Developing Your Child’s Flavor Preferences Early in Life
Written By: Dr. Jason Culp, ND CNS
Young children are sometimes described as "hedonistic eaters," eating only what tastes good to them and following an inborn preference for sweet, salty, and fatty foods.
A child’s preference for these flavors makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint; sweet, salty, and fatty foods tended to be safe and abundant in nutrients and calories, whereas bitter, acrid, and sour flavors signaled potentially unsafe or poisonous foods. This primal instinct is especially followed during the early stages of cognitive development when a child’s choices are guided primarily through the five senses without abstract thought to understand how foods impact health.
Past research showed that children develop their dietary preferences very early in life, which can have lifelong influences on eating habits and health risks in adulthood. Obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, dementia, and certain types of cancers are all chronic diseases that can be avoided or delayed by eating healthy and following good lifestyle habits. By encouraging your child early on to eat a nutritious diet while dissuading their preference for sugary, salty, and ultra-processed foods, you can help promote their well-being for years to come!
As a parent of an infant or toddler, you have likely experienced and maybe struggled with introducing new foods into your child’s diet. There are various techniques commonly suggested to shape and diversify a child’s taste palate and flavor preferences, including:
- Pairing new foods with familiar and preferred flavors. This process is called associative conditioning.
- Repeating exposure to a new food, sometimes more than ten times, until the child becomes accustomed to it.
- Exposure to a variety of foods with similar qualities, such as peas and squash, increasing the likelihood that the child will accept a new food of equal quality, i.e., carrots or potatoes.
- Social modeling with the child observing the parents and caregivers consuming (and hopefully enjoying!) new foods.
Recent and fascinating research has suggested a taste and flavor continuum, beginning in the womb, continuing with breastfeeding, and leading to the introduction of solid foods. For moms-to-be, the foods you eat can be tasted through the amniotic fluid by your growing baby, which starts to shape their flavor preferences and familiarity with their future food environment. It's also when associative conditioning and repeated exposure to new foods begin!
After your baby moves from the womb to the world, their taste exposure continues with breastfeeding. One study refers to breastfeeding as the "flavor bridge" because preferences formed in the womb get reinforced through the breast milk, which passes along components from the mother’s diet, including flavors. The transmission of flavors through breast milk helps develop an infant's preferences by pairing new flavors within a familiar context.
Interestingly, the maternal diet during pregnancy and breastfeeding may have a more significant favorable influence on an infant’s taste preference and tolerance of foods not commonly described as "tasty," such as bitter vegetables, if the mother consumes those foods regularly. Another great reason to get your 6+ servings of vegetables every day!
By the time your infant is ready to wean and begin solid foods, they’ve had considerable exposure to the family's food environment and are prepared to continue diversifying their palate. In addition, some experts suggest that the flavor preferences developed in utero and strengthened during breastfeeding may persist throughout life and impact future eating habits, although more research is needed.
The nutrition continuum from gestation to infancy re-emphasizes the importance of healthy eating habits and diet diversity during pregnancy and lactation, which could have a long-term impact on your child's flavor preferences and help instill familiarity with healthy foods, even before they’ve entered the world. So, for all the soon-to-be mothers, begin inspiring your child's love of nutritious foods by including them in your diet early and often!