It's far more important and effective to encourage kids to make nutritious food choices because they want to, says Janet Nezon, a Toronto-area food educator.
"Make food an adventure and help kids to realize the incredible variety of textures and colours and tastes that are available," she says. "Then they will want to eat it, not feel they have to because we're telling them to."
Nezon says she realized about 10 years ago that despite an explosion of information about good food choices, the message didn't seem to be having much effect on consumer eating habits. What was needed, she thought, was an "easy way to put (theory) into practice, because that's the big link that was missing."
And the place to start was with kids.
The concept Nezon developed and the name of the company she started three years ago is Rainbow Plate.
"The reality is that if you are eating a vibrant mix of colours, you're covered (nutritionally)," she says. "So the simplest concept is to take your plate and create a rainbow plate."
At schools, daycares and summer camps, she displays fresh fruits and vegetables in the colour spectrum. (There are almost no blue foods and indigo and violet are tricky so the end of the spectrum is grouped as blue/purple.)
The kids are invited to visit each "colour station" and to use all their senses to inspect the produce — seeing beautiful colours and patterns, smelling, feeling the texture, hearing a crunchy sound and, if they wish, tasting.
The first step — in Nezon's program and for parents at home — is simply exposing kids to the wide range of produce available and engaging their interest. But this is not likely to be an overnight success story, she says.
Research has shown it takes an average of 15 exposures to a new food before a child will accept it. Many parents will have given up long before that.
The second key is that there should be no pressure on a child to try something new or to "eat your broccoli," Nezon says. At her presentations, adult volunteers don't acknowledge whether a child tastes something and children are never asked if they "like" the taste of something.
"You can't push vegetables on kids. You have to make food appealing and make it visually interesting and get kids connected to it and then they just eat it, but you don't make a big deal if they do or don't.
"It takes the power struggle out of it. It takes the pressure out of it and kids make their own discoveries — 'Oh, this is yummy' or 'Oh, I didn't notice how crunchy this is.'"
Giving a child this sense of control over what they eat is central to creating good eating habits that will last a lifetime, Nezon says.
As long as parents consistently provide a selection of healthy foods, eventually children will choose to eat them. But the choice of when and how much should be the child's.
Withholding or "demonizing" certain foods is a mistake, Nezon says. Kids will become obsessed and, given the chance, will eat more of them.
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