If you have ever had the pleasure of watching a baby taste food for the first time, you will totally be able to relate to what I am going to say here. For those of you who haven’t, I’ll try to describe it. Keep in mind that up to this point in an infant’s life, all they have known for sustenance is formula or breast milk. Then, unexpectedly, mom decides it is time to introduce baby to cereal. I am not talking about Frosted Flakes here; I’m talking about rice cereal that looks like paste but tastes way worse. The typical reaction is something like this:
Followed immediately by
It’s not so much the taste that the kid is rebelling against; it’s the texture. If he or she could talk he or she would probably say, “Hold on one minute here. This is not on the menu; just give me the bottle or boob.” Which is a statement often repeated by adult males later in life. Anyways…..The first taste of real food is not always a positive experience. We interpret this reaction as he or she does not like it. We are basing that assumption on our own mature tastes but babies do not have anything to compare it with except formula or breast milk. However, because of our mature and emotional understanding of food, we believe we have to make it taste better. We will add a little sugar and then try again. The baby is not as shocked or confused about the cereal this time and will swallow it down. We assume the baby likes it better because we put sugar in it. The fact is, the baby would probably have eaten it without sugar had we just been persistent and let him or her get used to the texture, consistency, and new taste. And so begins the development of food schemas in a child.
I am as guilty as the next person for doing this. I introduced all kinds of sugary, sweet, fattening foods to my granddaughter, at very small amounts. But I have also introduced her to some really awesome, healthy foods. She was eating fresh asparagus, fresh green beans, and spinach before her first birthday. I am also guilty of buying her first ice cream cone and I do not regret it one bit. Food is not the enemy. The manner in which we cook it and the quantities we consume is the enemy.
Children learn by example. They eat what you put in front of them and they learn that this is the normal way to eat. This is why I like to stress the importance of sitting down at the table and eating meals as a family. We tend to respect the food we eat and the one who prepared it, when we sit together at the table. Far too many people are teaching their children to eat meals in front of the TV. Children then associate watching TV with eating. We don’t take baths in the living room so why are we eating in there. Children need to learn that there is a place and a time for eating. Children need to develop positive associations to food. My fondest and happiest memories in life are the many, many meals I have shared around my parent’s dinner table. The rules and traditions that my parents instilled in me as a child have stayed with me all of my life.
I believe very young children need to experience many different types of foods. My parents have a rule for every person who sits at their table. They must take at least one bite of everything that is served; if they do not like it, that is fine but at least they can say they tried it. I wish I had a dollar for every time I have heard somebody say, “I don’t like that.” However, when I ask if they have tried it, the answer is usually “no.” You should never judge a food negatively by a past experience. Just because you did not like it when you tried it before, it does not mean you will not like it the next time you try it. You should never assume your child will not like something based upon your tastes. Let your child chose for himself or herself. Sometimes taste is acquired. Sometimes the cook just sucks and ruins the food. Sometimes our likes and dislikes change, as we get older. Many of the best compliments I have ever had came from people who said, “I never liked this until you cooked it.”
Food should never be used as a motivational tool. Do not use it as a reward and do not withhold it as a punishment. If you do not get anything else I say, please do not ever say, “If you don’t eat all your dinner, you don’t get dessert.” This is a triple whammy because it promotes overeating and it is using food as a reward or punishment.
Children are easily conditioned but so are the adults that take care of them. In fact, a child will condition a parent before the parent has a chance to condition the child. They cry, you pick them up. They throw their toy on the floor, you pick it up. They throw a fit in the store and you buy them a toy or candy to shut them up. Yes, kids are master conditioners and if you are not careful, they will be calling the shots through emotional blackmail. You see, children have very strong wills and they seem to hone in on your weaknesses. Once they find the sweet spot, they will dig into their bag of tricks to bend your mind until you just simply give in just so you can have some peace. They all have the brain of Stewie; complete with the smug English accent.
Be strong. Be proactive. And be the positive example your child needs to form strong and healthy food schemas.