This week’s guest columnist is Dr. Rachel Kumar, a Family Practice resident at University Hospital and Clinics here in Lafayette.
We see lots of kids with abdominal pain in the Emergency Department. They’ll maybe have cramps or sharp pains, sometimes diarrhea, or have hard stools that hurt. We’ll ask “what did you have for dinner last night?” A common answer: Taco Bell. Or McDonald’s. Or “rice and gravy.” Few families make the link between their greasy, fatty diets and their kids’ grumpy guts.
It’s no secret that feeding kids can be challenging. You may want them to eat a healthy diet, but when they get old enough, kids can be fussy about what they like. They have more control over what they eat as well. Toddlers can be stubborn and refuse what you make; meals become battles. School-age kids just go to the kitchen and snack when they’re hungry. Teens hop into cars and drive to fast food joints.
Eating well is important for all ages, but particularly for children, who require adequate nutrients for their growing bodies. Lucky for parents, they really have a great deal of control over the evolution of their kids’ taste buds, and can steer food preferences to healthier choices.
Taste development actually begins in the womb. Amniotic fluid contains flavors based on mom’s diet. After delivery, breast-fed babies get flavors of mom’s food through her milk. To illustrate, after someone eats garlic, their breath still smells the next morning, no matter how much they brushed their teeth. That’s because garlic is suffused through their bodies, and the smell is exhaled out their lungs, not their mouths. For pregnant and nursing moms, that includes the placenta and breast milk.
So to all pregnant and breast-feeding moms out there, a well-balanced, healthy diet is not only important for you, but for baby’s developing tastes. These women need to be good about what they eat- low fat, high-fiber, lots of fruits and vegetables, and whole grains. That way their bodies are the best incubators for babies, and so babies also prefer healthy foods for themselves.
I know of one toddler whose parents fed her a variety of foods, and she learned to eat lots of things. She also liked to put each of those foods on top of her head while she ate. She did it for fun, smiling and enjoying her parents’ reactions, as peach juice ran down her forehead.
When babies reach the age of 6 months, taste preferences start to flourish- that’s when they start solid foods. Introducing pureed vegetables before fruits is a great way to acclimate your child’s taste buds to low-sugar foods. Giving many different baby foods is crucial; as many pureed vegetables, fruits, meats, and grains as you can. This will make transition to a toddler diet easier, as they will have already been exposed to almost all flavors and will therefore be less likely to react adversely to a taste.
It’s also important to remember to introduce only one new food at a time at that age. That way, if baby has an allergic reaction, or doesn’t digest that food well (has vomiting or diarrhea), you’ll know it’s the new food that caused it. If a particular food is tolerated after 4 days of eating it, move on to the next new thing.
Toddler-hood is when routines and healthy eating can be challenging. These kids vocalize food preferences, and can be stubborn refusers. Stock your kitchen with a variety of healthy choices, with no junk food choices that he can focus on. Avoid buying the 20-count pack of chips, no matter how cheap. If your toddler sees that, good luck getting him to eat his peas!
It’s important to establish routines: the family should sit down together for meals, three times daily. These meals should feature most food groups, and toddlers need to try each one, if only one bite. It can sometimes take fifteen tries before a kid decides they like a food. If they refuse a bite, no treats! If a toddler refuses to eat anything at all, don’t give into the fear that they’ll starve and make them something else. We’ve never seen a child starve from refusing food. When they’re hungry, they’ll eat. Parents who fix their children different foods than they’re eating, catering to the child’s preferences, are creating diet monsters.