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The American child’s amazing shrinking palate

It’s a scene from many an American dinner table: Mom and dad are enjoying typical dinner fare, say a piece of fish with rice and steamed green beans. At the same table, Brother and Sister are dipping chicken nuggets and ‘tater tots in ketchup.

When did kid cuisine become a norm in America? When did we start believing that children require “kid food” just like pets require pet food?

Growing up in the 1970s I had SpaghettiOs and Kraft mac and cheese, but it was the exception, not the norm. Every parent is entitled to shortcuts on busy nights. That’s not what I am talking about. I am referring to the belief that kids can’t eat “grownup” food, they require “kid food”—carbohydrates, sweets and animal protein, milk and orange cheeses and for the adventurous, a narrow assortment of fruits (bananas, apples oranges) and vegetables (peas, carrots and corn).

In watching parents through the years (I have an 8-year old) I’ve witnessed those who subscribe to this belief system. “Oh, he won’t eat anything green” or “We have to make him a separate meal every night, he wouldn’t touch what we have.”

When my daughter was a toddler, I watched the majority of parents give their kids the same tastes and textures repeatedly, primarily in the forms of salted and sweetened carbs—think Goldfish and Honeynut Cheerios. The savvy parents doled out organic versions of these.

I recently spoke with Dr. Alan Greene who has done research on our kids’ dwindling palates. He found that there is a 36-month window when we can imprint (yes, like ducks) on certain foods. The key though, is that it takes six to 10 exposures of a food to imprint; in his research he found that 94 percent of American families gave up by the fifth try.

So what’s the take-away here for retailers? In addition to offering healthy convenience foods for kids, offer family meal cooking classes, bring in speakers who can discuss toddler nutrition and stock quality books that address the importance of a varied diet for children.

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