Helping Your Child Learn to Love Healthy Foods

AllisonMS, RDN, CDN

Read time: 5 minutes

What should I know about how to get my child to eat healthy foods?

  • The first year of eating solid foods is a critical time for shaping your child’s food preferences
  • Exposing your baby to a wide variety of flavors and textures helps to raise a healthy eater
  • Repeated exposure to foods is important for your little one to accept the foods
  • Family meals are key to your little one being an adventurous eater

What is taste imprinting?

Taste imprinting describes the development of your baby’s taste preferences from exposure to foods and flavors throughout the first 1,000 days of life.1 The variety of flavors you eat when your baby is in the womb, while you’re breastfeeding, and through the introduction of your baby’s first solid foods will impact their food choices for years to come.1,2

This means that from the moment you become pregnant up through teaching your little one to eat, you have the ability to instill in your child a love of healthy foods.

Read about: Taste Imprinting while Pregnant and Breastfeeding

Why first foods and the first year of eating are so important

Your child will accept new foods more easily during the first year or two of life than they typically will later on.5,6 So take this opportunity to introduce lots of foods, flavors, and textures.

When your little one is ready, start with spoon-fed purees or very soft solids (Baby Led Weaning) and let the fun begin! Introduce new foods every few days from every food group: Vegetables, fruit, meat, poultry, low-mercury fish, nut-butters, unsweetened full-fat dairy (but not cow’s milk), whole grains, and healthy fats.

Once you know your little one can tolerate a food (they are not allergic or have an intolerance to it), keep that food in their meal rotation as a single flavor or combined with other foods.

When your little one is around 2 years old, food neophobia can kick in.5,7 This is a refusal or reluctance to eat new foods. You may also find your little one starts to reject foods they used to eat. This dreaded picky eating affects almost all children between ages 2 and 5-8 years.5

But with time, patience, and repetition, your child will slowly become a more adventurous eater again.1,7

Read more: Introducing Solids: Signs of Readiness

Learn about: Purees versus Baby Led Weaning

Offer new and disliked foods repeatedly, without forcing your child to eat

Once your baby is eating solids regularly, repeatedly exposing them to foods and textures is extremely important in shaping their palate. In fact, it can take up to 10 or more tastes of a new food before your little one begins to accept and like it.8,9

Bottom line: One of the best ways to get your little one to love healthy foods is to continue to offer it to them over and over again.

The key word here is ‘offer.’ Studies show that pressuring children to eat healthy foods – such as vegetables – can backfire, causing them to be even less likely to eat those foods in the future.10

Read more: Introducing Solids: First Foods and Advancing Textures

The Division of Responsibility as well as Responsive Feeding are both important in helping build a healthy eater

For infants and toddlers, responsive feeding is so important. This is listening to your child’s hunger and fullness cues. Feed your little one as much as they’d like to eat. Once your little one stops being interested in eating (whether they are full or simply not interested in eating that specific food), don’t force them to eat anymore.11

For toddlers and beyond, use the Division of Responsibility. Provide a well-balanced meal (protein, grain, veggies and/or fruit) and then let your child decide what and how much to eat.12 No need to make them finish their plate or even pressure them to take just one bite.13 Simply seeing that food over and over (and seeing you eat it) is the first step in them eventually eating it.14

Read about: Understanding your Baby’s Hunger and Fullness Cues: Responsive Feeding

More on: The Division of Responsibility: Helping Avoid Picky Eating

Tips to help your child learn to love healthy foods

Don’t worry about the order that you introduce foods to your baby

You may have heard that babies will accept vegetables more readily if introduced before fruit, however research has not been able to confirm this.4 Babies do have an innate preference for sweet tastes, so offering vegetables early and often is an important way to get your baby used to these more bitter flavors and build their love for produce.1,4

Rather than worry about the order of how you introduce foods, focus instead on providing a variety of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and proteins. Offer these foods on a regular basis to reinforce familiarity to their aroma, flavor, and texture.

Read more: Meal Plan for 6-9 Month Old Baby

Introduce your baby to different textures early 

It is important to feed your baby different textures when they are developmentally ready. If you begin with pureed foods, move next to lumpy or mashed purees, then to soft finger foods, and finally to firmer finger foods.

Research shows that waiting beyond nine or ten months to progress to lumpier or more solid foods may lead to picky eating and even rejection of food consistencies other than purees when your child is older.15,16, 17

Read more: Healthy Snacks for Babies and Toddlers

Don’t let the “yucky” face deter you!

Even though your little one is more open to new foods and flavors during the first year of eating it doesn’t mean that they won’t make a funny face! This is a normal and very common reaction to new foods and textures.18

While the squinting, pursing lips, and wrinkling noses might make you think your baby doesn’t like a food, this often is not the case at all.4 This is the first time your little one is taking in most of these new flavors and textures, the faces are simply a reflection of their curiosity and initial surprise.

With repeated exposures to a food, your little one may start to accept it even when they continue to make a face.4

The goal is to continue offering that food until your little one no longer makes a face, then keep that food in your baby’s regular food rotation.

Read about: Feeding Tips for Healthy Weight Gain in Infants and Toddlers

Eat with your baby and enjoy family meals together as often as possible

From the beginning, expose your baby to a variety of healthy food choices and appropriate mealtime behavior with regular family meals.19

Babies imitate their loved ones, so it’s beneficial to serve everyone the same food as often as possible (with foods and textures altered to match your baby’s abilities). Studies show that children who participate in regular family meals tend to eat more healthy foods and are more likely to develop a healthy relationship with food.9,20

Read more: Family Meals: Healthy Eating Patterns

Let’s Chat!

We know parenting often means sleepless nights, stressful days, and countless questions and confusion, and we want to support you in your feeding journey and beyond.

Our Happy Baby Experts are a team of lactation consultants and registered dietitian nutritionists certified in infant and maternal nutrition – and they’re all moms, too! They’re here to offer personalized support on our free, one-on-one, live chat platform Monday through Friday, from 8am–6pm ET, and Saturday and Sunday, from 8am–2pm ET. No appointment needed, no email or sign-up required. Chat Now!

Read more about the experts that help write our content!

For more on this topic, check out the following articles:

Introducing Solids: Baby Led Weaning

Avoid Giving Your Baby Too Much Sugar and Salt

How Can I Make My Own Pureed Baby Food?

Nutrient Needs and Feeding Tips for 6 to 12 Month Olds

Preventing Choking in Infants and Toddlers