Early childhood is a period of rapid development. In this important stage, food preferences are formed and can lay the foundations for a healthy life.
Children are however genetically predisposed to prefer high-energy, high-sugar, salty foods, and in pre-school age to reject new foods, flavours and textures. So it's no surprise that the last National Nutrition and Physical Activity Survey found that most young Australian children do not meet recommended guidelines for the intake of vegetables, fruit, dairy, legumes, lean protein and grains.
Additionally, food fussiness is known to peak between the ages of two and five and to adversely affect healthy eating, as the tendency to prefer familiar foods often limits the quality and variety in children's diets, especially their vegetable intake.
Long-term eating preferences and habits are established during early childhood. The intervention of parents and carers is therefore vitally important to encourage kids toward healthier foods.
Developing Healthy Taste
When children dislike a food's taste they'll generally refuse to eat it, which is especially common with vegetables due to their bitter taste. Indeed, distaste appears to be the strongest driver of food fussiness or food neophobia in young children.
However, research shows that repeated exposure to foods that are perceived to taste bad has the effect of increasing children's familiarity with those flavours and in turn their acceptance of those foods. For instance, studies have demonstrated that children will increase their vegetable intake after just five exposures at regular intervals (e.g. weekly).
There is also evidence that the issue of a small reward such as a sticker can increase children's intake of vegetables, which we think is a great way to encourage kids and their repeated exposure to these less popular foods.
But taste is not the only sensory feature that children are exposed to with food – they also engage with it using other non-taste senses, such as how it feels in their hands and mouths.
Trying New Textures
Just as children prefer certain foods based on taste, they also prefer foods based on texture, with beans, legumes and various other vegetables a common dislike.
Fortunately, as with children's taste, studies have shown that greater experience with foods having a variety of textures increases the long-term acceptance of those foods. For instance, the early introduction (at around six months) of textured solids that need to be processed with a side-to-side tongue movement is associated with greater acceptance of these foods in the long-term.
Moreover, most researchers agree that development of these abilities, such as lateral tongue movements, are texture-dependent and therefore do not emerge unless children are given the particular textures requiring these skills.
Why New Flavours & Textures Are Important
For the reasons touched on above, early childhood is a sensitive period for the development of healthy eating habits. This is why interventions by parents and carers are likely to have a strong impact on kids' health outcomes in later life.
"The early childhood years are a crucial time for developing eating behaviours and food preferences. The greater the variety of foods that children are exposed to in their early years, the greater the likelihood that they will eat a range of foods as adults." - Australian Government
Some ways to encourage kids to enjoy a variety of foods with different flavours and textures include preparing foods in new ways, for example baking instead of steaming or boiling vegetables or adding them into a casserole, or cooking meats in a pie, meatloaf or stew instead of serving them on their own.
We also suggest discussing new food experiences with kids to take on board their feedback and to give support. This builds trust and encourages them to give most new foods a proper go.
At Go! Kidz, our range of super healthy kids' meals spans reimagined, familiar favourites such as chicken nuggets, cottage pie, mac n cheese, lasagne and meatballs & pasta bolognese, as well as more adventurous flavours and textures like our coconut chicken curry, veggie korma, fish pie and moussaka.
Developed with the help of Skye Swaney, formerly Senior Dietitian at Australia’s Healthy Kids Association, every one of our all-natural kids' meals has a 3½ to 4½ health star rating and contains up to 3 serves of vegetables. Best of all, they're a big hit with fussy eaters, helping busy parents and carers to easily provide a wide variety of highly nutritious food at mealtimes.
If you have any questions about our meals or how they're made, let us know.