In the world of parental banter, nothing makes its way around the playground circuit quite like the old yes-my-kid-is-refusing-to-eat-the-seaweed-snack-I-packed-her-but-she-could-down-strawberries-all-day.  You’ve heard it, or maybe even used it before.  It’s cool. We have too. Janie the fresh fruit lover has become the gold standard in healthy diets for the tot set, which might not be the worst thing in the world, but it’s not the best, either.

Fruit has become an often too large part of a child’s diet, and the widely accepted counterbalance for Janie’s otherwise picky palate.  Fruits are disproportionately added to baby foods, and our Pinterest boards and social feeds are filled with easy recipes that “sneak” veggies into pancakes and smoothies.  But does it have to be this way? To answer that, we sat down with Founder + CEO of Fresh Bellies, Saskia Sorrosa, who is leading the charge to get savory foods on the plates of babies and toddlers–from the first bite of food, through the terrible twos, and for a lifetime.

Do you think all babies have the potential to be veggie lovers?
Yes, all babies have the potential to love veggies and savory foods, but it doesn’t happen overnight. As much as I’d love to say eating bold, bitter and earthy veggies is easy and will be love at first bite, this just isn’t how learning to eat works. Eating is a learned behavior and like any other learned behavior (think riding a bike or reading!), we get better at it with repeated practice and exposure.  There is no magic wand to make kids love all their veggies, there is only practice, practice, and more practice. It takes time and a lot of patience. Studies show that by exposing our children to the same flavors multiple times (10 or more), and in different settings, they become more accepting of those same flavors over time. Yet, 1 out of every 4 parents draws premature conclusions around their child’s food preferences after merely 2 or fewer exposures. If the beets end up on the floor on the first day, give it a few days and try again. Never force your baby to eat something he/she is rejecting, but don’t give up on food or your baby, either. With practice comes familiarity, which eventually leads to healthy palate formation.

Eating is a learned behavior and like any other learned behavior, we get better at it with repeated practice and exposure…Studies show that by exposing our children to the same flavors multiple times (10 or more), and in different settings, they become more accepting of those same flavors over time. Yet, 1 out of every 4 parents draws premature conclusions around their child’s food preferences after merely 2 or fewer exposures.

That is inspiring.  Now, what’s your secret sauce for getting kids to love veggies without hiding them?
At Freshbellies, we’re dedicated to combating childhood obesity and encouraging adventurous eating. Our approach is simple: when babies eat fruit, they should taste the fruit, and when they eat veggies, they should taste the veggies. This does not mean eliminating fruit from a child’s diet; fruits have important nutrients too. It simply means that instead of masking veggies under sweet or fruity flavors, as other baby food products do, we give ingredients like beets or Swiss chard their time to shine. We also season our food with herbs and spices, like garlic and thyme, exposing children to the bold and savory flavors they’ll eat as they get older, from the very first bite. Our goal is to train baby palates and help them develop an appreciation for savory flavors when their preferences aren’t set yet. That is, when they’re first starting solids.

Our approach is simple: when babies eat fruit, they should taste the fruit, and when they eat veggies, they should taste the veggies.

What are your thoughts on sneaky veggies into foods like smoothies, pancakes and muffins?
Our focus is on having a balanced approach to food and focusing on meal times as training ground. Teaching kids that sit down meals revolve around savory foods and allowing them the opportunity to appreciate these flavors is critically important in encouraging healthier habits later in life. That doesn’t mean that all snack times should also be savory, or that the occasional dessert plate should be banned! Balance is key here. Snack times are a great opportunity to change things up and keep it light, and a carrot zucchini muffin or a green smoothie is a wonderful way to give kids a healthy boost in between meals. As long as children know what that zucchini or kale taste like, and practice eating it, outside of the muffin or smoothie, there is nothing to worry about.

Sometimes veggie-loving babies can grow pickier and pickier as they grow into toddlerhood.  Do you know why this might happen, and what can be done to prevent it?
I know this very well as one of our daughters went through this very phase. In fact, I wrote an article about it – here. Children may go through a challenging phase when they’re entering toddlerhood, and many times, their behavior has more to do with exerting independence than it does around food preferences. This is especially true of kids who ate all foods previously, and then suddenly decided they don’t like any of it. Food often becomes a struggle because it’s the one area where children can control what goes in (or on!) their little bodies. What’s key when we’re going through this phase with our toddlers is to stay committed to the practice of eating as a learned behavior. Think about learning to ride a bike, for example. You can stop riding it for years, but you never really forget how to ride. You may be wobbly at first, but muscle and brain memory pick up where you left off pretty soon after you get on that bike again. Similarly, if we trained kids to eat savory foods early on, and they’ve become receptive of those flavors over time, their palates have acquired the taste for these foods. Even if they reject them when they’re toddlers, their taste memory is there and they will come back to it when they outgrow their resistance phase.

The best advice I ever received on this was from our daughters’ Pediatrician, Dr. Mary Versfelt,  who now happens to be our resident pediatric advisor! Her recommendation was to stay away from offering an alternative meal and stick to one meal for the family. This may be anxiety-inducing for some parents who worry about their children going hungry, but in Dr. Versfelt’s clear words —  “A meal skipped because of food dislikes will not present a health challenge to a child. In fact, the opposite is often the greater risk: overeating ‘favorite’ foods is a much bigger dietary concern. Some children may need to be hungry enough to be motivated to try something new.” Sticking to one meal and continuing to encourage kids to savor their foods, even during the challenging times, will pay off in the long run.

The best advice I ever received on this was from our daughters’ Pediatrician, Dr. Mary Versfelt,  who now happens to be our resident pediatric advisor! Her recommendation was to stay away from offering an alternative meal and stick to one meal for the family. This may be anxiety-inducing for some parents who worry about their children going hungry, but in Dr. Versfelt’s clear words —  “A meal skipped because of food dislikes will not present a health challenge to a child. In fact, the opposite is often the greater risk: overeating ‘favorite’ foods is a much bigger dietary concern. Some children may need to be hungry enough to be motivated to try something new.” Sticking to one meal and continuing to encourage kids to savor their foods, even during the challenging times, will pay off in the long run.

On a side note, I also highly encourage parents to use their creativity! It worked for us and our three-year old when she suddenly decided she disliked everything we served. I’m happy to report, we survived and emerged on the other side with our adventurous eater back to her eating self.

Saskia Sorrosa is the founded Fresh Bellies baby food brand, distributed nationwide by major retailers like Whole Foods. Saskia has grown Fresh Bellies to a national disruptor, winning the Expo East NEXTY Award for Best New Natural Kid’s Product, pitching to Shark Tank and graduating from the Chobani Incubator.  Previously, Saskia was VP of Marketing for the NBA. Originally from Guayaquil, Ecuador, Sorrosa currently resides in New York with her husband, Fernando and daughters, Isabella and Alexa Luna.