February 2022 Issue
Infant Nutrition: Developing Taste Preferences
By Joanna Foley, RD, CLT
Vol. 24, No. 2, P. 8
8 Practical Tips for Clients
Whether dietitians are parents themselves or interact with parents in their practice, the question of how to raise healthy eaters likely has come up. Kids are notorious for having picky palates, and with the standard American diet being far from supporting good health, raising kids to eat and enjoy a variety of healthful foods can be challenging.1
Regardless of whether it’s adults or children, it’s well known that diet quality is closely linked to disease risk, weight status, and even mental health.2-4 Children who eat less healthful diets are more likely to develop health problems such as diabetes, CVD, osteoporosis, and asthma over the long term.5
Despite these realities, many parents are resistant to changing their children’s diets because they believe a child’s taste preferences are set in stone (particularly during the toddler and elementary years). Fortunately, this doesn’t have to be the case. Helping clients understand what influences a child’s palate and the realistic actions they can take can help them raise children to become healthy, adventurous eaters.
How Do Taste Preferences Develop?
The ability to detect flavors begins long before a child is born. In fact, foods and beverages in the maternal diet flavor the amniotic fluid surrounding the fetus during pregnancy. Therefore, a woman’s diet during pregnancy not only provides nourishment to herself and her growing baby but also is the starting point for shaping her child’s food preferences later in life.6 Studies have shown that infants of mothers who ate significant amounts of specific foods, such as carrots and garlic, late in pregnancy were more accepting of those flavors after birth.4,7
While an infant’s time in the womb sets the stage for their palate, taste preferences continue to develop after birth. Infants who are breast-fed will continue to be exposed to the flavors of what their nursing mother eats. In fact, studies have shown that infants can detect the flavors of various foods in breastmilk within hours of the mother eating those foods.8 As children get older, the introduction of solid foods provides even greater opportunity for flavor exposure and development of taste preferences.
Each of these early experiences, along with other biological, social, and environmental factors, serve as the foundation of food preference development.
Strategies for Parents
Almost all parents counseled by dietitians want their children to establish good eating habits when they’re young, but they may not know where to begin. The following are some tips RDs can share with clients.
1. Start early—before birth, if the mother is able. As mentioned, children’s taste preferences begin to develop in the womb.9 Pregnant and nursing women can prioritize eating a wide variety of nourishing foods from all food groups to help familiarize their developing child with a range of flavors before they even have their first taste of solid food.
2. Focus on variety. Once a child is ready for solid foods, parents should focus on offering as many options as possible. Research shows that having variety in a baby’s diet may lead to better food acceptance for the remainder of his or her life.10 While there are many ways to introduce solid foods, participating in baby-led weaning may help expose young children to a vast array of flavors and textures earlier, compared with other feeding practices.11
3. Emphasize nonsweet flavors. There may be benefits to introducing babies to savory rather than sweet flavors.12 Diana K. Rice, RD, CLEC, founder of @anti.diet.kids and Tiny Seed Family Nutrition in the Oklahoma City metro area, says, “We have to remember that the human body is programmed to enjoy sweetness because we all run on glucose, and even breastmilk and formula are sweet to a baby’s taste buds. There’s certainly no harm in offering naturally sweet foods like fruit, but we should also take care to regularly offer the child the bitter, sour, and umami flavors our families enjoy.”13
Parents can help their child learn to enjoy and accept flavor profiles associated with foods such as vegetables, meats, dairy, and beans by offering them often and perhaps in larger quantities than sweet foods. They also should keep in mind that the 2020–2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans discourages providing foods with added sugars to children younger than age 2.14
4. Encourage, but don’t force. Parents may be tempted to force their children to eat healthful foods. However, studies show that doing so may backfire.15 Pressuring children to eat and being overly controlling during feeding can interfere with development of taste preferences, cause a negative association and decreased liking of that food, and/or possibly lead to picky eating.16 “I think it’s really important to recognize that children are individuals, too, and we’ll likely do more harm than good trying to force our ideas of a healthful diet on them,” Rice says.
One feeding philosophy states that while it’s the parents’ responsibility to offer foods, it’s up to the child to determine whether and how much to eat. This is known as the division of responsibility, a framework created by dietitian and child feeding expert Ellyn Satter, MS, RD, CICSW, BCD. Rice says, “Following the division of responsibility in a way that works for your family is one of the best things parents can do, especially when a child is a selective eater. It allows the child to maintain their autonomy and feel confident in choosing new foods because the food is appealing to them, not because their parents are pressuring them to consume something that feels unsafe. By modeling consumption of the family’s foods themselves, parents also can set a positive example for their kids to follow.”
5. Remain persistent. It’s common for kids to reject a new food the first few times they try it. Studies show infants and toddlers may need as many as 15 exposures before accepting a new food.17 It’s also common for them to eschew a food they previously liked or begin to enjoy a food they previously didn’t accept.
Danielle Burns, MOT, OTR/L, a pediatric occupational therapist at Collaborative OT Solutions in Chula Vista, California, says, “When introducing new foods, it’s essential to make the experience fun and playful. Kids learn best through play, and playful experiences decrease their anxiety levels. When mealtime becomes stressful, children may lose their appetite, demonstrate avoidant behaviors, and create negative memories of the presented food.”
Young children base their food choices on things they’re familiar with, so the more exposure, the better.18 Pairing new foods with ones a child currently likes also may help with food acceptance and assist with developing their taste preferences.
6. Engage all of their senses. Taste is just one aspect of food acceptance and taste preference development. Other senses, including touch, smell, and visual appeal, play a large role in whether children will accept a particular food.19
“Utilizing all the different senses allows children to develop their sensory processing skills [and] oral motor skills, and expand their knowledge of the world around them. Creativity with even one food item can allow for well-rounded sensory and motor development,” Burns says.
Ideas for helping children explore their other senses include using strong-smelling seasonings or dips, serving food at various temperatures, cutting food into different shapes and sizes, letting them touch and feel different textures with their hands and mouths, and
making sure there are plenty of colors available for them to see on their plate. These all help keep food interesting and exciting and may help them be more accepting of new foods.
7. Emulate a good role model. It’s no surprise that young children are constantly watching their parents; it’s one of the ways they learn. Therefore, parents should model healthful eating habits if they want their children to eat healthfully.
Watching a parent eat healthful foods can teach children that these foods are safe to explore. Parents can give their children tastes of foods right off their own plates and can explain why these foods are healthful choices. However, parents should avoid labeling foods as “good” or “bad,” as these terms can create disordered eating habits in their
children later in life.
8. Be consistent with healthful habits. There will be endless opportunities and influences that may cause children to stray from healthful eating habits: spending time with peers, school lunch menus, kids’ meals at restaurants, and more. So it’s important for parents to continue practicing healthful eating habits at home as a family as often as possible.
While certain potentially negative influences such as peer pressure may not confront kids until later in childhood, these factors still can be combated early. For example, Rice says, “rather than making children separate ‘kid-friendly’ meals, if you serve your children the foods of your family often and trust that, even in infancy, children can manage these foods and will likely enjoy them, you’ll spare yourself the headache later on of fretting over whether your children are healthy eaters.”
Continuing to expose and encourage children can help reinforce healthful and varied taste preferences.
The RD’s Role
Parents of picky eaters, or those whose children aren’t exposed to a wide variety of foods, may be concerned that they have missed a window of opportunity for expanding their child’s food preferences. And they may be worried that their children’s health will be negatively impacted as a result. The good news is that not all hope is lost, and RDs can help promote healthful habits.
Dietitians should encourage these parents by telling them it’s never too late to work on shaping their children’s taste preferences. Many of the tips in the previous section may be initiated at any time in childhood. Parents may face resistance from children at first, but persistence pays off. It can be especially rewarding for these parents when their children 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 parents may need to be reminded that such behaviors likely are temporary and that they should continue doing what they can to encourage healthful habits.
Lastly, RDs should remind parents there’s no one correct and perfect way to feed children. There are many ways to eat healthfully, so parents should try to resist the pressures from sources such as the media or compare themselves with other families.
Parents play an important role in developing their children’s taste preferences. Training them to accept a variety of healthful foods early on can jumpstart healthful eating habits for life, which can have a significant impact on their overall health. While parents may never have complete control over what sort of eater their children will become, they can focus on what they can do and try to have fun with it along the way.
— Joanna Foley, RD, CLT, is a freelance health and nutrition writer, cookbook author, and health coach based in southern California. She has worked in several health care settings, including hospitals, outpatient dialysis centers, and private practice. Visit her at joannafoleynutrition.com.
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