Pleasure Helps: 3 Proven Tips for Feeding Kids

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Newborn babies derive pleasure from sweet, energy-dense food – this instinct serves us humans well and guarantees babies will get enough calories to grow and thrive. Healthy newborns are also great at self-regulation and don’t overdrink their milk.

The ability to self regulate, however, diminishes with age, and kids are disposed to overeating pleasurable, sweet and fatty foods. The fun and pleasure of tempting foods overrides weak and progressively weakening satiety signals.

The message then becomes: Resist pleasurable food; avoid temptation.

Alas, telling people, especially kids, to eat for health and nutrition doesn’t seem to work all that well. In the US, where parents and educators emphasize nutrients and health, and where food is a source of worry rather than of pleasure, obesity and diseases related to poor nutrition are much more prevalent than in France, where food pleasure is emphasized from childhood.

Can we shape healthy eating habits by learning to derive more pleasure from good food? A new review in the journal Appetite tracks efforts to do just that. Not surprisingly, the article, led by Sandrine Monnery-Patris comes from the Bourgogne Franche-Comté University in France, a nation that finds many remedies and solutions in the pleasures of life.

The authors find that three dimensions of food joy influence kids' tastes and habits.   

1. Kids enjoy what they know

Review of the literature shows that exposure of newborns, babies and kids to new tastes increased their acceptance and pleasure from that food. This starts in the womb – moms with varied diet have infants that like more foods. Breastfed babies are exposed to a greater variety of flavors and may enjoy more foods as a result.

Exposure in childhood remains the best predictor of what kids will like: Babies repeatedly exposed to veggies, to different textures of food, come to accept and want to eat these foods. It might take 10 times, but often, to know a flavor is to love it.

We need no prior knowledge when it comes sweet food. For other tastes, it takes tasting and re-tasting in many kinds of preparations.

2. Kids enjoy what their family and peers enjoy

When young people hear the “mmm” of food pleasure, when they see facial expressions and vocalization of others enjoying food, they are more likely to enjoy that food, too.

That’s why kids, even babies, should eat in company. Kids are more likely to eat a food when they see an adult eating it, and even more likely to eat it when other kids eat and enjoy it.

That’s why family meals are critical.

And why eating in front of screen is the worst.

What we do as parents is much more important than what we say. Telling your kids to drink water when you’re always walking around with a diet soda in your hand is as effective as telling them not to drive distracted when you’re often on the phone while in the driver’s seat. Eating healthy foods and enjoying these foods models good habits in our children.

3. Kids enjoy what they expect to enjoy

Omnipresent ads for junk food drive the message that these foods give great pleasure. Kids – especially kids in the US – associate unhealthy food with fun and tastiness; and healthy food with bad or not-great taste.

That’s because good-for-you-foods usually emphasize how they’d help us achieve health goals and meet nutritional needs. They appeal to our knowledge and cognition, not to our emotions, desires and imagination.

This review suggests that it’s time to change that.

Give healthy foods attractive names, pretty presentations and tell kids they are tasty and pleasurable and the positive expectation will be fulfilled.

Pleasure can help us eat better

It’s easy to do a thing we enjoy, that’s why it’s critical that kids enjoy healthy foods. To make healthy foods desirable we need to employ all aspects of food joy: early and repeated exposure to achieve familiarity, social joy connected to healthy eating, and the expectation and belief that healthy food is delicious.

Healthy foods and drinks can be tempting, exciting and delightful.

It’s time we emphasized their wonderful taste with words and actions.

Dr. Ayala