While every child and every child’s palate is unique, there are two things that virtually all kids have in common: they love sweets and they hate vegetables. Evolution, while working to steer us clear of bitter-tasting, poisonous plants and to prefer the sweet taste of energy-loaded foods, has unfortunately dealt our children a natural preference for poor nutrition in today’s world.
But there’s good news. Multiple scientific studies have revealed a series of “flavor learning windows” during which it is much easier to shape a child’s Flavor Intelligence. This period of opportunity starts in utero at 4 months gestation and continues until baby is 18 -20 months old – approximately 700 days. Provided this time is used wisely, research suggests children can be trained to prefer the flavor of vegetables and that this early “flavor learning” lasts throughout their childhood and later in life.
Below is a quick overview of the stages of early flavor learning and what you can do to increase your odds of raising a child who eat healthy for life.
Prenatal Flavor Learning
At four months gestation, a fetus’s ability to taste is fully formed. This means that anything that mommy eats baby can taste. The flavors of the mother’s diet appear in the amniotic fluid and are “imprinted” on the child’s mind forming the earliest stages of flavor learning.
To take advantage of prenatal flavor learning, focus especially on the last five months of gestation. During that time mothers should eat a varied diet that includes two servings of fruit and three servings of vegetables each and every day. Pay special attention to vegetables, keeping at least one bitter green (i.e. green beans, broccoli, Brussels sprout, spinach) in regular rotation as a daily serving.
Nursing Infant Flavor Learning – “The Flavor Bridge”
During breastfeeding this cycle of flavor learning continues and becomes stronger as a baby now has the ability to smell (flavor is defined as the combination of taste and smell) as well. Some researchers have taken to calling breastfeeding the “flavor bridge,” extending the flavor experiences from learning in the womb to flavor learning during the weaning process to adult foods.
Breastfeeding mothers should continue eating two servings of fruit and three servings of vegetables (including at least one bitter green, such as green beans, broccoli, Brussels sprout, and spinach) each and every day. While flavor intensity can vary with time, one study showed that the flavors of the mother’s diet peaked in breast milk 1.5 hours to 3 hours after ingestion, suggesting this as an optimal window for flavor learning while breast feeding.
Formula-fed Infant Flavor Learning
For mothers who are formula feeding exclusively, it is unfortunate that the singular flavor profile of today’s infant formulas does not provide an opportunity for early flavor learning. However, there is an old French custom that new moms may want to consider. Moms in France have taken to adding a small amount of vegetable puree to formula to gradually introduce their little ones to vegetable flavors in the weeks and months prior to starting purees during weaning.
Flavor learning in this way can take place via baby’s bottle or with a small spoon. In giving this a try, vegetables to include are carrots, green beans, spinach, broccoli, zucchini (peeled and seeds removed), leeks (whites only), and pumpkin. Baby endive, baby chard, and green peas can be used in limited quantities, but only if served ground extra fine due to their fiber content. The idea here is introduce new flavors, in a regular rotation, each day. It is not necessary to do this at every feeding.
Weaning Infant Flavor Learning
By tradition in the U.S., single-grain, bland tasting cereals are generally baby’s first food. This too is a lost opportunity for flavor learning. In a study led by Dr. Marion Hetherington at the University of Leeds, it was found that when baby’s were fed a rotation of vegetable flavors first added to milk then to cereal before weaning to solid foods, those babies ate more vegetables faster and enjoyed them more than those in the control group.
In practicing early flavor learning during your baby’s transition to solid foods, in addition to breastfeeding or formula feeding as usual, add a little vegetable puree first to breast milk or formula once daily for 2 to 3 weeks (40% puree to 60% milk) then to a cereal and breast milk or formula mixture once daily (70% puree to 30% cereal mixture) for 2 to 3 few weeks. The vegetables you may want to try in the rotation are carrots, green beans, spinach, and broccoli.
Regardless of what stage of the early flavor learning process your child is in, keep in mind that a consistent rotation of vegetables is ideal. It’s a good idea to create a log to help keep tabs on your progress. Repeated exposure and flavor variety are equally important. Research has shown that it is the combination of repeating and alternating flavors that leads to a preference for specific foods and an increased acceptance of new foods in the short term and later in life. This is the core premise behind early flavor learning and improved Flavor Intelligence. Be persistent and stay the course. Before you know it you’ll have a toddler who’s more accepting of vegetables and more likely to prefer the flavors of healthy foods, for life.
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This article originally appeared on www.flavorlearning.com.