One in five children in the U.S. is obese. When you hear a statistic like this, you think, “Well, not my kid.” After all, you’re buying the organic juice, right? Sure, you may indulge in fast food occasionally, but you’re careful not to overdo it.
It turns out those “occasional” indulgences are more rule than exception. Recently, a shocking study entitled “The First 1,000 Days: Nourishing America’s Future” reported that the number one “vegetable” eaten by America’s 1-year-olds is the French fry.
According to the study, the first 1,000 days of a child’s life—from conception through the second birthday—set the table for his or her brain development. A malnourished brain can lead to lower IQ and chronic medical problems and even affect future school and job success. Yet many parents still fall prey to misunderstanding when it comes to feeding their kids.
For years, the general belief was that there were many things children shouldn’t eat during their first year—nuts, eggs and seafood among them. That simply isn’t true.
“For the most part, once toddlers are eating solid food, they can really eat anything as long as it’s not a choking hazard,” said Vanessa Slots, MD, a pediatrician and chief of the General Pediatrics department at Renown Children’s Hospital. “Hot dogs, nuts, large meats, popcorn … they can all be choking hazards. It’s best to start with small foods that can easily be squished in fingers, even soft meats. But really, they can eat anything and everything.”
The only thing parents with infants should avoid is honey. As they grow, their bodies develop the proper acid makeup to deal with the botulism toxin in honey, but babies don’t yet have this. Anything containing honey should be avoided until age 1. But even nut products, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, may be introduced as early as 6 months of age and may even help ward off allergies.
You are what you eat
“But my toddler won’t eat vegetables,” many parents argue.
This is a cop-out, according Slots.
“Picky eating can start as early as 6 or 8 months,” Slots said. “The thing I tell parents is that tastes constantly change, so if we aren’t exposing taste buds to things, we won’t have wide-ranging palates.”
This explains why your toddler might spend a day eating her weight in green beans and the next day won’t touch one.
“Exposure could take 20 to 50 times,” Slots said. “Try it at least 50 times before you say your child will or won’t like it. Think about how long that really is.”
And exposure, she added, doesn’t necessarily mean forcing beans down her throat. It means the beans, and other vegetables, are always on offer. They’re seen, smelled and touched. And even if you’re hiding the veggies—pureed cauliflower in the mac and cheese, for instance—don’t make them a secret.
“You can easily puree vegetables and hide them. You want that nutritionally,” Slots said. “But we need them to realize they’re having the vegetable at some point. So if you puree that cauliflower, you should also have some on the plate. They need to be exposed to it.”
Parents need to practice the eating habits they want to see in their kids.
“If parents weren’t raised on vegetables, their kids won’t eat them,” explained Karen Fisher, nutritionist with Nutrition Connection in South Reno. “In some segments of the population, they don’t even think to include vegetables in their diets, whereas a generation ago there was more emphasis on a balanced meal.”
Fisher cautioned people to avoid the trap of making separate meals for kids.
“My slant on picky eaters is that it’s an opportunity for kids to be in control,” Fisher said. “If Mom and Dad are making different meals for them, that’s power. So I suggest going with, ’This is what we’re serving tonight. After this, the kitchen is closed. We will not be pulling out the chicken nuggets or mac and cheese.’ They won’t miss too many meals before they’ll eventually choke it down. And they’ll eventually come around to enjoying more variety.”