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We are living in strange times. COVID-19 has upturned life as we know it, bringing about an array of unexpected consequences. One of the more positive changes, due to the school and nursery closures, is that many parents are spending much more time with their children. While this precious gift of extra time is not without challenges, particularly for parents still working with limited or no childcare, lockdown can provide a unique opportunity to help shape children’s eating behaviour.
In the UK, less than 20% of children eat the recommended five portions of fruit and vegetables per day. Fussy eating is a common behaviour which many children experience, often starting around 18–24 months of age. Children commonly reject foods that are unfamiliar, bitter, or look ‘different’. Vegetables – some of which can taste bitter – are commonly refused. It is particularly important to support children through this period of fussiness or food refusal as the dietary habits developed early on in life tend to remain throughout childhood and into adulthood. Unsurprisingly, research suggests that parents and caregivers have a key role in helping to shape children’s food preferences and eating behaviours.
One effective way to help children to eat new foods is to increase children’s familiarity with them. Children love to copy and they learn a lot through imitating others’ behaviours. Seeing a parent or a sibling eating a food has been shown to make children much more likely to eat that food as well. Part of the reason for this is because seeing someone else eating and enjoying a food can reduce the extent to which a child is wary of it: ‘If someone else is eating it, then maybe it’s OK if I eat it too’. Children’s food refusal behaviours are often driven by feelings of fear or uncertainty about a new or unfamiliar food. If a food doesn’t look ‘right’, many children won’t eat it. But seeing someone else eating that food can help to reassure children that it’s safe to eat it. Of course, this doesn’t have to happen in person.
With lockdown increasing the use of video technology to stay in touch with family and friends that we cannot see in person, this can provide a novel and fun way to expose children to other people eating, while also maintaining contact that is so important for mental health and well-being. Watching a grandparent eat their broccoli via Zoom may be just what is needed to help a child start to trust and accept the green stuff.
With potentially more meals being eaten together in lockdown, this creates another opportunity for greater role modelling, with a particular focus on trying new foods and increasing dietary variety; things that can sometimes be hard in busy working weeks. Since the availability of our regular, familiar foods is not always guaranteed at the moment, this presents a reason to try out different foods as a family. When panic buying was rife and supermarket stocks had run low, a rummage in the back of the cupboards might have revealed a tin of sardines which perhaps your children hadn’t tried before. Including these as part of a meal – and eating them in front of your child – is a great way to introduce children to new foods. Research evidence is clear that children should never be forced or pressured to eat a food, as this can result in less liking for the pressured food, but some gentle encouragement and good role modelling can be very effective at helping children to try new foods. Even picking up, smelling or touching a new food is a good start for a child who might find a food weird and unfamiliar.
Increasing food familiarity can also be achieved outside of mealtimes, where eating the food is not the goal. Lockdown is a great time to involve children in preparing meals, so that they get used to seeing and handling foods in their different states (raw, cooked), thereby increasing their familiarity with foods. Fussy eating is often linked to children feeling wary about unfamiliar foods, or foods which look unusual, so increasing children’s engagement with foods can really help them to overcome these food fears and reduce any fussy eating behaviour. While everyone is spending more time at home, this is a great chance to get children to help to prepare food, to get them involved in making meals, or to bring vegetables into baking activities (beetroot brownies or courgette loaf cake, for example, might help children to see vegetables in a new light). Involvement is a really effective, no-pressure way to help children become more familiar with foods away from mealtimes.
Making food fun can also be an effective way to help children to learn to like a wider variety of foods. Reading stories about food or playing online games involving foods have both been shown to be linked to children’s greater consumption of foods such as vegetables. Again, engaging in these activities is thought to be an effective way to increase children’s familiarity with foods away from a mealtime, resulting in greater likelihood that children will subsequently taste or eat a wider array of foods.
While this period of lockdown and isolation at home presents an array of challenges, it also provides a fantastic opportunity to put some of the evidence-based strategies into practice to support the development of children’s healthy eating.
Dr Emma Haycraft is a Reader in Psychology at Loughborough University; Dr Gemma Witcomb is a Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Loughborough University; Professor Claire Farrow in Chair in Child Eating Behaviour at Aston University.