Baby's 'flavor window' and the science of raising healthy little eaters.
As adults, we are often proud of the food we enjoy: the burn of kimchi, the bitterness of black coffee, the nuttyness of a good camembert. Why, then, are our little ones relegated to the children’s menu with macaroni and cheese or chicken nuggets as their only options? The truth is, if you hope to raise a gourmand of your own, or at the very least a child who can eat carrot sticks instead of french fries happily, it starts from the beginning -- from their very first bites.
Many Americans have come to expect children to be picky eaters -- they even indulge it. Children’s menus date back to as early as the 1920s, the first of which is believed to have been used by the Waldorf-Astoria in New York. The offerings were bland: “flaked chicken over boiled rice”. Yum. But as the shift toward a more health-conscious and epicurean food perspective continues, the question is begged: why aren’t our kids eating like we do?
They can, and they probably even should be.
In recent years, the idea of palate training has been top of mind for both parents and baby food producers. The concept is simple: introduce babies to a wide variety of flavors and textures from a very young age, with the hope that early introduction will lead to a lifetime of acceptance. There’s even an evidence-based magic window of time where this works the best.
Four to seven months of age is the golden moment -- the “flavor window,” as food writer and author Bee Wilson coins it in her book First Bite -- where babies are most accepting of the flavors offered to them. In her book, Wilson uses research and what we know about our relationship to food to connects the dots and explain how we can help our children -- and ourselves -- eat better.
“Several studies have shown that when vegetables are introduced at this age, babies are more open-minded,” Wilson wrote. “It takes fewer exposures to persuade them to like a new flavor, and the effects are long-lasting.”
The thought is that if you feed your baby a variety of whole ingredients with rich and diverse flavors instead of, say, processed rice cereal, later on down the road they’ll opt for a healthy dinner rather than a greasy pizza.
“Healthy eating has been a huge trend among adults for years, so it was only a matter of time before people started focusing on babies, too,” Kerstin Kuhn, international food writer and mother behind the Los Angeles-based baby food delivery service Little Foodie Club, said. “In some ways it’s crazy that this is only happening now.”
Little Foodie Club offers blends like lamb with potatoes, spinach and rosemary, and beets and parsnips with amaranth and cumin. They’re using unique ingredients with the goal of exposing babies to as many flavors as possible right off the bat.
During this flavor window, research shows babies are busy forming lasting food memories; and those food memories are crucial for them to develop a taste for whole foods and, some advocates argue, could therefore play an important role in battling childhood obesity.
“What’s more is that commercial baby food has no resemblance in taste or texture to the real deal,” Kuhn said. “It’s watered down and lacking in taste and texture. Compare a store bought sweet potato puree with a homemade one, and you’ll be amazed by the huge difference.”
She continues, “so when kids who are only used to eating these processed purees get to eat the real vegetables, they are overwhelmed by the intensity of the flavor of real vegetables and they reject them because they’re not used to them.”
What if your baby doesn’t like the foods you’ve offered? Don’t stress. Maybe your little one laps up prunes, but wrinkles her nose at spinach and quinoa. It’s totally normal. Babies need to try a food ten to fifteen times before deciding if they like it.
And if you’re already out of that four to seven month flavor window, now dealing with a picky toddler who will only eat french fries -- all is not lost. Wilson points to Dr. Lucy Cooke’s “tiny tastes” method of persuading your child to eat a new food.
Cooke, who is a child feeding specialist, developed the “tiny taste” method as a way to introduce foods to extremely fussy eaters. In exchange for tasting a food -- even licking counts -- the child receives a sticker. After the fifteenth day, the child sees that the food is not harmful or scary.
The sticker is important; both Cook and Wilson dissuade parents from using food as a punishment or reward, as it could lead to unhealthy eating habits.
Photo by Hanna Nakano.