Young Boy Eating a Sandwich on Whole Wheat Bread

Kids grow up surrounded by chicken nuggets and highly processed snack foods, while adults have learned to enjoy bitter foods like vegetables, coffee, and wine. But if you assume that kids are “pickier eaters” than adults, you would actually be mistaken.

“The people who learn taste quickest are infants,” explains Keith Williams, PhD, BCBA, Director of the Feeding Program at Penn State Hershey Medical Center. Over time however, it takes more and more exposures to flip the switch. “In younger kids they can learn to like foods in limited exposures. In adults it takes a lot longer,” says Dr. Williams.

Case in point, in a 2017 study, infants were just as likely to accept and finish the partially whole grain cereal as they were the refined cereal after trying each for only 3 days in a row. Three days may not sound like much, but it is easy to feel discouraged when a child refuses a food. According to Dr. Williams, on average parents will stop offering a food or assume their child doesn’t like it after their child refuses only 1.5 times.

Carol Danaher, MPH, RDN, Board and Faculty member at the Ellyn Satter Institute, observes these assumptions in her work as well. “One of the attitudes that parents often have is that children will not like adult food. So they either choose children’s food products or they modify meals for the child. For example, parents may eat whole wheat bread but assume that their child won’t like it, so they’ll buy a soft white bread for their child. And if the parents don’t eat [whole grains], it’s an added barrier.”

Contrary to popular belief, food preferences are not set in stone. They can evolve over time in response to social and cultural cues, as well as exposure to different foods and flavors. When it comes to nurturing a palate for whole grain foods (or any food, for that matter), persistence is key.

“It really does require repeated exposure over time,” says Dr. Williams. “It’s not that you don’t like it, it’s that you’re not familiar with it.” If you look at other cultures and what they eat, Dr. Williams illustrates that food preferences, even in children, are not necessarily universal. Rather, they are shaped by exposure, availability, and cultural norms. Children in Estonia eat salted fish for breakfast, children in Japan eat seaweed, and children in Mexico eat spicy peppers – all foods that it would be difficult to imagine children (or even some adults) on a standard American diet eating today.

food in jars

With this in mind, it stands to reason that consistently offering whole grain foods as the norm can help people develop a palate for, and even prefer, whole grain options. Preliminary research supports this notion.

In a small European study, researchers supplied 33 adults who rarely ate whole grains with diet advice and a variety of whole grain foods. The participants increased their whole grain intake by 500% for six weeks (averaging six ounces per day) so that the scientists could assess diet’s impact on health. While the scientists found no significant health changes during this short-term experiment, what was remarkable is how the participants’ attitudes towards whole grains changed throughout the study. Nearly two thirds of the participants said they now prefer whole grains, “citing benefits such as improved bowel movements and appetite suppression, as well as taste.” Additionally, “the majority of subjects reported that it was not difficult to achieve the required level,” and a whopping 76% of subjects intend to continue eating and purchasing whole grains.

School cafeterias can also play an important role in helping children eat more whole grains by serving them frequently and in a variety of formats. There are “a number of ways that schools can influence what kids eat, sometimes for better or worse,” confirms Dr. Williams. This includes everything from which foods are offered, to where foods are placed in the lunch line, to how they are offered. In order to encourage students to eat more whole grains in a school setting, Danaher suggests that schools “would need to serve them in a palatable, somewhat familiar form,” such as a soft, light-colored whole grain bread, as the appearance of food provides our first impression.

Consistently serving whole grains at home is another strategy that can help eaters develop a palate for whole grain foods. According to the eating competence principles of the Ellyn Satter Institute, it is up to the adults to decide what to serve, and it is up to the children to decide how much, if any, they want to eat. “When that division of responsibility is maintained, mealtime is so beautiful,” explains Danaher.

The food industry can also play a role in marketing healthier whole grain options to their customers. “Anything is possible with marketing,” says Danaher. “We know marketing influences child preferences and adult preferences.”

When it comes to rewiring our taste buds for whole grains, the only way out is through. Start adding more whole grains to your plate more often, and you might be surprised to find a new favorite food! (Kelly)

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