The Secret to Raising a Healthy Eater? Start Early!

Early life nutrition may be the key to successful eating habits later in life. Starting in the womb, infants begin to develop flavor preferences. From gestation to the first two years of life, an important “window of opportunity” is presented: shaping a newborn’s food preferences.

Although we are all born with an innate preference for sweet (candy) and rejection of bitter (vegetables), taste preferences can be learned through repeated exposure. Skillfully introducing new foods can set infants up for dietary success and better health outcomes. However, feeding babies healthy foods isn’t as simple as putting a piece of broccoli in front of them. Introducing foods takes time, patience, and a whole lot of work.

Start early to help shape your baby’s taste for nutritious foods.  Mom’s diet during pregnancy is crucial for not only helping the fetus develop optimally, but also for priming taste preferences. Research shows that mothers who consume fruits and vegetables during pregnancy and lactation had babies that were more willing to accept these foods. After birth, the current World Health Organization recommendation is to exclusively breastfeed children for the first 6 months of life. Around 6 months, breast milk is no longer able to supply all of the vitamin D and iron needed to meet the baby’s requirement, so solid foods are introduced. Check out our Starting Solids factsheet for more info on when and how to safely introduce solid foods.

For adults, eating is an experience that utilizes all of the senses. The same goes for babies. Babies enjoy exploring new foods with all their senses, which means that sometimes most of it can end up on the floor. Don’t despair–research shows that it can take anywhere from 6-35 times of serving the same fruit or vegetable for an infant to try it. This is where the patience comes in. Serving a variety of fruit and vegetables increases the chance the baby will eat the new vegetable. Also, preparing foods in different ways reveals new food textures that help transition babies from eating pureed food all the way to soft, solid foods. By age 2, children are ready to join the family dinner table, so serving family meals centered around vegetables, whole grains, lean protein sources, and fruit is key to support healthy habits.

Already mastered the basics of Starting Solids? Below are some tips to help even the pickiest eaters adapt to a variety of nutritious foods:

1.  Meal Plans: not just for grown-ups!

  • Make a list of soft fruits and vegetables, such as avocado, bananas, and cooked sweet potatoes and green beans.
  • Then, decide how to prepare each food (i.e. mashed sweet potatoes, small pieces of avocado, etc.).
  • After, sort each food into a meal for the week (i.e. bananas as part of Monday breakfast, mashed sweet potatoes as part of Monday lunch, etc.).
  • When the day arrives, record how your child responded to the food (i.e. she appeared to like the bananas and ate it all, he refused to eat the green beans, etc.). This will help track when each new healthy food was introduced and how your child accepted the food.

2. Mix it Up: Prepare healthy food in different ways to introduce new textures. Start out with pureed foods, then move to mashed, then to lumpy, and finally to small pieces of soft, solid foods by the time your child reaches age 2.

3.  Monkey See, Monkey Do: Model healthy behaviors for your child. Sit down at meal times together and if you’re feeding your child bananas, try some too. Children are more likely to eat a food when they see an adult eating it as well.

This blog post was written by Debbie Fetter