Kids are learning about food in the same way that they learn to read and write. But as a society, we don’t always look at kids eating this way. And as parents, we often forget that kids are not little adults when it comes to food.
In fact, there are distinct ways kids’ eating is different than adults. Here the 5 differences every parent should keep in mind
1. Children are growing, adults are not
A child’s appetite is partly driven by growth. The two periods of fastest growth are the first two years of life and puberty. Overall, children grow in spurts, meaning sometimes they may want seconds or thirds of a meal and other times, only half of it.
This is unlike an adult whose appetite is more stable unless something changes like workouts, sickness or a lack of sleep. So remember that while you may want your child to eat more or less, that decision is best left in her hands (see Satter’s Division of Responsibility for how this works).
2. Children have few experiences with food, adults have many
Imagine you go to a party and much of the food doesn’t look familiar. In fact, you are especially grossed out by a slimy entree everyone is trying to get you to eat. This is how kids often feel, they aren’t familiar with a food or its texture (especially seeing it mixed with other items) and it’s not something they’re used to eating.
The truth is that this rarely happens to adults because we have lots of experiences with food. We can go out and know what’s in most dishes and eat without feeling overwhelmed. We help our children, not by pressuring them to eat, but by giving them as many experiences with different foods as we can.
3. Children’s taste buds crave sweets, adults’ taste buds like bitter
Ever wonder why kids swarm the cupcake table at parties and constantly ask for dessert? Or why it took you so long to prefer coffee and wine?
In a recent study in PLoS ONE, 5 to 10-year-olds preferred salt and sweet significantly more than adults. Additionally, those that were taller had the greatest preferences for sweets. Researchers have long held that children prefer energy-rich sweets because they are growing. Additionally, young children are more likely to taste bitter compounds such as those in green vegetables, something that decreases with age.
This is why it’s so important to manage sweets effectively — not too much but not too restrictive. And instead of making your child eat bitter vegetables (2 bites please), prepare them in ways that make them want to take more than 2 bites.
4. Children are motivated by taste, adults are motivated by taste and health
Dina Rose recently brought up this topic on her blog, citing a recent study showing that kids eat less of a food when they were told about its health benefits such as helping them become big and strong versus being tasty.
The simple truth is kids want food that tastes good and is satisfying. While adults want that too, they also have the ability to factor in health and nutrition — and consider the long-term consequences of eating.
So talk to your child about variety and overall nutrition in age-appropriate ways, but not as a way to get them to eat at mealtime. And if you say anything at all, focus on the taste of the item or compare it to something else they love.
5. Young children focus on one or two foods at dinner, (most) adults eat everything
Let’s say a 4-year-old discovers a new food they love. When it’s served, they focus on eating that single food. Sometimes they might even eat past fullness because they love it so much. The difference with children is that they tend to make up for it at the next meal by eating less. Laboratory studies on toddler and preschool children show that while food intake varies greatly from meal to meal, over the course of a day it’s pretty consistent.
Make a point to serve their favorite item every so often (not every meal), allowing them to eat until satisfaction because eventually, they will tire of it. Just rotate nutritious items so their overall diet is adequate. And over time, as they get more food experiences under their belt, they will be more likely to eat a little bit of everything.
How can you see your child’s eating is different from yours?
Got a picky eater? Get the latest research and tips in my book From Picky to Powerful
Judith Heaney-McKee says
I cannot tell you how timely this post was for me today. I have a four- and six-year-old and they trade places on me daily or weekly as to who will eat what is served and who will scrunch up their face and say, “No thank you, mama.”
This was a timely reminder: I say what and when, they say if and how much.
Sometimes, it’s way too easy to get caught up in what they are eating instead of trusting them to listen to their bodies. And, outside pressures of family who think that a four- or six-year-old should be eating like the rest of us…
Pinning this so I can read it when I forget that I do not want food to be an issue in our family. Thanks!
Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD says
Thanks Judith! My kids are 5 and 7 so I understand where you are coming from ; )