A healthy diet is essential for a growing child’s mental and physical development, but getting children to eat well, consume an adequate amount of fruits and vegetables and steer clear of junk food can be challenging. It’s important to instil healthy eating habits in children from a young age as research has shown that unhealthy eating habits established in childhood might be more likely to persist into adulthood.
A number of factors influence what a child eats and is more likely to enjoy. These include what their parents eat and enjoy, the style of parenting they are brought up with and age of exposure to certain foods. Food neophobia also restricts the types of food a child enjoys eating. Food Neophobia is the fear or dislike of new or unfamiliar foods. Researchers investigated the association between a variety of factors in a child’s early life and what foods they subsequently liked later in childhood.
The study assessed the pre-natal and post-natal nutritional, environmental and social determinants of a child’s health and development. Dietary factors relating to the children and their parents were recorded over the first four years of the child’s life. The factors included maternal diet before pregnancy, infant feeding practices (feeding method, pattern and age of introduction of several food groups), parental feeding practices (including the level to which a parent allowed their child to choose what they ate), the child’s diets (frequency of foods consumed) and food neophobia at ages one through to four years. The children had a face-to-face interview at aged five with a trained professional to assess the foods that they liked.
A child’s level of food neophobia at age four was associated with their liking of all food groups at age five. Liking fruits and vegetables at age five was associated with intake of these foods at age three as well as maternal fruit and vegetable intake before pregnancy. Liking meat, fish and eggs was associated with a longer breastfeeding period, later introduction of main meal components and use of homemade products.
The results of this study suggest that there might be environmental factors that influence the foods that a child likes eating. Some or all of these strategies can be implemented early in life to encourage children to adopt a positive attitude towards eating well. These can include introducing children to fruits and vegetables at an early age and encouraging them to eat healthy foods on a more frequent basis.