MS, RD, LDN, CBS
Janel holds a Master’s in Nutrition Communication from Tufts University. As the recipient of the 2010 Massachusetts Young Dietitian of the Year award, she believes in making healthy eating simple, sustainable, and delicious.
Starting solids can be a new – and sometimes scary – milestone for parents. For the first 6 months of life your baby has been on a liquid diet of milk, and now you’re faced with the task of safely providing nutritious, balanced foods, exposing your baby to a variety of tastes and textures to encourage a future of healthy eating. No pressure! One of parents’ most pressing questions when it comes to starting solids is: How do I get my baby to like vegetables? And with good reason. Many veggies are naturally bitter, and as humans, we’re genetically hardwired to have a preference for sweet foods. So, when faced with sweet strawberries or bitter broccoli, many babies will clearly show their preference. Fortunately, there are many delicious ways to get your baby interested in vegetables (none of them involve tricking or hiding veggies!).
Vegetables can be introduced right away when starting solids. Some parents question if introducing vegetables as a first food will change baby’s palate to have a preference for them versus sweet flavors (from foods like fruit), but that has not been proven. The key is to introduce vegetables often and in a variety of ways to increase chances of acceptance. It has been shown that the earlier vegetables were introduced in the infant’s diet, the better their acceptance, both in infancy and at a later age in childhood
If you’re introducing vegetables with the traditional pureed food method, you’ll start with spoon feeding purees and progressively advance to lumpy mixtures, soft solids, and soft table foods as your baby shows readiness. A carrot, for example, can be steamed and then pureed with some breast milk or prepared formula to get a smooth texture for a baby first trying vegetables. To progress to a lumpy texture, steam and then fork mash carrots with a few tablespoons of breast milk or prepared formula. Next your baby might enjoy soft, steamed, pencil-thin strips of carrot that they can hold in their hand and eat, or diced, steamed carrot pieces (pea-sized) that they can enjoy while practicing the pincer grip and self-feeding.
If boiled broccoli or steamed spinach seems bland, it doesn’t have to be! You can use oils (e.g., olive or avocado), and seasonings, such as fresh or dried herbs and spices to enhance the flavor of your veggies. Not only will this expose your little one to an even greater flavor profile but expand their palate and get them used to flavors you use to cook at home. And it turns out, babies love flavor! One study showed that nursing mothers who increased garlic in their diet had babies nursing at the breast longer and more vigorously when they detected garlic in the breastmilk.
Try cooking your baby’s butternut squash with fresh or dried thyme, or sautéing spinach with garlic before pureeing. You can also add cooking oils, such as olive or avocado oil, as fats help improve the texture and palatability of vegetables. And once your baby has happily accepted single veggies, you can combine. Try a blend of parsnips and peas or zucchini and sweet potato to increase the variety that your baby enjoys. There are no herbs or spices (except salt) that you can’t use! Remember, babies all over the world are enjoying different flavors and seasonings, and new ingredients keep feeding interesting. Roasting vegetables can also bring out their natural caramelization, or sweetness, so it’s a great cooking technique to not only get the veggies to a soft texture but also to enhance the flavor.
Too much salt can be harmful for babies’ kidneys, which is why it’s not recommended to salt your baby’s food in an attempt to enhance the flavor. The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Heart Association all advise against salting baby’s food as well as reviewing nutrition fact panels (NFPs) to limit daily sodium intake. Helpful hint: when looking at a NFPs, strive for foods with sodium <10% of Daily Value. As your baby is tasting new flavors for the first time, the natural taste of the veggies enhanced with oils, herbs and spices is all she needs for it to taste delicious!
Don’t be surprised if your baby doesn’t seem to like a new veggie on the first try. It can take 10 or more tries for a baby to like a new food, especially when it comes to bitter vegetables. While you don’t want to ever force your baby to eat a food, repeated exposure (which includes letting baby touch, smell, lick, or even play with the food on their tray) will significantly increase the likelihood that baby will one day try the new food, and maybe even learn to love it! Don’t be alarmed by a negative facial reaction to a new food! It doesn’t necessarily mean your little one dislikes the food. Oftentimes they react with strong facial cues in response to any new flavor or texture.
If you’re afraid you started too late with introducing vegetables, don’t worry! Humans can learn to love new flavors at any age, so keep providing delicious opportunities for your little one to love veggies.
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“The sweetness and bitterness of childhood: Insights from basic research on taste preferences.” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4654709/ Date accessed 4 February 2021
“Development of food preferences: Lessons learned from longitudinal and experimental studies.” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2716720/ Date accessed 29 January 2021
“Are There Sensitive Periods for Food Acceptance in Infancy?” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5438435/ Date accessed 4 February 2021“The effects of repeated exposure to garlic-flavored milk on the nursling’s behavior.”https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/8108198/ Date accessed 29 January 2021
“Sodium Intake and Blood Pressure Among US Children and Adolescents.” AAP News and Journal Gateway, date accessed February 4, 2021. <http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/early/2012/09/12/peds.2011-3870>Tian, Niu, Zhang, Zefeng, Loustalot, Fleetwood, Yang, Quanhe and Cogswell, Mary E. “Sodium and Potassium Intakes Among US Infants and Preschool Children, 2003-2010.” Am J Clin Nutr. 98.4 (2013): 1113-1122. <https://stacks.cdc.gov/view/cdc/34074>