Feeding a child can be a tricky business. I have heard of parents singing songs to cajole a child to eat, making funny sounds like an airplane with a spoonful flying toward their child’s mouth, decorating their dinner plates, and even bribing their young children to eat. Since what your child eats plays a vital part in how his brain develops, I understand the concern. There are certainly other factors involved, such as genetics and experience, but nutrition is of primary importance to the growth of healthy connections and the development of neural networks in the young child’s brain.
Nutrition should be a major factor when considering the process of brain development.
“Various parts of the brain seem to respond to different nutrients; as just one example, recent studies indicate that adequate iron is important both for myelination and for a specific region (hippocampus) that contributes to memory. Many such specific relationships will continue to be found, so it is worth the time and effort it takes to help your child learn to make good nutritional choices.”1
Family mealtime is becoming a rare occurrence in modern American society and ordering from fast food menus has become the norm. While it is true that food is fuel to help the body function properly, we are not machines to be filled quickly at a pit stop between activities. The meal itself is an activity worthy of our attention for the sake of our children’s growing minds as well as their bodies.
Our youngest eaters need time to experience food, especially what is new to them.
They need time to smell it, touch it, lick it, maybe taste it, and then even spit it out of their mouths. Learning to eat nutritious food should be a multi-sensory experience. Table manners can still be encouraged, but permission to spit out food without making a scene allows the child to experience new tastes naturally.
A child needs a positive environment where the process of developing a wide palate is understood.
A new food should be explored and tasted many times. Success may require serving it in ten to twelve different meals, or maybe on the fifteenth try, the child decides he likes it and eats with pleasure. Would this gentler approach help with our picky preschoolers? By the age of four or five, a child should be past the need to touch and explore his food, but if he hasn’t had the time given for exploration before, he may need a reasonable opportunity afforded to him now. This takes time, and short, hurried meals will not make it possible.
A thirty-minute minimum for meal time is a reasonable goal to set for initiating a change in your lifestyle. When you are successful with thirty-minute mealtimes, then work toward a longer daily dining experience for your family. We have lost the whole culture of the evening meal shared around the table. Not only have our young children lost the advantage of exploring their food to develop a healthy palate, but we have replaced learning table manners, connecting as a family, and engaging in meaningful conversation with busy activity and hurried life-styles. Maybe it is time to slow down with a more meaningful, less stressful mealtime in your routine, or at least protect the meal time you do have with a tenacious determination.
1 Jane Healy, Your Child’s Growing Mind (Broadway Books, 1987, 1994, 2004), 52.
Interested in a list of ideas for helping your child develop a palate for nutritious food? Broaden Your Child’s Palate: 32 Fun & Practical Tips is a free resource to help you make nutritious food appealing.