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Faced with a nine-month old who makes faces at anything green, or a toddler who throws a tantrum at the sight of a carrot, many parents are tempted to give up on getting their kids to enjoy veggies. But the findings of the HabEat project – a multidisciplinary Pan-European study of how food behaviors are formed in infants and children – give parents plenty of reasons to persevere.
At the final symposium of the project, held in Dijon, France on 31 March and 1 April, the research teams also presented practical recommendations for improving children's intake of fruit and vegetables.
Initiated in January 2010 by 11 partner organizations from five European countries, the HabEat project followed the eating habits of several cohorts of children (aged six months to six years) over a four-year period. The goal: to understand how eating habits are formed and sometimes broken during the first years of life. Using various psychological, epidemiological, behavioural and nutritional analyses, the project sought to identify the key mechanisms in the development of children's taste or distaste for certain foods.
At the end of the project, researchers' recommendations all center around one essential point: children must be taught to enjoy fruits and vegetables at the earliest age possible.
The project's findings also emphasize the importance of diversity in the diet, suggesting that children should be introduced to a wide variety of fruits and vegetables early on. For better chances of success, researchers advise introducing only one new fruit or vegetable per meal, without combining them. Parents should act as role models during the process, encouraging their child to appreciate fruits and vegetables without forcing them. In fact, coercive techniques and reward-based motivations ("Eat your sprouts and you'll get cake") can be counterproductive, as they alter a child's natural ability to gauge hunger and satiety, leading to a risk of compulsive eating and obesity later in life.
It is better to trust the child's appetite, however fickle it may be. Sometimes, the same vegetable may be offered and rejected 8 to 10 times over the course of a few weeks before a child finally takes a liking to it. For older children, being involved in the cooking process can lead to more willingness to try new foods, especially if parents and caretakers bring them along to farmer's markets to help pick out fruits and vegetables.
Finally, the HabEat project concludes that breastfeeding plays a vital role in the development of healthy eating habits. Researchers found a positive correlation between the number of months an infant was breastfed and the quantity of fruit and vegetables he or she consumed during later childhood.