Mitchell Collins is only 4, but he's a burgeoning gourmet.
At an age when many toddlers subsist on macaroni and pizza, Mitchell loves hummus, peas and cottage cheese. He snacks on tomato and cucumber salads. And he begs for his dad's zucchini bread, made from vegetables Mitchell helped grow.
He hasn't always had such a good appetite, says his dad, Chuck Collins.
At 2, Mitchell ate no vegetables and got most of his calories from milk, formula and grits, Collins says. That changed when Mitchell began attending an Omaha child-care center, where children learn about nutrition along with the ABCs.
Toddlers there help tend a 60-foot table garden — watering, weeding and picking vegetables that they serve and eat together. Teachers don't force kids to clean their plates. But they do require children to taste everything, by asking for a "No-thank-you bite" when they don't want a full portion, Collins says.
"They eat stewed green tomatoes because they grew them," says pediatrician Laura Jana, owner of the Primrose School of Legacy and co-author of the American Academy of Pediatrics' Food Fights. "I didn't do that well with my own kids."
With one in three children overweight or obese, experts say it's never too early to help kids learn healthy eating habits.
Emerging research now suggests that parents can begin to shape a child's palate even in the womb, says Stanford University pediatrician Alan Greene, author of Feeding Baby Green, published this month.
A healthful 'imprint'
Babies actually have more taste buds before birth than at any other time of life. They can detect subtle flavors from their mothers' diet through their amniotic fluid, Greene says. These early exposures create a lasting "imprint" on children's tastes, Greene says. One study showed that babies of women who drank carrot juice while pregnant were more likely than others to enjoy carrots when they were 6 months old.
Infants are surprisingly adventurous from the age of 6 months to 13 months, a critical time for the formation of their future preferences. They can learn to like almost anything, although it may take six to 10 tastings, Greene says.
Yet few parents make the most of this crucial window. Research shows that 94% of parents give up offering new foods after only five tries, Greene says. While children's diets have improved modestly in recent years, a new study of kids under age 4 shows that nearly a third eat no vegetables a day.
Introducing new flavors and textures gets harder as kids grow. After age 2 or 2½, when food preferences solidify, it could take 90 attempts to get a child to like something new — at least until puberty, when some kids rediscover their love for new things, Greene says.
Picky eaters often develop bad habits, filling up on familiar fast foods instead of eating more wholesome family meals, Greene says. That helps explain a worrisome trend: Nearly 25% of our meals today come from fast food, compared with 10% of meals two decades ago, Jana says.
Many parents don't realize the problem with letting babies have sweets. "If you start potato chips and sweets early, then everything else will taste bland," says Atlanta pediatrician Jennifer Shu, co-author of Food Fights. "It trains their taste buds."
With so many temptations, parents who want to raise healthy eaters need to expose their children to the sights, smells and feel of vegetables early and often, Greene says. He encourages parents to take children to farmers markets, letting them hold lumpy sweet potatoes and smell ripe peaches.
Preparing homemade baby food with a food grinder is far cheaper than buying jarred foods, says Greene, who carries a small food mill to show parents how to do it.
Because these purees taste more like the "real" food eaten by adults, they help babies make the transition eating a family meal, says Annabel Karmel, author of Top 100 Baby Purees.
"We're conditioning our children to like something that doesn't taste like real food," she says. "Parents think they're saving time, but they're really causing themselves trouble down the line."
Like the kids in Jana's child-care center, children are more willing to try something if they've had a hand in preparing it, Karmel says.
Training toddlers to enjoy the family meal also saves parents time in the long run, because it keeps them from becoming short-order cooks, Greene says.
"Every bite of food is either an investment in your child's body, or a debt that we'll have to repay somehow," Greene says. Teaching children to love healthy food, he says, "is such a wonderful gift for the rest of their lives."