Who Needs a Kids’ Menu? 

By- Dr. Jonathan WoodFrench friesMozzarella sticksHot dogsSpaghetti with red saucePB & JMac and cheeseChicken fingersGrilled CheeseSound familiar? Pick any five of the above and you have the classic all-American Kids’ Menu! And increasingly, this is not just a restaurant menu: it’s the home menu as well!Why do we expect so little from children when it comes to eating?Why are their choices so few and so boring?Why so unhealthy? Where are the fruits? Vegetables? Complex carbohydrates?Do we precondition children to this at an early age?And then continually reinforce it over the course of their early years?Does this stunt their taste buds? What about their culinary imagination and adventurousness?Bottom line:Where is the fresh fish?Where are the beans or broccoli?Where is the grilled teriyaki chicken?Where is the tabbouleh or hummus?Does all the above encourage an unhealthy diet in later childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, one that contributes to obesity and promotes certain diseases and cancers? The definitive answer to this question is difficult to pin down, but the logical answer is “yes”!We are programmed to want sweet high energy food from the time we are born. Breast milk fits the bill and we add to the sweet and fatty selections throughout infancy and childhood. The taste for salt is active by 6 month and we continue to feed that desire through our entire life. Bitter foods (e.g. spinach) typically require repeated exposure in order for one to develop a desire for the taste. In order for children to develop a taste for some of the more “difficult” flavors, it (1) takes time and patience and (2) is easier if it is done early in childhood.Americans are busy people (too busy?) and increasingly have less time for meal preparation. Furthermore, as parents we seem programmed to worrying about our children starving themselves. They won’t! If presented with healthy food, children will eat it. If we worry about their rejected choices and immediately substitute with one of those sweet or fatty or salty foods that we know they will eat, we may feel better. But they will ultimately suffer. Your kids may miss the opportunity to develop tastes for more healthy foods and be destined to look for and get the Kids’ Menu throughout childhood.Sooooo…How can we combat this?How can we change the fact that the most common vegetable eaten by toddlers is French fries?How do we capitalize on the fact that what children eat in the first 2 years of life is a strong predictor or whether they are eating fruits and vegetables at age 10?Make a point of repeatedly offering young children a variety of foods.Start early with fruits and vegetable as snacks – – establish good habits and life will be much easier down the line.Be patient – – don’t rush to replace good stuff on their plate with just any calories. Children will NOT starve themselves!Don’t focus on “it’s good for you”. Simply tell them “this is what’s for dinner”.Make it a family affair – – choose a good balanced menu and don’t “dumb down” the choices for the younger kids.Don’t go cold-turkey on the tasty “unhealthy” stuff – – research also shows that kids may well overindulge later on the “forbidden delights”Avoid the Kids Menu! If you go to a restaurant, inquire about small portions of the adult selections. Or let the kids order some healthy choices from the appetizer menu.Finally, consider offering some exciting or even exotic choices to kids early on. Challenge those developing taste buds and you may provide them with the inclination to stretch their diet down the line. The more they have experienced as kids, the more desirable options they will likely have for a healthy diet as adults.Some books to consider if interested in further reading:Hungry Monkey: A Food-Loving Father’s Quest to Raise an Adventurous Eater by Matthew Anster-Burton (Houghton Mifflin)The Gastokid Cookbood: Feeding a Foodie in a Fast-Food WorldBy Hugh Garvey and Matthew Yeomans (Wiley)My Two-Year-Old Eats Octopus: Raising Children Who Love to Eat EverythingBy Nancy Tringali Piho (Bull Publishing) (due in November 2009)