Persuading children to eat enough fruit and vegetables is a universal problem in developed countries
The articles in this edition of the newsletter focus on the early years with good reason. Food preferences are influenced by experiences during the very earliest stages of life, as Catherine Forestell’s contribution, ‘Prenatal and post-natal influences on fruit and vegetable acceptance throughout childhood’, describes. Innate predispositions to prefer sweet or energy-dense foods and to dislike those that are sour and bitter, act as barriers to children’s vegetable intake, but experience also plays a role. Mothers who consume plenty of vegetables during pregnancy and while breastfeeding provide their infants with experience of flavours through amniotic fluid and breast milk. This taste exposure appears to enhance acceptance and increase preference for novel foods at weaning.
The importance of early experience is further demonstrated in the work of Sophie Nicklaus and her colleagues. The second article in the newsletter, ‘Vegetables: choices at the age of 2-3 years and link with preferences until adulthood’, describes longitudinal research study in a French day-care centre. Two to three year old children’s food choices during buffet lunches were recorded and examined in relation to their food preferences from 4 to 22 years later. Preferences for vegetables, and variety of vegetables consumed at follow-up, were predicted by intake at baseline, suggesting that lifelong eating patterns may already be established in early childhood.
The third article ‘Healthy eating in childhood: the importance of exposure’ (Lucy Cooke from University College London) rounds off the issue by suggesting ways in which exposure (or experience) can be manipulated to increase children’s acceptance of vegetables. Children’s tendency to avoid unfamiliar food (neophobia) is known to be a barrier to fruit and vegetable intake, but can be overcome with repeated tasting of small quantities. In a series of seminaturalistic studies using socio-economically diverse samples of parents of children from 2-7 years of age, the efficacy of this approach has been demonstrated. These studies offer hope to despondent parents who have all but given up trying to cajole their young children into eating up their greens!
A growing body of research points to the early childhood years as a critical period for the development of eating habits and evidence of the most effective techniques for improving children’s dietary patterns is beginning to emerge. Dissemination of these findings to parents and all concerned with the feeding of young children must be a priority.