When I began to give my son his first foods, I prepared myself for a picky eater who preferred bland, familiar food. Until I realized that no food is familiar to him and that I had the power to shape his palette.
For a snack, for after dinner, cooked in pancakes or porridge, fresh from the punnet or off the floor, blueberries are always a hit. I keep telling him he may just turn into a blueberry soon, but he would be the cutest darn blueberry ever. He's now proficient in squishing out the flesh in his mouth and discarding the skin. Berries for the win 🎉 Now I just need to get them growing in the backyard alongside the avocado tree before we are poor 👍🏼
Before my son was born, my husband and I traveled extensively, living in India and exploring countries in Asia, Central America, Europe, and the Middle East. We decided that we wouldn’t let having a child curtail our travels and began toting him along on our adventures. When he was 18 months old we decided to visit Mexico City, a place that had long been on our list for its food, culture, and history.
Once there, we experimented with adventurous eating by going on a food tour and our one-and-a-half-year-old played right along, trying the sweet orange flesh of the tropical mamey fruit and diving into quesadillas with savory huitlacoche, a prized fungus that grows on corn. Then we came to a stall selling various kinds of fried insects like crickets, ants, and worms, which are common snacks in Mexico. I managed to eat an ant and a worm, which were actually quite tasty (if I stopped thinking about what they were).
Meanwhile, my son popped a crunchy worm in his mouth and immediately asked for another. Everyone on our tour was shocked and the owners of the stand were highly amused. I realized that Sammy didn’t have any preconceived notions about eating insects and all he cared about was that this was food. And it tasted good.
“We’ve been impressed by how good children are as foodies, they eat everything, sometimes they even eat part of their parents servings,” says Rodrigo López Aldana, owner of Sabores Mexico Food Tours.
Since that trip, I’ve doubled down on the foods I give him, letting him try everything from wasabi pickles to raw kohlrabi—things I would never imagine a kid would like. We rarely order from the kid’s menu at a restaurant and when he won’t eat something it’s usually because it tastes too bland. I began to realize that my son was not unique in his tastes—after all, some of his favorite foods are comparable to what adults love—it’s often just a matter of a child being given the opportunity to try foods outside the “kid’s menu.” As parents, it’s our job to make a variety of tastes and flavors available—how can a child like olives if he’s never tried them?
So at what point do we as parents really start shaping our child’s taste preferences? Research shows that influencing a person’s taste buds starts as early as in the womb. In a 1995 study done by the Monell Center, which focuses on the science behind taste and smell, it was discovered that amniotic fluid gives off a scent of whatever the mother eats, like garlic, which was used in the original experiment.
That study was followed by one in 2001 in which one group of mothers drank carrot juice four days a week for three weeks during the last trimester of pregnancy while a second group did the same during the first two months of breastfeeding, and a control group didn’t drink carrot juice at all. The babies who tasted high concentrations of carrot in utero and in their mother’s breast milk ate more carrots post-weaning than the control group.
We know that the flavor of a mother’s breast milk is influenced by her diet. For example, when nursing mothers eat vanilla, their milk becomes flavored thusly. In a review of a series of studies, the Monell Center found that “breast-fed infants experience flavor compounds from the foods and beverages that the mother has chosen to consume, and these experiences influence the infants’ subsequent liking and acceptance of these flavors in foods.” While all babies may not like what their mother likes, the exposure to different flavors can influence their palates later on.
In other words, what a mother eats while breastfeeding, and possibly while pregnant, can influence her child’s tastes later on. I hadn’t paid much attention to what I ate while pregnant and breastfeeding, but because I’m a food and travel writer, I’m certain Sammy got exposed to all kinds of flavor in utero and through my breast milk.
But what about when babies start eating solids?
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“Infants are born with some exposure to flavor and taste but really from ages 0-1, they’re kind of an open book. They’ll put anything in their mouth and they explore the world with their mouth,” says Amy Bentley, professor of Food Studies at New York University and author of Inventing Baby Food: Taste, Health, and the Industrialization of the American Diet. American parents especially often think that at this age, babies need bland, tasteless food because babies are too delicate to handle strong flavors. But we know from other cultures and countries that this is not true.
“First foods can be a variety of things: they can be refried beans in Latin America, they can be congee in China,” says Bently. “There’s nothing wrong with [giving a baby] curries, cumin-infused food, just really interesting flavors.”
British food journalist Bee Wilson’s 2016 book First Bite: How We Learn to Eat focuses on the idea that humans actually learn to eat, and that they can be taught new habits at any age. Culture and early feeding patterns contribute to our food preferences rather than taste preferences being innate. “Genes are never the final reason why you like the particular range of foods you do,” Wilson writes. “When a boy likes nothing but cornflakes, it says less about him than it does about the world he lives in.” This of course does not include those children on the autism spectrum or with other food sensitivities like Avoidant / Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID), when environment has nothing to do with it.
Bentley finds this to be true as well, emphasizing the importance of exposing your child to a healthy variety of tastes, textures, and visuals of food. “If a child only grows up with bland, mushy types of food, then that becomes what food means to them,” she points out, using all white foods as an example. “If you only give your baby foods like white rice cereal, bananas, and pears, for an infant, food means white. So brightly colored foods like oranges, greens, purples, may be regarded with suspicion later on.”
As a child gets older, they often begin to assert their independence in one of the only ways they can: by refusing certain foods. Bentley emphasizes how important it is for a parent not to become frustrated at this behavior. If a parent gets too freaked out about a child not eating, that only increases the stress for the child and creates an “unpleasant environment of food,” says Bentley.
Additionally, research shows it takes anywhere from 10 to 16 encounters with a food before a child may be comfortable with eating it or even touching it, so it’s important not to give up on offering new foods.
Aside from remaining calm, it’s vital for parents who want to raise adventurous eaters to eat a diverse diet themselves that is taste and flavor-forward. “What you do will be an influence, whether it’s overt or covert,” says Bentley. So if you enjoy strong and interesting flavors with a variety of tastes—sour and bitter, as well as sweet, salty, and umami—then your child will observe and understand that varied, well-seasoned food is valued, not just sweets and salts.
In the end, “child rearing is an art, not a science,” says Bentley. “You can do everything ‘right’ and still the child is his or her own person and has his or her own preferences and tastes.” Which, as I’ve learned with my son in Mexico City, is a good thing.