Thursday, August 25, 2011

Bringing Healthy Habits to the Table

Is your child a picky eater? According to some professionals, picky eating - among children and adults alike - is becoming cause for concern in our culture, one symptom of the greater problem of overall unhealthy food and eating habits among Americans.

Image: federico stevanin /
The prevalence of bland, nutrient-devoid foods in the American diet – and the tendency to avoid diverse foods when eating this kind of diet – has recently been the topic of a thought-provoking online discussion. As it relates to children, this conversation was originally spurred by Pediatrician Dr. Alan Greene, and brought to the mainstream by renowned natural health proponent Dr. Andrew Weil.

In its most extreme form, picky eating is now increasingly considered to be an outright disorder that can plague individuals well into adulthood. While not currently listed in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), Selective Eating Disorder is getting quite a bit of lip service from the media, health professionals and mental health experts as of late. This begs the question – just how pervasive and serious IS this problem? How does this differ from the routine picky eating behavior that is exhibited by children? When does picky eating become an indicator of an overall problem of unhealthy eating habits that could affect children as they grow up? And what can parents do – if anything – to prevent their child from becoming a lifelong selective eater?

Conquering a Picky Palate
At least from an anecdotal perspective, it appears that  some individuals are able to overcome their selective eating habits,while others find their negative associations with food difficult to set aside. Coercive or difficult eating situations during childhood; parents who are complicit to (or actively encourage) picky eating habits by serving a limited range of foods; and other environmental and psychological factors have been cited as contributing to the development of adult picky eating. Still, it is unclear exactly how many adults continue to exhibit this behavior, where the behavior originates, or what the true effects can be in daily adult life.

Baby Food and Culture
It's well known that picky eating is a characteristic behavior of toddlers and young children - this is an evolutionary mainstay, it seems, that prevents them from picking up and eating something dangerous. However, in many cases, parents can actually encourage limited eating habits in their children, beginning with the very first food experiences. Often this is unintentional; after all, it's a widely accepted practice in our culture to serve white rice cereal and other bland, highly processed foods when a baby first begins eating solids. Anything else, we're told, could upset their delicate tummies. 

Why is it, then, that in other parts of the world a baby's first foods are no different than the food that's being served on the family dinner table? Foods may be pureed or chopped into small pieces to help with the adjustment to new textures and flavors, but most receive the same foods that their parents eat - spices and all. 

I'll never forget when Little Man was about 5 months old, I went to pick up some food for my husband and me from our favorite local Indian food spot. The owner of the restaurant, who knows us well from how often we eat there, asked about our baby - how he was doing, how old he was now, etc. The conversation turned to food, and he offered to put together a small to-go container of curried lentils for Little Man. I was hesitant since we hadn't even begun solid foods, but I didn't want to seem unappreciative, so I accepted. As he packaged up the lentils, my curiosity got the best of me. I had to ask him, "Do you feed 5 month old babies this kind of thing in India?" He said they did. I was surprised. We had lately been trying to find our own "first foods path," if you will, thinking about when and what kinds of foods we might introduce now that Little Man seemed to be showing signs of being ready. Everything I had read was saying to give him white rice cereal, but something about this just didn't seem right to me. Maybe there was something to this. I asked the restaurant owner what else they routinely fed their babies back in India and he replied, simply, "Whatever the parents are eating." When I asked at what age they began solid foods, he replied, "Whenever the child is ready." I could not believe my ears. How easy! How natural! My resolve to feed Little Man "real" foods was renewed in full force.

As I learned more about first foods and the process of introducing solids to babies, I found that the practice of feeding babies fresh, homemade foods was also a much more common choice in America until as recently as the Industrial Revolution, when processed, pureed baby foods became the norm in households across the country. These foods were cheap, convenient and, as the baby food "specialists" would have you believe, much better than any food you could  possibly make at home.

Fast forward to today - jarred baby food and boxed white rice cereal give way to an array of other packaged, processed baby foods. But does this kind of diet prepare children for a life of healthy eating choices? If these foods are eaten in moderation, along with lots of fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains - absolutely. But when processed baby foods are a predominant part of a child's diet - perhaps not so much. In fact, with obesity rates skyrocketing and the dietary choices of Americans becoming increasingly over-processed and under-nourishing, many in the health community and beyond are urging parents to avoid these foods altogether. Dr. Andrew Weil states:
“Until we know more, I urge parents to reject the entire world of over processed babies' and children's food as much as they possibly can…It does kids no favors, and sets them up for a potential lifetime of poor health and social embarrassment, to excuse them from family meals of real food.”
Outside of the medical community, advocates like the Chef Ann Cooper (the Renegade Lunch Lady) and, more recently, Jamie Oliver are fighting for better food choices for our nation's children, starting with the school cafeteria.

Ultimately, though, it's up to parents to model healthy eating habits and create an environment that's conducive to trying - and enjoying - healthy, whole foods. 

Changing the Status Quo, One Plate at a Time
For many, changing the way we eat is easier said than done - especially once we become parents and our time is at a premium. Add to this the rhetoric we heard from our parents and grandparents, who were raised during the "Clean Plate" Era (remember hearing "Clean your plate - there are starving children in Africa?"); the mixed messages we receive from a culture fixated on diets and perfect bodies; and grocery shelves full of deceptive health claims, and it becomes painfully obvious that our generation of child-rearers brings some considerable food baggage to the table.

Often, it can be us as parents who stand in the way of change. In my case, I think we eat well in our house, but then I catch my self refraining from offering certain foods to Little Man because I assume he won't like them - either because I don't like them, or because they're not foods I think of as "kid-friendly." What I've realized is that I'm doing him a disservice here. I've made it my goal to try to introduce more and different foods to him, and to cultivate a sense of fun and adventure around food and eating. This means not taking things too seriously when he refuses a food, and to never rule anything out before I give him a chance to try it.

Bottom line? I think that to change the way our children eat, we must first change the way we as parents think about food.
Start with becoming aware of what and how you eat throughout the day. Do you eat homemade foods, and whole fruits and vegetables? Or do you find yourself in drive-thrus and heating up microwave dinners, day in, day out? Do you sit and enjoy your meals, tasting each bite? Or do eat in a hurry, and while on the go? This is not a judgement you make on yourself or others, just a way to increase your awareness.

Then - most importantly - think about how your behaviors and the choices you make may be modeling eating habits for your child(ren). Are these the choices you would want them to make? If you're like me, you realize that there is room for improvement here!

What eating habits and behaviors would you like to instill in your children? Which would you like them to avoid? How do you create a positive food culture for your family?

Learn More...
Wholesome Baby Food
Feeding Baby Green
Baby Led Weaning
Baby Food List Without Baby Food
Today I Ate a Rainbow!
The Edible Schoolyard Project


  1. this is a sensitive issue for me that I deal with every day. Riley and Will were given the same foods and were raised the same way. One is a picky eater, the other is not. Interestingly, our picky eater selects healthier choices - preferring vegetables and fruit over foods that are "strangely mixed up" in her opinion. Is being a picky eater bad when you choose fruits and vegetables over hot dogs and pizza? (love your blog!) :)

  2. I love the idea of feeding your baby what the parents just makes sense from the standpoint of getting used to foods. There's one transition...from the bottle to the food. No mid-way point of "baby food," then a second transition to adult food. This assumes, as you say, that parents are eating healthy foods. For those who try to limit the "whites," fatty meats and non-nutritional items, they are doing their baby a disservice to put them on the baby-food diet of rice, etc. Every family is different, however, and parents often have to make food choices based on lifestyle and time constraints. For those who are interested in the eating habits of their children, it would be useful to evaluate their own and modify them so they are setting the best example they can for their children to follow.

  3. We did similar things simply by accident. When my girls were babies and toddlers, my husband traveled internationally quite often. One way we could maximize our time with him was to travel with him, so my girls were introduced to European and South American foods quite early on. I can't say for sure that this is the reason neither of them is picky now, but I do know that it is the reason they are both willing to be adventurous and try new things - it is just part of our family's culture. It is so great to have kids that will eat sushi or escargot or something they don't even know the name of!

  4. Thanks all for sharing your experiences. I think this is an issue that strikes a chord with a lot of parents.