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They Won’t Eat It, Because You Didn’t: Getting Kids to Eat Everything

They Won’t Eat It, Because You Didn’t: Getting Kids to Eat Everything

I have a story. While hardly a unique story to any parent that was kept up at night by a child in gastric distress, it is a story that I am certain many parents can relate to. I call it the night of “Curry Fury.” My son was about 3 months old and still intently nursing, and my wife desperately wanted her fill of mildly spicy Indian curry. We had some concerns about how an intake of spicy foods might affect her milk supply, so she ate moderately. Still, after nursing before bed, my son was awake and miserable for most of the night – a result of spicy food breaking the barrier from primary consumer to secondary consumer. I remember thinking, “mothers in India, Mexico, and Korea eat equally, it not more, spicy food and their breast feeding children seem to deal…what gives?” Well the difference, at least for that night, may not have been interwoven in heritage or acculturation, but more of an issue of exposure and frequency.

Let me explain: The issue is not so much that young children and babies are unable to deal with spicy food when it is passed through the mother’s milk, what they are having difficulty with is the newness and unfamiliarity of such distinct foods. Children raised in cultures where distinct foods that are either excessively bitter, astringent, spicy, or acidic, are the norm, are exposed to these foods very early in life, sometimes in utero. This not only builds tolerance for these foods, but also cultivates a taste for such foods. According to a recent NPR report, “At 21 weeks after conception, a developing baby weighs about as much as a can of Coke — and he or she can taste it, too. Still in the womb, the growing baby gulps down several ounces of amniotic fluid daily. That fluid surrounding the baby is actually flavored by the foods and beverages the mother has eaten in the last few hours.” So even the food that a woman eats during pregnancy, may shape, not just food tolerance, but food preferences of that child. “Things like vanilla, carrot, garlic, anise, mint — these are some of the flavors that have been shown to be transmitted to amniotic fluid or mother’s milk,” says Julie Mennella, who studies taste in infants at the Monell Chemical Senses Center.

Studies were done in which pregnant women were given sizable doses of carrot juice during their pregnancy. As a result, their babies displayed a distinct bias towards cereal flavored with carrot juice, showing a clear link between exposure and acceptance. This makes a lot of evolutionary sense, says Mennella. Since mothers tend to feed their children what they eat themselves, it is nature’s way of introducing babies to the foods and flavors that they are likely to encounter in their family and their culture.

But beyond cultural issues around food, these findings work to strengthen the idea that exposure to a variety of foods during pregnancy might insure a child who is willing to experiment with a variety of flavors. This is not to advocate a steady diet of kim chee and spicy arugula, but a truly varied diet by the mother seems to promote a more adventuresome palate among the child. Eat nothing but pizza and French fries, and you will likely have a child that reflects such limits. Eat a variety of fruits, grains, and leafy greens, and your child just may develop a taste for such foods with less fuss.

Does any of this ring true to you? Do you think exposure is everything, or are there just some foods that your kids, or any kids, won’t go for? Have you had personal experience with food intolerance and food acceptance that contributes or negates these points?

Read more: Babies, Caregiving, Children, Eating for Health, Family, Parenting at the Crossroads, Pregnancy, , , , , ,

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Eric Steinman

Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, NY. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture, and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.

46 comments

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5:42AM PDT on Sep 4, 2011

Very interesting! Thanks!

3:03AM PDT on Aug 26, 2011

I couldn't stop eating strawberries when I was pregnant. My son has a sweet tooth, but, he also loves spicy foods from Italian to Mexican to barbecue to Asian foods. Even though I love the hot curry, my son wants it medium.

My son is NOT a picky eater, and I don't have to remind him to eat his broccoli, he even asks for Brussels sprouts. Go figure... It's also about introducing foods to them at young ages, too, not when they're teens and set in their ways.

8:11PM PDT on Aug 24, 2011

My mom had gestational diabetes, so she ate very healthy while she was pregnant with me. I still pre fer fruit to heavy deserts. :)

5:33AM PDT on Aug 15, 2011

Since mothers tend to feed their children what they eat themselves, it is nature’s way of introducing babies to the foods and flavors that they are likely to encounter in their family and their culture. To me this sounds very reasonable. However I would like to tell you about my sister who does not eat sugar, fruit and some vegetables, she hasn't had them since childhood, she just didn't accept them when first introduced to them as a baby. She now has 7 children of her own and they all enjoy sugar!

4:08AM PDT on Aug 14, 2011

Noted.

2:25AM PDT on Aug 14, 2011

thanks :-)

2:10PM PDT on Aug 13, 2011

So interesting!

11:13AM PDT on Aug 12, 2011

I must say this is very interesting...
I am a healthy eater with a varied palate... and all my kids are great eaters...
My sister in law is very reserved, eats very basic things and has kids who are even more basic eaters... ei 11 yr old niece who only eats white buns at Christmas dinner now that gramma quit making KD for her at special events. My babies ate real table food baby-ized from the moment they were ready for food (and I believe each are different for that too, as I started my babies on cereal at 2 weeks then 8 months then 2 months... each different, but all great eaters.) My middle child wanted to go for Vietnamese for his 7th birthday and even today prefers to experience "dining" every time we go out, be it sushi, Thai, East Indian, interesting seafood, etc... things I may not know how to cook at home.
Makes me wonder if it starts as nature and continues to worsen or improve by nurture.

3:37AM PDT on Aug 12, 2011

WoW, who knew? I've seen kids get influenced by what their moms like or hate, but while in the womb? Thats crazy-in a kool way!

1:52AM PDT on Aug 12, 2011

All I know is that if your baby seems to be in pain after you eat sometning yourself when you are brestfeeding, then it is wise not to eat it! I mean, every child seems to be different and probably most of the things that are said in this article are true in different circumstances. If you want your child to be onivourous, then, it may be wise when you are pregnant, to eat those things that you want them to eat after they are born. One thing and this os going off the point of this article, but I think it is more important than anything.If your child doesn't like, say, veggies..try hiding them liquified in some lovely tasty stew, don't make an issue out of it whatsoever. Don't try and rationalise that they SHOULD eat it and make a fuss. That is how children start to use food for manipulation. DON'T constantly make too much emphasis on what the children are eating. Just feed it down them and be really matter of fact if they don't want it. NEVER play into that scenario! If your children won't eat food but they are obviously not ill ust take the food away and tell them that they can finish it when they are hungry. DON'T give sweets instead! They will eat when they are hungry! Take no notice. be matter of fact and just make meal times a happy time, full of laughter and chatter! No special attention of the one who won't eat!

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