As seen in the previous article, food preferences are established in early childhood and can be tracked into later years of life.
What are some practical ways parents can promote healthy eating habits during the earlier stages of a child's life?
Weaning is a crucial time to start this process. Between 4 to 7 months, an infant is most open to accepting new flavors and textures. Reluctance for new foods may appear during infancy but it most likely wil peak around 2 to 5 years of age.
If you have ever seen an online video of a child eating spinach or lemon for the first time, you may know why some parents are reluctant to introduce foods with bitter notes in them. Infants may make facial expressions that parents interpret as dislike and refusal to accept.
Repeated exposure, however, can lead to a positive result. As one study put it, repeated exposure is "potent" The infant may end up accepting the new food if it is exposed to it enough times. 1,2 The lesson: don't get discouraged too quickly. Repeat the food or flavor for about 10 exposures, but no less than 5.
Just as important as repeated exposure is variety. One study considered the fact that breastfeeding (which is associated with greater willingness to accept vegetables) exposes children to a variety of flavors via the breast milk. Researchers found that rotating vegetables on a daily basis to include more variety led to greater intake, acceptance and even a better pace of eating.3,4 The lesson: vary veggies! Offer your infant different vegetables every day. You can mix them with rice or with milk. Rotate through them.
A common mistake many parents make is masking the flavor of vegetables with sweeter fruit. While this may seem like a good idea initially, it does not allow the child to be exposed to that vegetable's flavor as is. It may make it harder for the child to accept the vegetable as is later on. The lesson: start with single veggie flavors without mixing with fruit. At least for the initial exposures to the vegetable, give the infant time to experience the flavors before mixing them with other fruits later on.
We know just how important vegetable consumption is to maintaining a healthy diet. Early childhood is a window of opportunity to help a child make vegetables a significant part of their diet throughout their lifetime.
1. Maier A et al. Effects of Repeated Exposure on Acceptance of Initially Disliked Vegetables in 7-Month Old Infants. Food Qual Pref 2007; 18: 1023–1032.
2. Ventura A & Worobey J. Early Influences on The Development of Food Preferences. Curr Biol 2013; 23: R401–408.
3. Appetite. 2015 Jan;84:280-90. doi: 10.1016/j.appet.2014.10.014. Epub 2014 Oct 18.
4. Appetite. 2014 Jul;78:89-94. doi: 10.1016/j.appet.2014.03.021.