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Early on, parents forge habits of healthy eating

Karen Pfefferle and Geoff Cisler prepare food with their 4-year-old twins, Lena (left) and Anna. Karen Pfefferle and Geoff Cisler prepare food with their 4-year-old twins, Lena (left) and Anna. (Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff)
By Kristen Green
Globe Correspondent / September 2, 2009

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Karen Pfefferle thinks about everything she puts in the mouths of her 4-year-old twin girls. That means fresh, unprocessed foods. Anna and Lena Cisler transitioned from formula to an avocado from their grandparents’ tree. Mom buys them the ripest, juiciest strawberries, paying little attention to price. Dad Geoff Cisler prepares their meals at home in Jamaica Plain from scratch - even the yogurt.

Today’s foodie parents want their children to grow up on nutritious, balanced diets and to become well-rounded, adventurous eaters. Many families are following the lead of Michelle Obama, who has espoused the virtues of fresh, unprocessed, locally grown food and planted a garden at the White House.

Fish sticks, Kool-Aid, and macaroni and cheese won’t do. Instead, parents are insisting on high-quality food for their children from birth. When the babies start eating solids, instead of the old-fashioned notion of introducing only cereal, the tots might also be fed small cubes of tofu, or in the case of the Cisler twins, a mixture of greens that resembles the Indian dish palak.

With these food-obsessed parents, fresh, often organic vegetables are pureed at home and frozen in ice cube trays, or in trays of tiny containers made specially for this purpose. The parents spend hours researching which vegetables and fruits contain the fewest pesticides on sites such as the Environmental Working Group’s (www.ewg.org) or reading books such as Ruth Yaron’s “Super Baby Food.’’

New Hampshire-based Stonyfield Farm is among the companies looking to lure such potential customers. Responding to parents, the company last year introduced a yogurt free of flavoring and containing half the sugar of its other baby yogurts. “You naturally want to feed your children the best,’’ says Jeff Pillet-Shore, the company’s brand manager. “You’re re-experiencing your relationship with food and what you put into your bodies - your own and your children’s.’’

Whole Foods Market views new parents as “gateway customers’’ who can potentially become lifetime shoppers. Perry Abbenante, its global grocery buyer, says stores are stocking prepared foods sections with chicken drumsticks, sliced vegetables with dipping sauce, mini pizzas, and other kid-friendly foods.

The Cislers feel strongly that what they feed their twins will influence the girls’ food decisions later in life. “They’re like a blank slate,’’ says Pfefferle. “They’ll love whatever you give them. If you start with candy and juice, you predispose them to want those.’’ The girls still think that McDonald’s golden arches stand for “mama,’’ says their mom.

Sugar has been a red flag for parents for many years, but today’s parents also steer clear of high-fructose corn syrup. Leah Barcan, a Roslindale mother of two, says she is not interested in buying sugary cereals for Max, 4, and Abe, 1, even if those items are organic. “I certainly see products that I think are clearly marketed to us. You kind of have to laugh,’’ says Barcan, who tends a vegetable garden and bought a community-supported fishery share this summer.

Louise Reohr started a farmers’ market near home last year because the produce she wants to feed her daughters, now 3 and 4, wasn’t available in Dedham. The weekly walk to the market, which features seed potting and cooking demonstrations especially for children, gets her daughters more excited about food. “They see you picking out the food in an environment that’s more interesting than going to a supermarket,’’ says Reohr. “They’re interested when you get home.’’

Sara Cabot, a Cambridge mother of four, founded Little Lettice Organic Baby Food after noticing how much healthier her kids ate than other children. “I gave them a wide variety of tastes and textures from the very start,’’ Cabot says. “They developed into really good eaters who would eat any vegetables you put in front of them.’’

One way to get kids interested in different foods is to involve them in preparing meals. Barcan often prepares supper with her 4-year-old. “It makes mealtime more fun for them,’’ she says.

Pfefferle is proud that her twins will eat almost anything, including Indian, Chinese, and Mexican foods. “They’re really adventurous eaters,’’ she says. So far, so good.

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