Oh, to have been born loving broccoli instead of chocolate! Truth is, your DNA alone doesn’t dictate what you like (and don’t like).

Watch and learn

As kids transition from infancy to the toddler years, “nurture” overtakes “nature” in respect to developing eating patterns. “Children learn the rules of eating from their caregivers,” says Mennella. Adult role models teach kids what constitutes food and how foods should be prepared. They set rules about when certain foods should or should not be eaten.

One of the foremost experts on the development of eating behavior in children is Jennifer Orlet Fisher, Ph.D., assistant professor of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. Fisher’s research, and that of her colleagues, shows that young children learn to prefer foods that are familiar and ones presented as “acceptable” in their homes.

During early childhood one begins to associate both positive and negative experiences with particular foods. Offering a child a certain food as part of a fun celebration or ritual (e.g., birthday cake) enhances his preference for that food. On the other hand, insisting that a child eat something in order to get a reward—“finish your peas and then you can watch television”—usually creates a negative food association. “These ‘contingency’ strategies are effective in the short run: they do get a kid to eat peas,” says Fisher. “But over the long haul, they tend to backfire.” In other words, bribing a child to eat something tends to reinforce the negative associations with that food.

The best way to teach someone that healthy foods are important (and delicious) is to eat them yourself. In a study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, Dr. Fisher and her colleagues showed that parents who ate lots of fruits and vegetables generally had daughters who consumed plenty of produce, too, whereas parents who pushed fruits and vegetables but ate few servings themselves tended to have daughters who had low intakes of fruits and vegetables. Moral of the study: If you’re trying to help someone to eat a healthier diet, show—don’t tell—them how to do it.

After speaking with Dr. Fisher, I realized that my parents never had to force me to eat vegetables or fruits because I’d learned to associate them with fun experiences, such as selecting fresh cherries at the farmer’s market with my mother. These activities emphasized that a juicy peach or a watermelon was the prize. Seeing my mother enjoy salads and sweet potatoes reinforced that concept. Could watching me enjoy healthy foods have suggested to Jack that they were “good” and encouraged him to try them for himself? Perhaps. Says Fisher: “We see other people enjoying different foods, and so we try them too.”

Next: A Whole New World »

Get a full year of EatingWell magazine.
World Wide Web Health Award Winner Web Award Winner World Wide Web Health Award Winner Interactive Media Award Winner