Food Exploration- Building Solid Eating Habits

Food Exploration- Building Solid Eating Habits

Building the Foundation- How Do We Learn What We Know about Food?

I’m one of those crunchy folks. I believe in making food go further, caring for earths creatures, and recycling is my middle name. I also live in a tree house (Just kidding. Sustainable was the word I was looking for). So, it may or may not surprise you that my road to vegetarianism began when I was 13. As the general gist of this article, we’ll examine that food exploration begins young- and being a very young plant based foodie was MY way of experiencing it!

Fast forward a few years and I am all grown up and holding my baby girl for the first time. My kid had little forewarning that her life would consist  of funny sounding foods like tofu & tahini (poor thing). Or  that she might become notorious for being the only kid in her kindergarten class to not know what a chicken nugget was!

child picking strawberries from kitchen counter
girl eating pizza

Absolutely No Absolutes in Exploring foods

As a dietitian the first thing I know is that life is not about absolutes. ESPECIALLY when it comes to food. Our pre-parental selves may have been convinced that our kids were going to be broccoli lovin’ fools who sat down promptly at 6:30 neatly groomed for supper. If you’re anything like me, I’m guessing that years 1.62-3.54 of your child’s life shattered your dreams.

Surprisingly enough, our kids actually come with their very own set of taste buds (who knew). Another thing we might overlook is kids were built for exploring foods, and they really know what they’re doing! Sometimes its our own silly aspirations laden with the best intentions that often drives food exploration into a corner.  Here are some ways small people explore foods better than large people:

  • They ditch the fork and explore food with their hands
  • She uses his face in place of utensils to explore.
  • He decides whether foods are acceptable based on taste, texture, and temperature.  Not because someone told him they were.
  • They don’t care if its free range, face free, organic, or full of carbs.  He trusts his gut. Literally.
  • She stops when he is full.  Even if we deem the plate is still full.
One of the most frequent things I wind up teaching my adult patients is how to eat mindfully.  How to truly experience food through all of our senses much like a child.  It’s interesting that many times as we grow, we develop a distrust of ourselves with food.  A lot of this is learned as we grow in culture. Lets help the kiddos stay curious by fostering a great environment to explore!

How Do I Expand Food Exploration?

Sometimes the issue is not exploring food choices we as parents may deem less than optimal- It is trying to jump start the drive for picky eaters to explore enough! 

Like all humans, trying new things for kiddos can sometimes be a daunting task! This is especially true when it comes to trying new foods.  Food exploration requires delving feet first into a powerful burst of many sensory experiences! 

For children with sensory processing disorders or autism, the food exploration experience could potentially be downright traumatic. 

Making exploration less stressful can include the following: 

  • Recognize you choose the foods you prepare and what goes into the home, but kiddo gets to decide what and how much to eat. 
  • Keep a list of foods your little likes! It may be larger than you think. As you expand, jot new acceptable items down to remember to include them at meal time.  
  • Remember- A food doesn’t need to be eaten every time it is served for it to be considered acceptable. 
  • It often takes many exposures to a new food for acceptance.  If they don’t eat it the first time, don’t stress it.  Trust they know what their bodies need in the given moment.  Continue to serve aversion foods at a later date. 
  • Only introduce one new food at a time.  Ensure the new food exposure is a pleasant experience by pairing it with foods you know your child already accepts.  
  • For picky eaters try food chaining. Experiment with tastes and textures similar to acceptable food, but only one variable at a time.
food exploration through food chaining

What Can We Control Helping Our Kids With Food Exploration?

As an avid animal rescuer and plant food connoisseur, some days it can be all I can stand to steer away from my temptation to lord the table! As a parent there are things about food I can and cannot control.

  • I can control food  exposure (at least when it’s in my home)
  • I cannot control other peoples taste buds
  • I can control meal environment (when it’s in my home)
  • I cannot control how hungry or full another human is

My now 12-year old loves some sliced veggies with hummus. She also loves steak. Luckily, as an adult in the house I have a monopoly on what comes in it (#momwin). Nevertheless, SOMEHOW she ends up with steak on her plate from time to time (ahem, grandma!). As a parent (and RD) I have two options-allow occasional inclusion of new not mom approved  or throw a tantrum. I choose the former.

The surest way to instill temptation is by creating “off limit” foods. This goes for our kids and ourselves. Chicken and steak both have nutritional benefits (iron, protein, vitamins & minerals). Therefore, I am somewhat okay with the fact the small human in the household is not yet as “crunchy” as I.

family gathered at dinner table
Woman eating with chop sticks

Healthy Ways to Explore Food

When you tell someone they can’t ever, it’s a good way to get them thinking about it even more (don’t think about white bears- what are you thinking right now?). My daughter has not yet decided that the face free life is for her, and that’s okay. Everyone must walk their own path. All I can do is guide her and introduce her to the healthy choices I know. Be the model I want her to see.

We can prime our kids food expectations and prepare them for the best by offering lots of healthy options.  We can also support them in their choices to explore new foods, and guide them as they do so with offering insight into whats nutritious in those choices.  Try to refrain from the “good food, bad food” mantra’s.  This can skew little’s natural trust in their judgement.  What are some ways you help your kiddo explore food?

Shena Jaramillo. Registered Dietitian
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Shena Jaramillo. Registered Dietitian

Hi I'm Shena. I believe in choosing plants first, honoring your hunger, and that a little humor goes a long way.

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