Learning to love healthy foods

Baby eating untasty food making faces

The introduction of first solid foods, in particular, is a critical opportunity for you to influence your baby’s food preferences and healthy eating habits. Your child will accept new foods more easily from approximately 6 months until 12 months of age than he will later on in life, and what he learns about eating during infancy and toddlerhood will affect his subsequent eating behavior, growth and weight status.

Once your baby is eating food himself, repeatedly exposing him to a variety of tastes and textures is extremely important in shaping his palate, as is teaching by example. The eating habits of parents and caregivers also impact a child’s food preferences and eating behaviors (learning to eat) because babies are more likely to try foods they’ve seen other people eating (especially their parents). If your baby sees you enjoying broccoli, carrots, and spinach (from your own plate or even his tray), he’ll accept them more readily. In a survey of more than 550 parents of preschool children, the parents’ fruit and vegetable consumption was the strongest predictor of how much of these foods the kids ate.

What to Do

Offer a variety of healthy foods across all food groups to help develop a preference for healthy foods

When your baby is ready for solid foods (around 6 months), provide him with many opportunities to try vegetables, fruits, beans, whole grains, unsweetened dairy, nut butters, low mercury fish, poultry and meat. Continue to re-introduce foods he may have previously disliked. Offer your baby many different healthy foods over the course of each day, and try pairing new foods with foods your baby already likes. Experiment with cooking foods different ways (sautéed, steamed, roasted or raw) and try a variety of flavor combinations. You can even add herbs, spices, and other flavors to expand your baby’s palate! For more ideas on first foods and food preparation check out Introducing Solids: First foods and advancing textures.

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 evidence has not been able to confirm this. Babies do have an innate preference for sweet tastes, so offering vegetables early on is an important way to get your baby use to more bitter flavors. However, the order in which you introduce vegetables and fruits has not been shown to modify his overall preference for one over the other. Focus on introducing a variety of vegetables, fruits, whole grains and proteins without worrying so much about the order of introduction. Offer these foods on a regular basis to reinforce familiarity to their aroma and flavor.

While it may take a bit longer for your baby to accept bitter tastes like dark leafy greens, continuing to offer these foods will help him to eventually accept and enjoy their flavors.

Consistently exposing your child to a wide variety of healthy foods is key in expanding your baby’s palate. If he doesn’t like something at first, don’t worry. Keep offering the food or try preparing it in different ways. This will help you to learn your baby’s food preferences. It can sometimes take upwards of 20 tries for a child to accept and enjoy new, unfamiliar foods and flavors, so stick with it!

Don’t worry if your baby doesn’t eat a large quantity of the foods you offer. What’s important is that your baby merely tastes or is exposed to the food regularly. If you’re worried about food waste, only give your baby a small amount (1 or 2 tablespoons) to start, and you can always offer more if he finishes that first serving.

Introduce your baby to different textures early on

It is important to feed your baby different textures as they are developmentally ready. After a few months for some babies, less for others, you can start to progress from purees to more advanced textures. When your baby becomes comfortable with a specific texture, make sure to advance to the next stage. If you begin with pureed foods, move next to lumpy purees, then to soft finger foods, and finally to firmer finger foods. Advancing in textures when your baby is ready to move ahead will ensure that they accept more complex textures later on

Don’t let the “yucky” face deter you!

It’s completely normal if your baby grimaces or makes other funny faces as he tries new foods (think about tasting something tart for the first time!).

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. It’s never too early to start fostering a healthy relationship with food.

Babies imitate their loved ones so it’s best to serve everyone the same food as often as possible (with textures and pieces altered to match your baby’s abilities). Remember that kids also see the less healthy foods you eat, so try to be mindful of that as well.

Avoid adding salt or sugar to coax your baby to like certain foods

Babies 6-12 months only need 370 milligrams of sodium per day and your child doesn’t need added sugar (natural sugar found in fruits, vegetables and no sugar added dairy products is, of course, fine). If you’re giving your baby prepared or packaged foods always check the nutrition facts panel for the sodium and sugar content.

Don’t pressure your baby or toddler to eat

Studies show that pressuring children to eat “healthy” foods such as vegetables can backfire. When it comes to feeding your child, it is your job to decide what foods to offer, when to offer them and where to offer them. But your child will decide how much he eats (of the foods you’ve offered) or if he eats at all.

For more information on picky eating, please visit our Picky Eating Hub.