Sunday 23 October 2016

Monkey see, monkey do: It's vital to start eating nutritious foods early

We are more likely as adults to eat the foods we ate as a child, so it is vital to start eating nutritious food early, says Karen Coghlan

Start your kids off with good nutrition early on
Start your kids off with good nutrition early on

The food habits we form in childhood are likely to stick with us through to adulthood.

They are further ingrained in the early years of independence when we become responsible for our own food choices and food preparation. We prefer to eat food now that we ate as children, choosing familiarity and comfort. Therefore a child's nutrition can have an impact on their health later on in life.

Many children's diets in the Western world are unsatisfactory. Studies have shown that the majority of 10-year-olds exceed the dietary recommendations for total fat and sugar, which can lead to childhood obesity and increased potential for this to continue into later life.

In addition, most children's diets do not meet the allowance for oily fish or adequate amounts of fruit and vegetables. On average, children eat less than half of the recommended intake of fruit and vegetables, with 20 percent eating no fruit (excluding fruit juice) whatsoever.


Why do people eat what they eat? Outside of the usual suspects (taste, smell, cost, convenience, weight control, how it makes us feel and ethics), our food choices are based on more than a simple matter of innate preferences.

Our food choices are also as a result of psychological influences, such as exposure to certain foods, social learning and associative learning.

Children have an instinctive regulatory mechanism that enables them to select healthy foods, but they can only do so as long as healthy food is available. Simple exposure of healthy food can greatly affect children's intake and preference towards vegetables.

For example, if your child is a "fussy eater", they show fear and avoidance of novel foodstuffs. However, the more you expose children to new food, such as vegetables, the more you increase the chances of them eating it and changing their food preference. It could take eight to 10 exposures before preferences begin to shift.

However, sometimes simple exposure is not enough. Children sometimes need to learn that the novel food will not result in any negative consequences either. For example, telling children that a certain vegetable is "good for you" will not help, whereas telling them that it will taste good does.


Children's eating behaviours are also largely influenced by observing other people's behaviour, such as their peers, their parents and the media. Food preferences can change simply by watching others eat.

Role models, such as older children, a friend, or even a fictional superhero, can lead to a greater change in a child's food preference, whereas an unknown adult has no impact. A child's food preference can sometimes be changed by simply placing them next to other children who prefer different vegetables.


Parental behaviour is central to a child's social learning and their food preferences and habits. For example, teenagers are more likely to eat breakfast if their parents do.

You can be a role model for your children by taking the lead, and adopting healthy breakfast habits to set a good example.

There is also a correlation between a mother's health motivation and the quality of children's diets. However, they are not always in line with each other. For example, some mothers rate their children's nutrition and long-term health as more important than their own.

On the other hand, "dieting mothers" might feed their children more of the less healthy foods and fewer of the healthy equivalents, suggesting that mothers who restrain their own food intake may feed their children more of the foods that they are denying themselves.


Food is often used as a reward for a child's good behaviour. For example, "If you tidy your room, you can have a biscuit" or "if you eat your veggies, then you can have ice cream".

However, if foods are presented as rewards, then the preference for that food will be increased, leading to the child wanting it more and more.

Although rewarding your child with dessert might encourage them to eat more vegetables in the short run. In the long run, however, it may have negative effects on the quality of a child's diet by reducing their preferences for vegetables.

An alternative approach might be to reward food choices instead of using food as a reward. For example, introducing a "kids' choice" school lunch program, where children were given tokens for eating fruit and vegetables that could be traded in for prizes showed that preference towards these foods increased after just two weeks.

To sum it up, it's important to act as a role model for your children when it comes to establishing their eating habits as it will have a huge impact on their long-term health and relationship with food.

Children are very perceptive to what their parents do and, chances are, your child's behaviour will follow that of your own. Monkey see, monkey do!

Karen is a nutrition coach and personal trainer. She runs monthly online group nutrition coaching programmes and hosts nutrition seminars around the country. See www.thenutcoach.com

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