For the lucky few, raising a good eater is easy breezy from day one. For the rest of us, it’s an ongoing series of ups and (pretty darn frustrating) downs. To find out more about why early eating is such a rollercoaster of evolving tastes, opinions, and emotions, we caught up with registered dietitian Hillary Baron Irwin of Simply Beautiful Mom. Here’s the scoop.
Back to basics. “Research suggests that infants are born with a predisposition to accept sweet tastes which help them drink breastmilk, a naturally sweet food,” Hillary tells us. “They also have a preference for salty tastes, but are averse to sour and bitter. Natural sugars—fruit, veggies, and grains—are [perceived as] fuel for the body, while sour or bitter tastes are the sensory cues for poison. In the hunter-gatherer times, most poisonous/toxic plants had a sour/bitter taste, so it makes sense that babies are programmed to naturally avoid those flavors.” So, how to we start them out on the right track to nutrition? Hilary says that there’s some research that suggests that the foods you eat during pregnancy can help shape your baby’s eating habits throughout the rest of her life, so—if it’s not too late—maintain the kind of pregnancy diet that you’d like for your baby to eventually adopt. “Babies are also born with a predisposition to reject new foods,” Hillary says. “However, this rejection of new foods can be overcome by repeated exposure—taste preferences are not set in stone. It can take up to 15 tries of a food before a child becomes familiar with it and actually likes it. With repeated exposure, foods that were once rejected can eventually become favorites. “So much of preferred taste has to do with repeated experience, emotional feelings toward a food, cultural acceptance, smell, and appearance. Having positive experiences with healthy foods in stories, songs, or arts and crafts can create positive perceptions of those foods even, if the child has not been tried it before. If we think we’ll like a food, there’s a much better chance that we actually will.” Model the diet you want them to adopt. Children learn nutritional habits by watching the adults in their lives. Hillary encourages parents to sit down and eat with your toddlers, and to feed them the same foods you eat. “I think one of the biggest mistakes parents make is only feeding their child ‘kid food’ (chicken fingers, buttered pasta, French fries, etc.) or only ordering off of the kids menu. Children need to be exposed to all kinds of food flavors and colors.” Spice it up. Hillary recommends adding mild spices such as cinnamon, ginger, or cumin to homemade baby food. Try presenting them with something new each week (beets, broccoli, turnips, etc.).