MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
If you have a picky eater in your house, listen up. Getting kids to try new things and eat a healthy mix of good food has become such a struggle, but it doesn't have to be this way. As part of an NPR series, How To Raise A Human, NPR's Maria Godoy has this report.
VIJI SUNDARAM: Here you go, Ashwin.
ASHWIN GOLLAPALLI: Mom, it isn't even spicy.
MARIA GODOY, BYLINE: Little Ashwin Gollapalli is just 5, but man is his palate sophisticated. One of his favorite foods is a Indian pickle made of lemons preserved with spicy red chilis, salt and oil.
ASHWIN: Yum, pickle (laughter).
GODOY: I watch as he digs into a plate in his family's kitchen in Northern Virginia. I had some, too. It's tasty but so hot it leaves my lips tingling. But Ashwin - he just wants more.
ASHWIN: More pickle. More pickle.
GODOY: How did little Ashwin develop such a broad palate? Turns out his parents set him up from his very first bite. Ashwin's mom, Viji Sundaram, explains that it all starts with a Hindu ceremony called...
SUNDARAM: Annaprasna - or Annaprasana. Like, different regions have different way. So I come from Chennai, so we call it Annaprasna.
GODOY: The ceremony marks baby's first taste of solid food.
SUNDARAM: People gather around, and they bless the child and say, OK. From this point onwards, you are eating something else that is not your mom's milk. And, you know, you are blessed. Be confident that this will, you know, agree with you, and this nutrition is going to make you grow.
GODOY: So it's like a blessing for a healthy life.
SUNDARAM: Yeah, a blessing for a healthy - literally, it's blessing for a healthy life. That's what it is.
GODOY: Baby's first bite is traditionally rice boiled in milk with a little bit of honey. It's considered an auspicious dish in Indian culture.
SUNDARAM: So everybody who is present will, you know, dip little bit of that and then put it in his mouth, and that's, like, the first food he's eaten.
GODOY: After that, a whole world of flavor opens up for baby.
SUNDARAM: We start at the beginning with yogurt.
GODOY: Lentils and rice come right away, too. By around seven months, Viji's babies were eating more challenging flavors like rasam. It's a spicy Indian soup made with tamarind, chilis and cumin. At first, Viji would temper the strong flavors with a little bit of yogurt or ghee, a type of clarified butter.
SUNDARAM: We mix a little bit of that in the rice, really mashed, cooked rice, and give it to them and slowly condition them. So by one year, they eat food - the normal food.
GODOY: In other words, Viji's kids were eating whatever the rest of the family was eating from the get-go. Viji says that's how she was raised back in India, and it's the way most cultures have fed their kids for most of human history. But American culture sends parents a very different message - kids menus full of so-called kid food like chicken nuggets, pizza and fries are everywhere. And, of course, they're popular. Fatty, salty and sweet foods appeal to kids. It's basic biology.
LEANN BIRCH: They're born preferring salty and sweet. And, if those tastes are in foods, most kids are going to be very attracted to them.
GODOY: That's psychologist Leann Birch with the University of Georgia. She's spent more than four decades researching why kids eat what they eat. We spoke via Skype, and she said parents should expect their kids to reject new foods at first.
BIRCH: And that's really just an in-built, you know, response to something that's new.
GODOY: But if you expose kids enough times to different flavors, including sour, bitter and even spicy ones, but don't force it...
BIRCH: You know, with no pressure to actually consume it, they typically will learn to eat a lot of new things.
GODOY: Some people recommend sprinkling a bit of sugar or salt to help kids accept new foods. But Birch says you have to be careful.
BIRCH: That works, but it can come back to bite you, I think.
GODOY: Because the kid might end up only liking the food that way. But Birch says many American parents aren't just battling biology. They're also battling our food culture.
BIRCH: If you think about what the food industry puts out for children between the ages of 2 and 12 as things that are appropriate for them to eat, you know, they're really making it difficult for parents to promote consumption of fruits and vegetables and a healthy, non-processed kind of diet.
GODOY: And that might be the bigger battle, really.
BIRCH: It is the bigger battle.
GODOY: Ideally, all kids would eat whatever their parents eat from the time they start solids. Pediatrician Eric Ball works with CHOC Children's Health Network in Southern California. He says that ideal can be hard for parents to live up to.
ERIC BALL: You know, it's hard as a parent to go to work, to make money, to come home, to try to whip together a dinner really fast and serve it to your kid, and then they don't touch it.
GODOY: Ball spends a lot of time counseling parents on nutrition, and he says this situation is pretty common.
BALL: And it's very, very tempting to just give them something else - you know, make them a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or chicken nuggets.
GODOY: And he says it's OK to do that every once in a while.
BALL: But, over time, that gets worse and worse and worse.
GODOY: Instead, Ball says parents need to be role models for their kids at the dinner table.
BALL: In other words, parents have to eat what they want their children to eat.
GODOY: And if you don't want your kid to demand chicken nuggets and ice cream, don't bring them home.
BALL: So once a food is brought into your house, the child is either going to eat it or you're going to have a fight about it. So you're going to lose either way.
GODOY: But if you've made a nutritious meal, and your kid still won't eat it, Ball says don't stress out about it. Your kid won't starve.
BALL: I very firmly believe that children do a really good job of eating when they're hungry and not eating when they're not hungry.
GODOY: Ball points to advice his mother-in-law received from a pediatrician 40 years ago, back when his wife was a toddler.
BALL: Expect her to eat one meal, play with one meal and ignore one meal.
GODOY: He says that's still excellent advice for parents today.
Maria Godoy, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.