We’ve all met them. The beleaguered parents, who moan when their preschoolers clamour for the sugar-coated cereal in the supermarket, groan when they howl for chips instead of a sensible lunch at a restaurant, roll their eyes when they reject the sandwich on wholemeal offered at a friend’s house or insist on a fizzy drink instead of juice at dinner. Like all parents, they’d like their children to eat more nutritiously, but deep down inside they’re convinced they’d be fighting a losing battle. Aren’t kids, after all, born with a preference for junk foods?
Surprisingly, no. A child’s plate is actually born a clean slate; the tastes that develop depend on the foods introduced, even in those first months of eating. How your child will ultimately eat – whether he or she will choose sandwich satisfaction in an apple or a bag of crisps, breakfast happily on the kind of cereal that comes with chocolate will be influenced primarily by the foods you set on his or her high chair tray now.
So that you don’t end up bemoaning your child’s eating habits later, start feeding your baby right, right from the start.
- Keep white out of sight, most of the time. A preference for wholemeal over white is a form of discrimination that’s actually good to teach young children. Though a child who’s weaned on whole grains won’t necessarily grow up with-out a taste for white, he or she is more likely to opt for the good stuff when given the choice – or, at least, be less likely to reject it when it’s served. Select whole-grains products at the supermarket, bake with whole-grain breads, when possible, in restaurants.
- Don’t cut that sweet tooth yet. The longer you hold off introducing really sweet foods, the more opportunity your baby will have to establish tastes for foods that are savoury or tart. Don’t assume that baby won’t eat cottage cheese or natural yogurt unless it’s been mixed with mashed ripe banana, or cereal unless it’s been sweetened with apple puree, or strained peaches; babies whose taste buds haven’t been sweet-talked will not only accept such foods ‘straight’, they’ll learn to love them. Serve fruits, but as a dessert – after you’ve offered something that isn’t sweet, like vegetables (which you should serve early and often). Gradually introduce sweeter treats (preferably ones sweetened with fruit juices instead of sugar), but don’t get into the habit of doling out the biscuits instead of fresh fruit in the afternoon, topping off every meal every cracker you and your baby. Realistically, your baby’s more likely to experience the sweeter side of life sooner if there are older siblings in the little house (little sibs always want some of what the big kids are getting); otherwise, you may be able to hold off on the sweets until the first birthday or even later.
- Serve the milk straight. When the doctor okays cow’s milk – usually at one year – give it to your baby straight. Chocolate milk is loaded with calcium, but also with sugar. Consider, too, that any time you disguise the flavour of milk (even if it’s in a wholesome smoothie), you’ll be sabotaging your baby’s taste for the pure thing. Save such strategies for the ‘No milk!’ rebellions of the toddler and preschool years.
- Save the salt. Babies don’t need salt in their foods beyond what is found there naturally. Don’t salt food you prepare for baby, and be particularly careful not to serve up salty snacks, which can give your child an unhealthy taste for foods high in sodium.
- Spice baby’s diet with variety. It’s not surprising that so many young children spurn unfamiliar foods. In most cases, their parents have served up the same old, same old from early on (the same cereal every morning for breakfast, the same varieties of baby food for lunch and dinner day in and day out), never offering a change of pave or a chance to sample anything different. Be adventurous in feeding your baby (within the parameters set by the doctor or mandated by your baby’s age). Try different types of whole-grain cereals, served hot and cold; varieties of whole-grain breads (oat and rye, as well as wheat) in different forms (rolls, bagels, sliced loaves, crackers and later pittas); different shapes of pastas; dairy product in different forms vegetables and fruits beyond carrots, peas and bananas.Varieties now is no guarantee that your child won’t go through a macaroni-and-cheese-only phase – most children do at one time or another. But a familiarity with a wider range of foods will breed a broader diet base and, in the long run, better nutrition.
- Make exceptions. We all crave what’s forbidden; it’s a fact of human nature. Ban junk food entirely, and it will only become more appealing to your child. So once he or she is old enough to understand the concept of ‘once in a while’, allow occasional treats. As long as they’re not a part of your child’s daily diet – and are not served up instead of good foods – they won’t compromise nutrition.
- Do it yourself. Children are much more likely to practise what their parents practise than practise what their parents preach. Stock the house with healthy foods and take obvious pleasure in eating them yourself, and you can expect your child to follow in your wholesome footsteps.Of course, while you’re practising, it doesn’t hurt to do a little casual preaching, too. Start teaching your child from an early age that sugar isn’t good for you, but fruit is, and that wholemeal bread is better for your body than white.