It’s getting kids to eat what parents serve that causes so many problems.

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DINA ROSE, PhD is a sociologist, parent educator and feeding expert empowering parents to raise kids who eat right.
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Tuesday
Feb212012

Food Culture and What It Means to be "Child-Friendly"

I just came back from India—(The trip of a lifetime!)—and the kids there eat…Indian Food.

Imagine, nary a hot dog or chicken nugget in sight.

Actually, there were chicken nuggets in the hotels, and I'm told that imported "child-friendly" food is (unfortunately) becoming popular as a status symbol among a certain set, but still, my point is...

All over the world kids are eating ethnic food. 

Stuff we think of as foreign, exotic and decidedly not “child-friendly.”  Stuff we think it’s rare for kids to like. This falls into the “duh” category of social observation.

Of course, Indian kids don’t call it ethnic food. To them its just food.  But if all those kids can eat Indian food why can’t ours? Or, why can’t our kids at least eat lentil soup? Spinach salad? Chicken Fricassee?

So many American kids don’t even eat a regular “American” diet. They eat a modified version that represents the worst of the worst: hot dogs, pizza, and lots and lots of pasta (mostly plain, sometimes cheesy, but never very interesting).

What's the deal?

Food preferences are culturally determined.

(Another obvious social observation that won’t win me a Sociologist of the Year award anytime soon.)

Culture influences taste preferences because eating is really a matter of math: Kids learn to like the foods they’re exposed to the most.  In India, that’s Indian food.  Here, well…

Just as importantly, picky eating is a problem of plenty. It’s hard not to give in to kids when you can give them what they want, when there are so many available choices.

  • I’m also not saying that Indian parents never have a problem trying to feed a picky eater. (I have enough Indian clients here in the States to know that isn’t so.)  Indian parents, though, don’t resolve their picky eater problems the same way we do because they can’t: American style “child-friendly” food isn’t everywhere and, even if it were, eating it isn’t culturally accepted.

The idea that kids need “child-friendly” foods is a marketing ploy. 

Kids can, and should, eat pretty much anything adults eat, with only a few exceptions. (Read more about that here.)  You only have to look around the world to see plenty of proof that kids don’t need a stack of special foods.

In India, cultural constraints determine what children can eat. Parents and their children know the limits, and as a result, kids eat within those bounds.

Here in the U.S. however, our cultural expectation is that children will eat like crap. Perhaps that is a bit of an exaggeration, but it’s certainly true that here in the U.S. we don’t expect kids to like healthy foods.  No one is surprised, then, when they don’t.

What’s more, our ambivalence about feeding kids healthy foods—we know they should eat more vegetables but think it’s developmentally appropriate when they rebel—induces parents to create a malleable, penetrable, flexible, weak and wobbly eating structure.

Most parents start out strong—“Fruits and vegetables all the time”—and weaken as their kids wear them down.  No one starts out intending to feed their toddler the pizza-pasta-nugget and hot dog diet. It just happens.  Because it can.  (You only have to check out the grocery store to see the kinds of foods marketed towards infants, and the kinds marketed towards toddlers to see what I mean.)

You don’t need to move across the world to solve a picky-eating problem. You just have to establish a foreign culture at home.

Forget about feeding the American way, and start seriously rethinking what, when and why you offer the foods that you do. Then, tinker with the structure to get it right.

The key to turning out kids who eat right is  to be firm about the food, but flexible with how your interact with your child.  For help setting up a successful feeding structure, read:

For more information about interacting with your child read:

If you want your kids to eat differently you have to feed them differently.

Or hope for some kind of divine intervention! Otherwise, I'm sorry to say, you'll simply keep reinforcing the habits your kids already have.

 ~Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.~

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Reader Comments (12)

My husband is Indian and we took our daughter to India when she was 7 months old. Since we couldn't pack enough of her usual food to last 2 weeks, we fed her dal and rice and chapatis and anything else they said they gave babies. It was awesome. She actually loved it so much that it was in India that she first reached for her own food to feed herself.
Thanks for all the great advice you give here. I am constantly referencing your articles to my friends.
-Becka
www.tinytoesbigbrains.com

February 21, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRebecka Manglanathan

Rebecka,

Thanks for sharing your story. Fantastic that you were "brave" enough to feed your daughter Indian food, and that she was "daring" enough to fall in love with it!

Dina

February 21, 2012 | Registered CommenterDina Rose

I'm interested to know if Indian kids (or any other ethnicity) become picky WITHIN their culture's cuisine though? E.g., do some of them only eat dahl & chapati & rice, and refuse to "graduate" to a wider variety of curries etc that the rest of the family would normally be eating? Or are Indians in general just WAY better than us at exposing their kids to a variety of flavors/textures & not catering to their toddlers demands?

February 21, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterVestifarian

I'm sure there are Indian children who are picky about what they eat, though this was not something I discussed with anyone. However, the vast majority of people I met eat a simple diet and there just isn't enough food, nor enough variety to be picky. I wouldn't be surprised, though, to hear of an emerging picky eating problem among people feeding their kids a more westernized diet.

Pickiness is a problem of plenty.

Dina

February 22, 2012 | Registered CommenterDina Rose

This is a great article. I have always considered myself fortunate that my kids aren't in any way picky, but have come to realize it is because of how I fed them as small children. This became evident to me as I now watch my friends with toddlers and the horrible diets they feed their children (yes, bagels, crackers, pizza, etc. while the adults eat salmon, rice and salad). I met a woman a few years back who talked about opening her own business making 'toddler food'. She thought there were all sorts of baby foods on the market, but no toddler food. I thought to myself - 'toddler food? isn't that just food?'

February 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNancy

I know more than a few adults (parents) who wrinkle their nose at any fish (besides canned tuna drowned in mayonnaise on Wonder Bread, of course), shun any vegetables (unless it's corn on the cob dripping butter or, of course, french fries), eat Trix and Froot Loops and consume soda by the liter on a daily basis...and then are perplexed by their "picky" kids who "won't try" anything and "will only eat" frozen pizza-flavored bagel bites and hot dogs. Mystery solved.

February 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNorma

Nancy: I agree that toddler food is just food. Unfortunately, most parents have been convinced otherwise by the excellent media machine.

And Norma: I agree that parents don't always eat the way they want their children to eat, and then wonder why their kids eat the way they do. But feeding/eating is complicated and there are a lot more parents out there, in my experience, who eat "right" but who have kids that don't. I think it's because the emphasis on nutrition makes parents feed marginal foods, and use questionable feeding techniques, both of which backfire. If it were just a case of modeling, many more kids would be eating better than they currently do.

Dina

February 23, 2012 | Registered CommenterDina Rose

I hazard to guess that a huge reason that children don't learn to eat a variety of healthy food choices is due to lack of discipline on the parent's part. It is often easier to give in to children's whining than to hold firm. As a parent of 5 boys, I know how challenging it can be. Thankfully I only had one "picky" eater, but with a little creativity and perseverance he is now a great eater. My children have never dictated our food choices but have had input into meal planning. There are times we eat what is normally considered "kid-friendly" food, but more often than not it is a good homemade meal complete with many veggies.

February 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMaria

Maria,

I agree that it is hard for many parents to hold firm when their children refuse to eat what is being served. I don't think it's a matter of discipline, however. The feeding relationship is incredibly complex and most parents would feed their children better if they had the right tools. It sounds like you did; that's great.

Thanks for sharing your story.

Dina

February 24, 2012 | Registered CommenterDina Rose

Great article. It reminds me of an article I read a long time ago in a parenting magazine. It made the same point you did and had photos of typical "kid" foods from around the world. I wish I could find that magazine again. The pictures were great. Sadly, compared to other countries, America had the junkiest "kid" food. Most other countries had real food made at home, not processed, packaged stuff. I believe the only exception was Swedish kid's obsession with ketchup.

March 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterM

M,

I didn't know that Swedish kids obsess about ketchup. Good to know our kids aren't alone!

Thanks for your kind words about the blog. I appreciate the support.

Best,

Dina

March 1, 2012 | Registered CommenterDina Rose

I can verify what you wrote here. I worked in 20 countries, and was gradually improving my health by learning about the poison in most of them. Other countries, especially Japan, had a lot safer food than United States did. That is the primary reason they live longer.

As for medical care, I won't use space for details, but if I believed doctors I would have been already dead three times. Now I have prostate cancer which two doctors told me it has to be surgery, another maybe radiation. I flat refused all of this, and took two herbs (graviola and turmeric) that stopped in three weeks the symptoms I had more than a year. I also did some experimenting, and know a few things will make the cancer grow. Worst of all is the most addictive dangerous drug in the world - SUGAR. If I eat even half as much sugar as most Americans do, my cancer symptoms return in two days.

February 27, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMarvin L. Zinn

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