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How to teach a child to make healthy food choices?

More and more parents pay attention to the meals they prepare for their children and make sure that they are healthy and balanced. There is also growing awareness that sugar and salt are harmful to the young body, and their consumption may contribute to the development of diseases and inappropriate eating patterns. Fortunately, as carers, we have the opportunity to greatly influence the child’s preferences so that he/she can make healthy food choices in the future. Is it possible for a child to reach out for fruit instead of sweets? If so, how can we contribute to this?

Human taste preferences – a bit of theory

The sense of taste is together with the smell, sight and touch one the senses which enable receiving and processing stimuli coming from the outside world. The perception of taste is already formed in the womb and is fully mature when the baby is born. Humans are born with a sweet taste preference, and this is a completely natural preference that results from human biological evolution. The sweet taste is recognized by the brain as one that ensures the fastest energy supply, is associated with safety and pleasure, and ensures survival.

This preference is also related to the fact that mother’s milk is sweet, and nature has made sure that the baby does not reject the only food it needs from the birth. Breast milk contains all ingredients necessary for the proper development of the child’s organism, and its sweet taste is caused by lactose – sugar, which is the main source of carbohydrates in the diet of infants. The innate tendency to accept the sweet taste, however, does not mean that everyone is programmed to prioritize the sweet taste over the others. There are stages in the individual development that favor the introduction of new food. They are associated with periodic preference for specific taste stimuli.

Sweet taste is preferred by children up to about 17 weeks of age, and between 4 and 6 months of age a window for accepting new flavors opens. The following months are a period of sensitivity to new structures and textures, and between 12 and 24 months attractiveness of the meal plays a key role. However, the fate of the child’s taste preferences will be determined by the genes, sensory sensitivity, first taste and nutritional experiences, as well as external environmental factors (e.g. expanding the diet, nursery, kindergarten, peers).

Expanding the diet and food preferences

Due to the fact that sweet taste has accompanied the human since the very beginning (the first opportunity to discover this taste takes place already in the womb), it is much easier to accept it than others. Therefore, when the period of diet expansion begins, it is worth including vegetables in the diet first (children find them more difficult to accept than fruit). It should also be remembered that at the stage of introducing new food to the infant’s diet, we should avoid sweetening the meals and serving ready-made sweets containing not only sugar, but also harmful trans fats. Due to the fact that the first 3 years of life are crucial in the child’s nutritional programming process, the parent / guardian should make every effort to ensure that there is as little sugar in the diet as possible. During the period of introducing the child to new tastes, structures and textures, it is also worth taking care of the appropriate atmosphere while eating. A child who associates a meal with pleasure and safety will not hesitate to try different products. In this aspect, it is crucial not only to eat with other family members, but also to ensure that the child is comfortable while being introduced to new flavors.

Accessories, such as a good and comfortable high chair, a cup, a plate or a bowl, or a good quality bib/ apron can improve your baby’s comfort and make the act of eating a meal more appealing. When choosing products for children, it is worth bearing in mind that we should choose those that will not only ensure comfort for the child, but also for the parent, e.g. a high chair, in addition to functions such as 5-point safety belts, height adjustment of the footrest or the backrest, should also be easy to keep clean and have a light structure when folded (e.g. Malit chair).

However, when choosing a plate or a bib for children it is worth considering the materials from which they are made. Choose products that do not contain harmful substances (e.g. Smekke bib). Choosing good quality accessories tailored to the child’s needs is not only taking care of his/her safety while eating meals, but is also a great convenience for the parent or guardian.

A few tips on how to make your child reach for fruit instead of sweet snacks?

  1. Make sure that meals are associated with pleasure and time spent with the family. It is important that meals are eaten at the table, in a high chair and in the right atmosphere.
  2. Set a good example for your child. If you don’t eat healthy yourself and often reach for unhealthy snacks, it is very likely that your child will do the same. Remember that your child is watching you.
  3. Don’t introduce store-bought, unhealthy sweets into your child’s menu. If the child does not know them, he/she will not reach for them. Instead, prepare sweets at home. Try to use natural sweeteners, e.g. a banana.
  4. Give your child 4-5 servings of vegetables/fruit a day. This will help develop healthy habits and ensure an adequate supply of vitamins.
  5. Have snacks, such as dried fruit and nuts, at home. They can be a great and healthy alternative for your child. It is also worth taking them with you when you go for a walk or on a long journey.
  6. Do not sweeten the food and do not give your child sweet drinks. These are empty calories that can adversely affect the child’s body and lead to caries among others. Sweets or sweetened drinks will give your child a feeling of satiety at the expense of healthy and nutrient-rich meal.

Despite the natural preference for the sweet taste, the parent/guardian is able to greatly influence the taste preferences that will develop in the child and the food choices he/she will make in the future. A healthy diet for all family members, avoiding unhealthy sweet and salty snacks, and a well-balanced diet will certainly bring a child closer to eating an apple instead of chocolate.

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