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Healthcare Professionals

In favor of flavor training

What is it that sets some children on a poor eating path rather than a healthy one? Why do some children eat their veggies and ask for fruit as snacks, rather than highly-processed foods? While it can feel to parents like their child was born that way, the truth is far more complex. And well within their control.

Research suggests parents have the power to mold their child’s palate. The key to raising kids who enjoy healthy foods is to build a diverse palate early on. By flavor training during the first year of a baby’s life, parents can shape their lifelong food preferences. 

Research has indicated that between 4 and 7 months of age, a window of opportunity exists whereby infants are particularly accepting and receptive to flavor stimulus. Capitalizing on this opportunity appears to have long lasting benefits in moulding preferences for healthy food groups such as vegetables.

How parents feed their baby during its first year of life will shape how their child eats as they grow older. Pediatricians can help parents and children form lifelong healthy food preferences by teaching them the how and why of flavor training.

Benefits from the beginning

Every child is born with an innate appreciation for foods high in fat, sugar, and salt. Introducing a baby to a variety of nutrient-dense foods is the best way to expand their food preferences to include foods like veggies and mushrooms. 

Starting early—around 4 months—enhances a baby’s acceptance of new foods in the first year. This food acceptance makes proper nutrition easier as parents transition from a milk-based to a solid-based diet.  

Additionally, repeated exposure to a wide variety of healthy foods during the first year of a baby’s life builds food preferences that remain through adulthood. With a diverse palate, these babies are more likely to adopt healthy diets as adults. 

A healthy diet also protects babies as they mature from lifestyle-related illnesses like obesity and type-2 diabetes. 

Flavor training guidelines

Step 1: A solid start

Parents can start introducing flavors to baby at around 4 months - it can be as simple as Mom offering a tiny taste of a vegetable puree on the tip of a clean finger or small spoon.  And remember, it’s all about flavor at this stage, until starting solids at 6 months. 

Step 2: Exposure is everything

The key to building a diverse palate is introducing baby to a variety of healthy foods. From 4 to 6 months, flavor training is the most fruitful. During this period, baby will try just about anything. 

In the beginning, there is no need to introduce sweet foods like infant cereals or fruit. Every baby is born with an innate taste for sweet foods, but the bitter and sour foods take more time. 

Take advantage of this willingness to try any food and introduce lots of veggies. The key is variety and repetition. Exposure to a variety of vegetables will shape baby’s taste preferences as they grow older. 

Step 3: Mix it up

Research indicates that it’s important to introduce infants to a wide variety of flavors and textures. Start with thin single-vegetable purees, introducing new vegetables often. Slowly thicken the purees. 

Eventually, parents can mix vegetable purees, but avoiding mixing veggie purees with something sweet. During flavor training and beyond, the goal is for infants to learn to enjoy vegetables without any adulterations. At around 6 months parents can add in finger foods. 

Preparing parents

New parents turn to their pediatricians for advice on what to feed their baby and when. Here are a few tips pediatricians can provide parents to get them ready for flavor training. 

    • Babies benefit from breastfeeding throughout their first year. Breastfeeding exposes baby to new flavors in the breastmilk, supporting a broad palate. Breastfeeding is tied to lower childhood obesity and higher vegetable and fruit intake in young children. 
    • Concentrate on introducing vegetables first. A veggies-first approach from 4-6 months helps infants acquire a taste for sour and bitter flavors. 
    • The two guiding principles involved in successful flavor training are variety and repetition. It can take 10 tries before baby accepts a new flavor, so encourage parents to stay optimistic even if baby doesn’t like a taste the first time around. 
    • Explain the importance of introducing a wide variety of foods, especially vegetables and fruits. Include foods that fit into the five basic flavors—sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami. Concentrate most on sour, bitter, and umami because all infants are born with a taste for sweet and salty foods. 
    • Outline how to introduce new textures. As the infant grows older, thicken purees and add solid finger foods at around 6 months. Slowly increase solid foods and decrease milk feeds until baby is 1-2 years old.   

There is a lot of conflicting information about infant feeding online. Pediatricians play an important role in separating fact from fiction and providing new parents with a feeding plan. Flavor training is critical in shaping dietary preferences that an infant will carry with them into adulthood. By taking advantage of the flavor window and introducing a variety of healthy foods at a young age, parents support the long-term health of their children. 

Disclaimer: The information provided is the opinion of Good Feeding, it has not been evaluated by healthcare professionals, and is for educational purposes only.  Before starting any new foods or feeding practices, please consult your baby's healthcare professional.

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