Whether you’re already a parent or hope to become one soon, you may have wondered what sort of eater your little one will become. Will they refuse to eat anything besides chicken nuggets and apple juice, or will they love foods like broccoli and salmon?
It’s a common belief that your child’s taste preferences are unchangeable, and that dealing with picky eating is an inevitable part of parenthood. Thankfully, this doesn’t have to be the case! Read on to learn about what influences a child’s taste preferences and how you can help develop them into healthy, adventurous eaters.
When do taste preferences develop?
Believe it or not, your baby begins to taste different flavors while still in the womb. Amniotic fluid during pregnancy is flavored from the foods and beverages the mother has consumed. This means that what a woman eats during pregnancy not only provides nourishment to herself and her growing baby, but may also be the start to shaping baby’s food preferences later in life. In fact, studies have shown that infants of mothers who ate large amounts of things like carrots and garlic during late pregnancy were more accepting of those flavors after birth. Pretty incredible!
Your child’s flavor preferences continue to develop after birth. Breastfed infants will be exposed to the flavors of what their mother eats, since breast milk also passes on flavors to a nursing infant. As they get older, the introduction of solid foods serves as an even greater opportunity for flavor exposure. These early experiences, along with other biological, social and environmental factors serve as the foundation of food preference development.
How to help train your child’s taste preferences
Shaping your child’s taste preferences is much more in your control than you may think. Here are some tips:
1. Start early.
This means even before birth, if you can help it. Consider following a healthy pregnancy meal plan filled with whole, nutrient-packed foods and that encourages variety. If you plan to breastfeed, continuing to follow a balanced and varied diet can further help train your baby’s palate.
2. Offer a wide variety.
Once your baby is ready for solid foods, which the World Health Organization recommends starting at around 6 months old), focus on providing as many options as possible. Research shows that more variety in baby’s diets may lead to better food acceptance for the remainder of their lives. While you can introduce new foods in a variety of ways, participating in baby led weaning may help them become exposed to a wider variety of flavors and textures of different foods compared to other feeding practices. You can read more about baby led weaning in this post.
3. Encourage, but don’t force.
It can be tempting to try to force your child to eat certain foods that you perceive as healthy, yet studies show that this may backfire. Pressuring your child to eat something and having overly controlling feeding practices can interfere with taste preference development, cause a decreased liking of that food, and/or lead to more picky eaters. While it is your responsibility to offer the foods, your child is the one to determine how much and whether they choose to eat it.
4. Keep trying.
Don’t be discouraged if your child dislikes or won’t eat something the first time. Infants and toddlers may need as many as 15 exposures before accepting a new food. So don’t give up! Pairing new foods with ones your child already likes may also help with food acceptance and therefore assist with developing their taste preferences. Baby’s and young children base their food choices on things they are familiar with, so the more exposure, the better.
5. Utilize as many senses as possible.
Food acceptance involves much more than taste. Allow your child to explore their other senses by using strong smelling herbs and spices, letting them touch and feel different textures with their hands and mouth, and making sure there’s plenty of colors available for them to see. These help keep things interesting and exciting, and may help them be more accepting of new foods.
6. Consider starting with savory flavors.
While the American Academy of Pediatrics says that order may not matter when it comes to introducing solid foods, there may still be benefits to beginning with non-sweet flavors. Since your child already has an innate love for sweet things, you can help them learn to adapt to alternative and less popular flavors from things like vegetables, meats, dairy, and beans by offering them first, and doing so often. This doesn’t mean that sweet fruits are off the table, but try not to have them be the bulk or the sole source of foods offered. Keep in mind that foods with added sugars should not be offered at all before age 2, according to the new 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee.
7. Be a good role model.
Your baby is constantly watching you, as this is a major way that they learn. If you want them to eat a variety of healthy foods, make sure you’re doing so yourself. With baby-led weaning, you can even offer them age-appropriate foods directly from your plate!
8. Build upon healthy habits.
As your child grows, you will face endless opportunities to provide them with “kid food”, which usually involves little variety and are often not the healthiest choices. Rather than always succumbing to ordering from the kids menu, encourage your child to continue eating foods they have learned to accept at home. Don’t be afraid to offer them the same foods that you eat!
What if your child is already a picky eater?
If your child is struggling to accept many foods, all hope is not lost. It is never too late to work on shaping your child’s taste preferences by encouraging them to try new foods. While you may be faced with resistance for a while, it can be especially rewarding when they finally do begin eating a wider variety of foods. Nearly all kids will go through a picky eating phase at one time or another, so recognize that it can be temporary. Continue doing what you can to encourage healthy habits, and remember not to blame yourself.
As a parent, you play an important role in developing your child’s taste preferences. Teaching them to accept a variety of healthy foods early on can jumpstart healthy eating habits throughout the rest of their life, which will have a big impact on their overall health. While you may not ever have complete control over what sort of eater they become, you can focus on what you can do, and try to have fun with it along the way!