When I see kids for their yearly checkups, I always ask three questions: Do you get plenty of exercise? Do you sleep well? Do you eat a balanced diet? (A balanced diet includes milk products, grains, meats, poultry, fruits and vegetables.)
The first two questions almost always get a thumbs-up, but the last one seldom does. Why? Because lots of kids don’t like fruits and vegetables.
When I ask 4-to-6-year-olds about broccoli, for example, they often say they don’t eat it because they don’t like it. But when I ask whether they’ve tried it, they usually say no. “Then how do you know you don’t like it?” I’ll ask. The response: “ ’Cause I don’t.”
My 8-to-12-year-old patients laugh when I tell that story because they realize something can’t taste bad to you if you’ve never tried it. However, when I ask if they eat fruits and vegetables, I often get the same response: No.
I never argue with kids about what they eat, but I try to explain why a balanced diet is good for them. So I typically ask, “Have you ever heard of a rabbit that doesn’t eat grass? How about a lion that doesn’t eat zebras? A dung beetle that doesn’t eat poop?”
The answers to those questions are no, no and no. That’s because animals know what foods they are supposed to eat. For some, such as dung beetles, it’s instinctive. Others, such as rabbits and lions, learn what to eat by watching their moms.
To put it another way, animals don’t eat because something tastes good. They eat to survive.
So why are humans the only species to reject food that’s good for them? The main reason is that they think about how the food tastes, not about what it does to keep their bodies healthy.
But even if the brain and mouth reject certain foods, other parts of the body want them. For example, your eyes love carrots. Your muscles love salmon. Your skin loves blueberries. (Your nose is also part of this equation, because smell plays a big role in how something tastes.)
Most adults are willing to give a food a second chance if they don’t like it the first time. They have learned that foods taste better if you try them a few times.
Little kids don’t understand that concept.
As a baby, you ate mostly food that was sweet or bland. Once you become a toddler (ages 1 to 3), you ate “table food” that had more complex flavors. When a toddler discovers that green vegetables have a slightly bitter taste, he’s likely to reject them. He doesn’t expect that taste to change over time.
Scientists believe that some kids and adults have other reasons for not liking certain foods. One involves the number of taste buds. Some people have a lot of taste buds; to them, food flavors taste stronger. Those people tend to avoid bitter or spicy foods. Another reason is that picky eating runs in families. So parents of picky eaters might have been picky when they were kids.
Even if science explains why you avoid certain foods, you can choose not to. Here are a few suggestions on how to make that choice easier:
●Help prepare the meal. You can cut up, cook or arrange the food. Dinner is more appealing when you have helped make it.
●Try a new food at least five times. Eat small amounts at first.
●Mix vegetables with foods you like or foods that hide the taste of the vegetables. Add green peas to mashed potatoes, or drizzle broccoli with melted cheese.
●Eat fruits mixed into yogurt or pudding, or with a little sugar on top. They can also be added to smoothies so that you barely taste them.
●Eat something even if you don’t love it. If you can eat a new food without barfing, give yourself a high-five!
Because I like Legos and gross things, my wife often teases that I’m a big kid. In some ways, she’s right. I like beef, chicken, cheese and bread way more than I like fruits and vegetables. But I eat from every food group every day. With a little practice, you can, too.
Bennett is a Washington pediatrician. His Web site, www.howardjbennett.com, includes past articles and other cool stuff.