Leicester, Sept. 9 (Reuters): Even the most stubborn and picky children can be taught to enjoy all types of food if they are given the right encouragement.
Prof. Jane Wardle, a clinical psychologist at University College London, told a science conference today that food dislikes are not inherited and parents can teach their children to try different types of food. “The earlier food is introduced the more likely it is to be liked,” she said.
Babies are usually introduced to solid food when they are four to six-months-old, so if broccoli, spinach and peas are given to babies at a young age it increases the chances that they will enjoy the vegetables as they get older. For children who have already developed dislikes to the look of some foods, Wardle advocates giving tiny tastes, on the tip of the tongue, to initiate them.
“Up to 10 exposures are required to change a dislike to a like and on average parents stop after two or three attempts to see if a child likes a food,” she said.
Parents should also not offer an alternative if they want their children to taste or eat a particular thing. A child is more likely to eat an apple if it is the only food available but would probably not choose it if a chocolate bar was also on offer.
Wardle, who has conducted studies into how children select foods, also advised against using bribery because it does not work and gives the child a contrary message.
“We showed that doing the exposure with the promise of a reward just diminished the effect of the exposure,” she said.
Instead, she suggested that parents congratulate their children for trying new foods and use positive reinforcement. Although it is necessary for children to learn about healthy food and the importance of a well-balanced diet, pushing the healthy message too hard has a negative impact.
When Wardle tested a new drink on school children, she found that youngsters who had been told it was a healthy beverage were less likely to say they liked it and would ask their parents to buy it than children who had not been told it was good for them.
“Children learn that parents only drag out the health story when they know they don’t want to eat the food,” said Wardle. “It gives a negative cue,” she added.
Sociological studies have shown that American and British children are pickier eaters than their French counterparts which Wardle suspects is because they have a bigger choice. French children are also more likely to eat the same foods as their parents.