Getting Kids to Love Food that Loves Them Back

Girl eating raspberries. Liz Godfrey Photography/Getty Images

One of the most important influences on dietary preference is familiarity.  It is not coincidence that children in every country and culture (and species, for that matter) grow up partial to their native foods.  They grow up eating those foods; their parents eat those foods.  With regard to eating, familiarity certainly does need breed contempt.  It breeds comfort.  We like what we know.

This has obvious and important implications for feeding our children, and defending them against the aggressive marketing of junk food, and the consequences of yielding to it- namely obesity and ill health.  The earlier children are exposed to wholesome foods and flavors, the better.  Taste preference can actually be cultivated in utero.  Nutrient compounds from the maternal diet get into the fetal bloodstream, and amniotic fluid.  Research suggests that along with the affects of maternal diet on fetal health, it actually starts to shape dietary preference.

That process is even more clearly in evidence with breast-feeding.  Breast milk is a product of a mother’s nutrient reserves, and these come either from her body, or from her diet- usually from both.  Flavors in foods consumed by a mother reach a baby in breast milk, and again exert an influence on taste preference.

All of this argues for creating a salutary nutritional environment for our children as early as possible, and preferably before they are even born.  Of course, we parents are also beneficiaries of this- because the only way to create this environment is to reside in it, and eat well ourselves.  Everybody wins.

While the earlier the better, though, it’s equally important to note that it’s never too late to start.  After all, what if our parents didn’t know about this, and our own tastes run toward junk?  If we need to eat well to ensure that our kids do, but our taste preferences stand in the way- can we get around that?

The answer is, emphatically: yes!  I call the process “taste bud rehab,” and address it at length in my latest book.

New studies have highlighted the potential for food to take our taste buds both into, and out of, serious trouble. Recent animal research, for instance, shows how a “cafeteria diet” can corrupt the palate, and such methods have long been applied to our food supply, contributing significantly to what ails us, and our children.  Encouragingly, though, a recent human study using functional MRI scans shows that the systematic introduction of “better” foods can reverse engineer this process.

Eat better foods, in other words, and you come to enjoy, and prefer better foods.  And so do your children.  If you are turning to taste bud rehab as an adult, you can spare your children the greater challenges of that by getting them on the right track early.  As noted, it’s never too late, but the earlier the better.

One clear implication of this is that “dieting” as it has long been conceived- should die.  We should live it together, not diet alone.  Families should share good food in support of good health- because we love one another.

Another implication is that we don’t need to worry about “giving up” the foods we love.  Rather, we can “trade up” our choices instead, and with each incremental improvement in our diets, recalibrate our palates to prefer it so. 

In support of this proposition, I extend an invitation to visit, a site newly launched by my wife, Catherine.  It features the many delicious, nutritious recipes that have sustained and delighted our large family all these years.  The site is freely accessible to all; it is our pleasure to pay it forward.

Taste buds are adaptable little fellas.  No need for your health to languish because of the food they love; they can learn to love the food they’re with!  So trade up, put yours together with ever better food, and take your kids along.  You and your family, just like mine and me, can learn to love food that loves you back!

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