Just as there are stages in children’s development of motor skills or cognitive abilities, there are developmental stages in eating habits. You can make the most impact on your child’s eating habits if you respond to his development in age-appropriate ways.
Stage 1: Infancy. Program your baby to appreciate the tastes of fresh fruits and vegetables. Every baby starts out as a vegetarian, since meat is usually the last food group introduced to new eaters. Between five and nine months, babies can be introduced to a variety of grains, fruits, and vegetables, such as rice, bananas, pears, California avocados, barley, sweet potatoes, carrots, squash, and mashed potatoes. Between nine and twelve months, introduce tofu. As a dairy alternative, get your infant used to the taste of soy beverages.
Stage 2: Toddler years. Toddlers love to graze, so make a toddler nibble tray with bite-sized fruits and vegetables, together with a yogurt and avocado dip. Your toddler will learn to snack on fresh fruits and vegetables instead of packaged stuff. Meat is not necessary, as long as you use iron- fortified cereal or continue to breastfeed or give iron-fortified formula. (Alternative sources of iron are green, leafy vegetables, raisins, black-eyed peas, back strap molasses, and beans). During the first three years you have a window of opportunity to shape young tastes. Your toddler learns what fresh fruits and veggies are supposed to taste like, and accepts this as the family norm.
Stage 3: Preschool and school years. Grow a garden. Children are more likely to eat what they grow. Gardening gives you a chance to talk about good food. Talk about all the different colors in the garden and why it’s so important to have a lot of color in the food on your plate at dinnertime. Children can appreciate the concept of a rainbow lunch. Frequent restaurants that have large salad bars, planting in your child’s fertile mind the idea that salad bars are a real treat: all you can eat of a great variety of multi-colored and multi-textured foods. Encourage your children to help you in the kitchen. They can wash fruits and vegetables, tear up lettuce, stir, pour, knead bread dough, and serve and eat their creations proudly.
Sandwiches made with peanut butter or almond butter on whole-wheat bread, healthy fruit preserves, and sprouts are a new twist on a traditional favorite for school-age children. This is a time to emphasize fish (salmon and tuna) and flax oil for essential fatty acids. School-age children can also begin to read labels. Teach your child to avoid foods with “hydrogenated” in the ingredients list. Steer your child away from packaged snack foods, especially those containing hydrogenated oils, and provide tasty and attractive alternatives in school lunches. If your family is semi-vegetarian (eats meat occasionally), use meat as an accent in stir fry or grain dishes, avoiding the usual picture of a steak in the middle of the plate with only a garnish of vegetables. Or, serve fish, plus a substantial vegetable side dish. Older school-age children can also appreciate ethical and ecological issues associated with eating meat. To our older children we have cited the inhumane treatment of calves raised to produce veal as a good reason not to eat veal.
Stage 4: Teen years. Teens will dabble with junk food, but they won’t overdose on it. Unlike children who have grown up with a junk food diet as their nutritional norm, teens raised on a vegetarian diet are able to make the connection between eating well and feeling well. Salad bars, vegetarian pizzas, bean burritos, and fruit snacks are likely to be vegetarian favorites for teens. When they go into a fast-food restaurant, they are more likely to seek out the salad bar than fries and greasy foods.