Healthy Eating Begins with Learning to Love Nutritious Foods

Obesity and the health problems associated with being overweight are increasing among Memphis children at startling rates. In just over ten years (from 1990 to 2002) the diagnosis of type II diabetes among children and adolescents increased 4 to 40 cases per year. Fifty percent of children under 11 are either overweight or at risk of becoming overweight.1 And, by the time Memphis children are in high school, 17% of them are considered obese.2

Nutrition is vitally important to early childhood brain development. All areas of development from cognitive, to emotional and physical development are influenced by early nutrition. Even children's taste preferences for foods are formed by early nutrition.3

Healthy eating habits are formed early.

Good nutrition is a big part of maintaining a healthy weight for both adults and children. The best way to ensure that your child eats healthy foods across his lifetime is to help him develop a preference for the tastes and smells of those foods early in life.3

You are helping your child learn to like certain foods even before she begins to eat foods. Just like hearing, babies' senses of smell and taste become well developed during pregnancy, and are the most closely related senses. As a result, the foods you eat during pregnancy influence your children's preferences for foods. (Breastfeeding, too, influences your children's food preferences.) Babies like things that are familiar. So, eating healthy yourself during this time sets the stage for your child to like those foods in the future.4

Once you begin to feed your child more than just breast milk or formula, follow these experts' tips3 to helping your child enjoy nutritious foods:

  1. Accept a division of control. Parents have control over what children eat. They provide healthy options and spaces to eat. Children should have control over how much they eat. Their bodies have natural signals of hunger and fullness based on what they need. Parents need to listen to their children's cues rather than forcing them to eat more or preventing them from eating because it's not mealtime.
  2. Exploit the "window of opportunity." Between about 12 to 21 months, young children explore their world by trying to put everything in their mouths. This developmental phase provides parents with a great opportunity to introduce a variety of healthy foods because children will mostly likely try them. By the time a child is two he can enjoy up to 200 different kinds of foods and flavors.
  3. Use the power of dietary variety. By about 8 months, children seek variety instinctively. This natural habit is one of the reasons children will eat a whole bowl of blueberries one day and not want to touch it the next. Rather than viewing this tendency with frustration, help your child get all of the vitamins and minerals he needs by introducing all of the safe fruits and vegetables you can.
  4. Embrace the "rule of 15." In contrast to the "window of opportunity," two-year-olds become skeptical of new foods. So, parents need to become very patient by introducing foods 15 or more times. Research shows that kids often need to be introduced to foods at least 15 times before they will enjoy them. Don't pressure a child into eating foods she doesn't like. Instead, eat the food yourself.
  5. Create bridges of familiarity. When considering what they will eat, children compare how new foods looks, smell, feel, and taste with foods they already like to eat. Parents can exploit commonalities between foods to expand the variety children are willing to eat.
  6. Expect imitation—of yourself, and others. Just like during pregnancy and breastfeeding, what you eat matters. Children naturally mimic those around them and learn to love anything that they see their parents enjoy. So, make sure to eat the foods you want your child to eat and keep away from the foods you don't want him to eat.
  7. Get young children involved with food. Although it may be hard to do regularly, allow your child to get involved in the food they eat. Bring them to the grocery store, let them help you stir or pour while you're cooking, and make a special time for planting fruits and vegetables together. They will love spending the time with you and feel proud of their accomplishments.

All in all, feeding children, as Dr. Daniel Kessler said, is much more than just choosing what a child eats and how much. It's about spending time together, sharing positive experiences, and learning that parents will provide nourishment. While less obvious, children's sense of smell is equally important in this process. Children turn toward smells that are preferred and familiar while they turn away from unpleasant odors. Additionally, children's memories are strongly linked with the scents around them. For example, when it comes to soothing an infant to sleep, many parents swear by a nightgown or other piece of clothing that smells like Mom.4

For more information about healthy eating, what foods to introduces (and when), and making family mealtimes enjoyable, check out these sites:


Hare, M. E., Bailey, J. E., Forde, D. R., Mackey, S., Tang, J., & Lewis, C. (2006, February 9). Memphis Behavioral Risk Factor Survey, 2005: The Children’s Component. Retrieved from:

Center for Disease Control (2009). The Obesity Epidemic and Memphis Students. Retrieved from:

Roberts, S. B., & Heyman M. B. (2000, August/September). How to feed babies and toddlers in the 21st century. Zero to Three, 24-28. Retrieved from: (2009). Latvala, C. Developing baby's five senses. Retrieved from: