Adventurous Eating with Dr. TJ Gold

I was thrilled to sit down with TJ and ask her about feeding kids– she’s known for her success helping parents raise healthy and adventurous eaters in a calm and pleasurable way. I found her tips really thoughtful and inspiring. I hope you do, too!

C: There’s no shortage of information on nutrition and “healthy eating” these days, and yet there’s a lot of neurosis about food.

TJ: Parents have become paralyzed over making decisions about something that is so basic and not a chemistry project. So I focus on positive, realistic ways to get nutrition off to a good start. I love the 6 month visit. I love talking to parents about food. They tell me they’re worried. I tell them, “We’re going to have a blast!”

Start off not using garbage cereal fillers.  Just go for it with a variety of delicious foods, flavors and textures. At 4 months, your baby can start dipping her fingers into foods for tastes. I say, “Watch how she responds to new flavors– a little balsamic vinegar, lemon– it’s hysterical!” When you do start feeding her at 6 months, look how wide open her palate already is! I have kids eating Pad Thai at 9 months and sucking on lemons. My daughter was eating sushi by 5. She had always been exposed to good flavors and it became part of her food vocabulary.

C: Are allergies overblown?

TJ: Overblown fear, yes, but they are real for those that have them. But fear is overblown–even for a kid who does have eventual bad allergies, the first time you gave him, some, let’s say, cantaloupe, he might get blotchy cheeks or even some hives. These are such mild things. But allergies are generally exaggerated on the Internet and it makes parents feel terrified about every new food, or that if they present something in the “wrong order” they’ll introduce an allergy. This is not true or something you can control. If a kid has an allergy, what can you do about it? You embrace it, learn and move on.

The American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology has relaxed over the years but there are many outdated rules out there: “I can’t give peanuts until the 2nd birthday.” What’s going to happen the day after the 2nd birthday that changes from the day before? All that happens when you feed your kids new foods—at any time—is that you learn more about your child. And the more you learn the better. Knowledge is power. Now you can tell your babysitter what he can’t have.

C: There’s lots of talk about gluten these days.

TJ: I feel a little sad for gluten, it’s like a war on gluten. You always have to see how your child is going to do with these (and any) foods. I definitely have rare kids with terrible intolerances to it, and I feel bad for people generations ago when it wasn’t quite realized—I’m sure they could have had a better quality of life because this is not a true allergy but an intolerance that develops. But avoiding early introduction just doesn’t make sense as a general rule. I approach gluten a little differently when there’s a parent who is a type 1 diabetic or a medical history of the same intolerance because of the relationship to children with celiac. But these are medical circumstances. Talk to your pediatrician.

C: The New York Times recently wrote about even more research in support of the Mediterranean diet. What’s your take on this model of eating when it comes to babies/kids?

TJ: In a Mediterranean diet there are wonderful fatty acids—the omega-3s, oils and legumes. It’s a wonderful diet, but don’t scrimp on the good fats for children– kids under two need a higher fat diet for brain development. It’s worth clarifying that point. I always say to parents, “use full-fat yogurt, canola oil, olive oil and the good fats as opposed to using the lower-fat option.” I’d rather have you use less of the better.

C: Fruit juice has a bad rep.

TJ: If the family squeezes a little juice for breakfast on the weekend, that’s fine. But these days everything is so portable–there are juice boxes everywhere! It’s a juice box generation. If you can keep your kid from this trend, do it. Juice boxes are the dessert of the fruit–it’s basically all the fructose, the sugar actually. They are missing the pulp, fiber and the real reason of why you’re eating fruit in the first place. There are many studies on how these sweet drinks are linked to obesity. Doesn’t that make sense? So I focus on children getting their milk and water only. Your kids will encounter the juice box generation regardless, so hold off at home as long as you can and let it be a treat because there really is no need for it.

C: What do you think about withholding dessert or sweets and treats as a punishment? Or giving sweets as a reward?

TJ: A cupcake is a glorious day for a good kid. But never, ever do I like to hear, “You eat your dinner, if you want X.” What are we teaching them about their relationship to food? I don’t see benefit from this approach for children with any form of learning. “You can have 10 M&Ms to go to the potty,” can lead to going to the potty10 times before bed, because now you can’t say no. We’re teaching them to negotiate with their meals and other behavior. It may work with some kids but likely not.

C: So dessert, daily? Once in a while? Made with real food?

TJ: I leave it up to you. What’s the family culture? How does the family eat? Sweets, per se, are okay. There’s also a war on processed sugar. Moderation is best. Parents ask me, should we introduce only vegetables first so he doesn’t get a sweet tooth? No. Babies should get everything! Variety! Keep it interesting. You want to engage that child with all flavors. Suffering through peas shouldn’t give the prize of pears. We know this as pediatricians and parents. Many “sweet deprived” kids end up in a frenzy when they finally get a taste as opposed to the kids who have a balanced approach to all foods.

C: Tips on yogurt?

TJ: I like parents to use full-fat, whole milk plain Greek yogurt. Mix it with pears or prunes or some fruit. Just don’t buy Yo Baby! or the like– the second ingredient is sugar. They make it sound fancy, ‘organically processed, milled sugar.’ It’s sugar, guys.

C: What are 3 simple tips for cultivating an adventurous eater?

1. There’s no such thing as “adult food.” Embrace a healthy, adventurous attitude about food right from the get-go. Focus on building a wide palate.

2. When you introduce foods, don’t give up if your baby makes a face and turns away. Re-introduce that same ingredient again. And again. And again. Don’t force it, but don’t give up. You’d run out of foods in a week if you gave up every time a baby winced.

3.  Pocahontas didn’t have a blender. We make it so easy for these kids with all the purees. So much that when we transition them to finger foods, they’re sometimes fussy texture-phobes and they can’t chew. By this time—at around 9 months—it should be the glory time of feeding an infant. They can sit on your lap and shovel food off your plate. Of course they can chew–they chew with their jaw, gums not teeth. We hold them back with what I think is an irrational fear of choking. Being overly concerned or anxious about choking makes it hard for kids to learn a basic skill. So let them use their fingers and give them mushy bits to grasp onto right away so they get practice. Humans have a beautifully developed protective reflex to extrude or gag up pieces we can’t navigate smoothly. We have survived as a human race. They will be fine. You too will be fine when you see your kid eating so well for that first time. Enjoy!