On Kids and Eating…

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This week, I’m reprinting an article that was in a recent issue of the Winston-Salem Journal. I think it perfectly describes the concepts in my book, and the philosophy behind teaching young kids to love their food!

Imagine a day when restaurants no longer have menus for kids that offer pizza, chicken fingers, and macaroni and cheese.

The idea would make some parents cringe. “Our kids won’t be able to find anything to eat,” they’ll say. “We won’t be able to take them to half the restaurants in town!”

Nancy Tringali Piho, for one, would welcome that day.

“Why is it that people automatically assume that all children want to eat standard, mundane kid fare, such as chicken fingers and french fries all the time?” she wrote in “My Two-Year-Old Eats Octopus: Raising Children Who Love to Eat Everything” (Bull Publishing, $16.95).

Piho, who lives in Washington, spends a fair amount of time in the world of food, running a public-relations business that has such clients as the National Chicken Council. “My Two-Year-Old Eats Octopus,” though, was inspired by her family life.

When her son, William, ate octopus ceviche at a restaurant when he was 2, Piho was struck by how much this surprised other adults. She realized that she and her husband, Paul, had consciously decided to teach their son to enjoy a variety of food — something that most other parents apparently did not.

Piho notes that American parents spend a lot of money and effort to get their kids into the right schools and buy them the latest toys, electronics and more. So why don’t they care more about what their kids put in their bodies?

“Our attitude regarding children’s nutrition can be summed up as ‘whatever,'” she wrote.

Her book, though, isn’t about nutrition, per se. It isn’t even about picky eaters. It’s more about food as a basic joy of life — and parents’ role in teaching that to children.

Piho has come to believe that eating well begins in early childhood. Exposing toddlers to a wide variety of wholesome food can set a healthy pattern for life.

“When a child will take into his mouth a food that he has never had before, that child is equally engaged and more curious about other things. That’s what it comes down to,” she said. “We’re missing something as parents when we don’t realize we can teach our children a lot through food.”

Food is about life and its joys. It’s also about awareness of the world, such as knowledge of other cultures.

Piho said that it’s an uphill battle for parents who want to teach their children to enjoy a wide variety of food. In the past 20 years, aggressive marketing of kids’ foods has created a mindset that says kids eat only a narrow range of food. “We’ve all sort of bought into this, that kids eat a certain way,” she said.

So many foods marketed to kids not only score low for nutrients but also present a very limited palate of flavor and texture.

Opening up the broader world of food takes work — lots of work. Parents should start early, as soon as their children start eating solid food.

Piho said that three of the most important pieces of advice in her book are:

Stay away from products for kids. “If it’s marketed to kids, if it has cartoons on it, invariably it’s going to be inferior in some way to an adult product,” she said. For example, children’s cereal is typically inferior in taste and texture to adult cereal, and juice designed for kids is much sweeter than the ones for adults, she said. “Even candy is going to be sweeter and saltier.” Feed your kids what you are eating, within reason — i.e. you wouldn’t give a 3-year-old raw fish or four-alarm chili.

Watch how you talk about food. “We do ourselves in with that a lot — ‘Daddy doesn’t eat vegetables’ — sweeping general statements that little ears pick up on.” Stress the positive, avoid the negative, and keep things light and upbeat. Remember, you’re teaching kids about pleasure.

Repeat, repeat, repeat. Studies have shown that young palates may need to taste something up to 15 times to truly know if they like it or not. Offer it to them. Get them to try it — even if it’s just a tiny bite — then move on.

“What you don’t want to do is throw up your hands and say my kid won’t eat this,” Piho said. “It may be just a phase. Wait a month, three months, six months. At some point your child will try spinach again.”

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