter has had her own very small garden plot. She is free to plant whatever she chooses, and is inordinately pleased when it is time to harvest the fruits of her labor. This year, her younger brother will get to join in the experience of growing food that we serve on the dinner table.

Both of my kids have loved to help out in the kitchen from a very young age. Toddlers can put food scraps into the compost bucket, put chopped foods into a pot, and stir some ingredients together (but not flour without a big mess). Preschoolers can break eggs into a bowl, measure and stir ingredients, peel and even chop some veggies, tear and wash lettuce, and put together salads. With older kids, the possibilities are endless.

Provide a wide variety of options
There are many wonderful real foods to eat, so it should not be difficult to try some new foods if kids are averse to any specific foods. Even if you try just one new food each week, over time this can really expand the range of foods the kids will eat. If you make sure that all of the options are nutritious, there is not so much worry if the kids only choose to eat certain items. Having plenty of options allows the kids to feel like they have some control over what they can eat.

For kids averse to veggies, start with simple cooked carrots or mashed potatoes. For kids that don’t like sauerkraut, try pickles or pickled beets. Fermented drinks, such as beet kvass and kombucha, are also a great way to introduce fermented foods to kids. My kids love beet kvass; they call it beet juice and are very excited to drink it. We’ve also had very good success with letting the kids choose their own flavor of cod liver oil.

Be persistent and keep a positive attitude
While negative tactics may work in the short term, keep the goal of lifelong healthy eating in mind. In the end, we want our children to truly savor real foods, and to seek them out as adults. Meal time should be enjoyed, and if it starts to turn into a nightly battle then it is probably time to take a step back and try some new tactics. If the kids don’t like many foods yet, don’t give up.

Don’t be afraid to try a variety of preparations. For instance, if your kids don’t like plain broccoli with butter, try cutting it very small and adding it to stir-fry. If they don’t like meat, try cutting it very small and just adding a small amount to soup. When needed, giving the kids a little dipping sauce can really go a long way, too. Homemade ketchup or honey mustard sauce pair wonderfully with most meats and veggies.

Chop meat very small for young children
Meat can be especially difficult for some kids to eat. Remember, though, that their mouths and teeth are much smaller than those of adults. Chopping and shredding meat into pieces that are very small is a great way to make sure that kids can easily eat meat.

Giving my kids a chunk of steak or roast is a sure way to ensure that they won’t finish their meat. If I take the time to chop it very small and add some lovely cooking juices, they are sure to gobble it up. I always shred steaks and roasts with a fork rather than cutting them up; this ensures that the pieces are nice and small. For chicken or dishes with chunks of meat, I like to use kitchen shears to chop it up right in the bowl.

Extreme pickiness is sign of improper gut flora
Children who are extremely picky and will only eat a few foods may have improper gut flora. In such cases, the children’s guts are really in charge of their tastebuds and food preferences. In extreme cases, special diets such as the GAPS diet may need to be undertaken to get the proper balance of flora in children’s guts.

Making sure kids get plenty of probiotics is another way to help their gut bacteria get healthier. Fermented foods are a wonderful source of probiotics. Milk kefir, which is a cultured milk drink, even contains probiotics that will kill bad bacteria! Go slowly in introducing such foods, though, since a “die-off” reaction can occur with the shift to more beneficial bacteria in the gut. “Die-off” reactions are caused by toxins that are released as the bad bacteria are killed within the gut, and symptoms can include diarrhea, headaches, and lethargy.

A wonderful legacy
Cultivating a taste for real foods is truly worth the effort. Helping kids enjoy real foods gives them the best chance for long-lasting health. Wouldn’t it be a wonderful legacy to leave your kids, as they seek out those foods from childhood that they loved so much?


Anonymous said...

Lovely post! Can I ask you about advice here? My son used to be very picky so unfortunately I got into a habit of feeding him with a spoon in front of tv each time. He is 3 now and he still wants me to feed him and watch cartoons. He knows very well how to feed himself and does it in daycare every day, but not at home. If he does eat by himself he would typically eat only starch, like eating rice and skipping meat and veggies. I'm torn on this. I would like to stop feeding him, but I'm afraid he won't eat the good stuff. Right now he eats almost anything if I feed him. Please help!

Anonymous said...

It is like you've described my daughter who turns 3 tomorrow, except she is even pickier than your son. I feed her soup made with homemade beef or chicken broth and many types of organic veggies in front of the TV. She won't eat it by herself, even with multiple bribes. She would always eat processed grains type foods (bread, crackers, corn chips, cereals, rice, potato chips etc.)by herself, but not real foods. The only real food she would eat by herself is homemade ice-cream (made w/ raw cream & honey), but nothing else. She does not eat any fresh fruit (she likes organic fruit leathers), but we feed her fresh fruit puree (in front of TV). I give her probiotics (bio-cult) daily. She loves Kombucha and for a while it was the only thing she drank (with some water), but not other fermented foods (except fermented cabbage juice that I add to her soup together with raw egg yolks). She was on an exclusive GAPS diet for about 2 months, then she has been on a partial GAPS for almost 1 1/2-2 years now. She lost too much weight on exclusive GAPS so we started to introduce some grains (plus she is exposed to processed grains at school- all their snacks). At some point I gave her an enormous amount of probiotics for several months, but did not notice any change in her taste. Her breakfast has been this homemade soup for almost 2 years. Sometimes if she is still hungry I give her "vanilla milk" which is warm raw milk + raw honey, in addition to the soup. I also feed her this soup for dinner, although she almost always eats something else in addition. She would eat fried or baked fish, but not other meats (unless they are pureed in soup and in small amounts). She likes fermented fish oil (unflavored) as well, although I only give it to her during winter/cold months. She looks good (60-75% for height, 50-60% weight) in terms of her growth, and is sweet and bright, but her eating drives me nuts. I don't know how much I can do this...She has always been like this, she refused my breast so I exclusively pumped for 15 months (she only started solids at 15 months when I abruptly stopped pumping as I was super tired and got sick, she was on 100% milk diet until 15 months despite numerous attempts to feed her solids)...I hope you get the picture. If anyone has any solution for me, how to make my daughter eat normally and how to make her gut flora healthy, I would be forever grateful. We tried letting her get really hungry, but then she is worse, no chance of eating new foods. She can easily stay without food an entire day (has done it many times), but then she wakes up at 2:00 am crying of hunger (not fun for us, her parents). She also loses weight really fast, which is the main thing that keeps me doing this (feeding her while she watches TV). Also, if she starts the day with anything else other the her soup, she is terrible (having fits and just terrible mood). Even the coconut flour & honey homemade muffins or any other GAPS baked good gives her the same reaction. However, if I give her a piece of toast or anything else sugary or grain-based after her soup, she is totally fine and happy. So she only reacts to sweets or grain-based foods if she has them on an empty stomach, otherwise she is fine with eating them. Sorry for writing a novel on this, but I would love some advice/suggestions to make my daughter eat normally and our lives easier (rather than carrying frozen soup bottles with us on any vacation and spending 2 hours/day feeding a 3 year old).

Sarah Smith said...

It seems like every kid has their own food personality. My son, who is 2, will eat rather quickly on his own, provided that the food is chopped very small. But my daughter is a whole different story. Over the years, we have had many struggles with getting her to eat. She is now 5, though, and we are over the hump. But at the age of 3 and even 4, we often fed her and she still likes it if we feed her (although it is only done as a special treat now).

Over the years, we've tried different things, and we still need to change things up every so often. Some things that have worked for us:
-food race - we will race to see who gets done eating first
-synchronized eating - we will make a big deal out of all taking bites at the same time
-lots of praise on the rare occasions when she finishes a meal quickly
-leaving her at the table - if she is not making an effort to eat, and the rest of us finish our food, then she is left at the table by herself until she finishes her food. This tactic did not really work until she was a bit older, like 4 & 1/2 or so. Before that age, she would sometimes just sit there (unhappily of course) until it was time for bed!
-making her wash her own dishes if she takes too long to eat (as in, everyone else is already done eating and all the other dishes have already been washed). This is another one that didn't work well until she was over 4.
-occasionally, we read a book at the table. I'll say "take a bite" every so often, and she will so that I'll keep reading (this one might be good for you guys to get them weaned off watching TV while they eat)
-feeding her - my daughter still loves for us to feed her (meanwhile her baby bro is sometimes fiercely independent and will even dump off any food we put on his spoon). With your kids that are only 3, it may be time to stop resisting it and just go ahead and feed them and relax about it. Don't worry, at some point they will feed themselves, even if it is not as early as you'd like.
-this for that - My daughter is much more likely to eat everything with no problems if she can alternate between taking a bite of dinner and a bite of something she really likes such as blueberries, raisins, chips, etc. We used this tactic quite a bit when she was 3 and 4 years old.

Just hang in there, it does get better over time! We have now reached the point where we rarely fight about dinner anymore (well not much compared to how it sued to be).

And for those of you reading this and thinking we are putting too much emphasis on finishing the meal and force feeding too much, all I can say is that you must not have a very slow/reluctant eater! This has been a huge issue for us over the years. We've tried letting her eat as much as she wants (and she ends up eating hardly anything at all which I am not comfortable with considering she is very low weight at less than 30 pounds at age 5). And we make sure her portion sizes are not very big (she and her baby bro get the same amount of food to eat, and he will often eat seconds).

I hope this helps!!

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for sharing your experience with your daughter. It is quite helpful to know that at some point my daughter will eat on her own real foods, hopefully very soon. I have not tried "food race" and "synchronized eating" but based on her personality, they might work well. I feel that only parents who have children who are picky eaters can understand what this means and how struggling it is. I am grateful that my daughter at least eats proteins (I am convinced she is a protein type)in the form of eggs, milk, hotdogs, fish, cheese...and would eat them on her own (but not other meats like baked chicken, beef etc. as mentioned above). Just like you, I am convinced that force feeding was/is necessary with my daughter, otherwise she would eat next to nothing. At the same time, I know many children who have an amazing ability to feed and nourish themselves if given enough options (they take what they need and grow well with very little intervention from adults)...hopefully my daughter will be one of them one day...

Anonymous said...

You make so many excellent points! People are always amazed at how adventurous my boys' taste buds are (and how much they eat!). But it's not like I'm doing anything weird or forcing them to eat healthy. To them, real food is normal. They've never known anything else, so there's no struggle. They enjoy good food and don't like the way the bad stuff makes them feel.

A lot of times I wish I could enjoy some of the things that I know are so healthy for me as much as they do. My kids eagerly request their CLO each day while I'm left trying not to gag on it. :)


Patient Mom said...

It's called Food Resistance. In our daughter's case it is caused by hypersensitivity to textures, smells and even temperature combined with some PANS induced psych stuff... Each of her GF nuggets has to have a small blob of ketchup on it, etc. I'm sure her gut flora is not ideal in spite of what we do for it. She has been gluten and casein free since she was an infant. Refused to allow a spoon near her mouth. I had to blob baby food on top of rice cereal and she picked it up. That was when she still ate foods. Now she's down to only a few meal choices and carb snacks. Under a lot of pressure she'll eat an apple slice and a few pieces of cooked veggies. Push too much and I'll get food issues piled on top of what she's already doing. Thankfully she will take liquid vitamins and cod liver oil and wash it down quick with unsweetened cranberry juice. Spoke with a specialist who said she isn't too bad relatively speaking. She has a child client who will ONLY eat McD's french fries only after they have been chewed by his Mom. Another Mom said that her son only eats crackers. I just keep trying.