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The Cheerio Effect

One of the top concerns I hear from fellow moms is that their children are very picky eaters. For many, this behavior started early in the toddler years, and sometimes even prior to that - when solid foods were first introduced.

Other parents tell me their kiddo used to be a great eater, and then rather suddenly for no apparent reason, he or she started showing signs of distinct food preferences and aversions, eventually limiting their little circle of accepted foods to predominantly poor quality snack foods and processed entrees like mac-n-cheese, white bread, dry cereal, and chicken nuggets.

There are many reasons why this trend might develop in your child, and over time I'll do my best to expand further. But I'm only going to focus on one today, and I'll call it "The Cheerio Effect. "

The theory is not original, but the name is. I chose Cheerios as my lead because it seems to me to be the quintessential snack stashed in every mom's purse or diaper bag, in preschools and Sunday schools, and pantries across America. But this could easily be called "The Goldfish Effect" or "The Oreo Effect" or even "The Peanut Butter and Jelly Effect." You'll understand why in a moment.

I first heard about this concept from a podcast with Vani Hari, otherwise known as the vigilant food activist and children's health advocate cleverly nicknamed, "The Food Babe." She explained that as American families have ushered in a variety of cheap, convenient, and tasty processed foods over the past 5-6 decades, our nation's children have simultaneously developed a very limited palate. Rather than appreciating and craving nutritious whole foods from nature, children are preferring denatured food-like products that are exactly the same every.single.time and perfectly predictable, regardless of the season, the location of purchase, or the person providing the food.

Cheerios offered by mom on a picnic blanket in the middle of summer in Virginia taste identical to Cheerios eaten in the dead of winter at a cousin's house in Minnesota. As long as they haven't gone stale, a Cheerio here is the same as a Cheerio there, at any time of year. Children (and even adults) appreciate that they know precisely what they are getting when they slide their finger under that lightly-glued thin cardboard top and pop open the inner sealed plastic bag filled with hundreds of crunchy little O's...every single one of them appearing and tasting exactly like the other.





Contrast this experience with something like oranges. A child enjoying a fresh juicy orange right off Grandma's tree in Tampa during the month of February is going to have a very different experience than another child eating a dry, mealy, and tasteless orange purchased from a huge bin at Walmart in central Idaho in late October. The same would be true with apples and blueberries and strawberries - sometimes sweet, sometimes tart, sometimes huge, sometimes tiny, sometimes shriveled, discolored, and bland. As a child, why take the risk of eating something that you might not enjoy when you can hold out for another more tantalizing food that delivers exactly the taste, smell, texture, and mouth feel you desire? Why flirt with disappointment when you can have the assurance of dependable, familiar pleasure?

Certainly Cheerios alone are not going to set up our children for a lifetime of picking eating. However, add in the Cheez-its, grilled cheese on white bread with the same kind of cheese every time, applesauce pouches, Ritz crackers, Dannon yogurt, Chick-Fil-A nuggets and fries, Welch's fruit gummies, Gatorade, Eggo waffles, and all of the other fast foods and packaged foods marketed specifically to children, and we really do have a recipe for severely impaired palates, not to mention disrupted gut microbiomes. Not only do children begin to shy away from real food, their taste buds are offended and repulsed by the mere thought of them. This is more common than you might think.

In my experience, children's preferences rarely, if ever, become more expansive when their early nutrition is founded on these processed foods lacking vital nutrients as well as limited variety in flavor and texture. Instead, kids become even more selective and more adamant about what goes on their plates and into their mouths, creating a snowball effect of ever-diminishing nourishment and health. Kids who are picky eaters often become adults who are picky eaters.

The remedy, therefore, is to avoid this path all together! Raise your children to recognize and enjoy whole foods from nature. Set the example in your home by choosing these same nourishing foods for yourself. Talk about the importance of healthy habits as soon as your children are able to understand, and maybe even can't hurt!

Even if they are past the preschool age and you feel like bad habits have already been established, it is still possible to turn that ship around. It just requires even more diligence and discipline, and maybe a more relaxed timeline for progress. Reach out to me if you need guidance in this area. Your kids might be tough, but YOU are tougher, and this is a parental responsibility way too important to dismiss!

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