My work as a doctor often sees me working closely with parents and their children, helping change their diets to create a sustainable healthy eating lifestyle. Often though, my clinical team and I have experienced many forms of toddler, infant and childhood food rejection. Since children can be notoriously picky eaters, we’ve had a number of recipes that have failed miserably; half eaten soups, one-sip smoothies, among other not-so-successful recipes. Despite it all, we kept at it and jumped into the literature of what actually works for kids and at what age do these tricks work. In this blog, I’d like to share our experience and how we transition kids into eating real food.

Getting to know your food (Familiarization)

The excellent work of Maier et al. shows that if mothers or children are able to consume 5-10 servings of vegetables consistently over the course of a regular week, their kids are able to expand their taste buds and will not mind eating these food items as they grow up.

(1) The critical window starts pre-birth up until 1.5 (18 months) years old. At 2.5 (30 months) years old and onwards, children will adopt and try more fruits and vegetables when they are involved in the cooking and buying process.

(2) This means asking them to accompany you to the grocery store or wet market to pick out fruits and vegetables and also to include them in the kitchen asking them to help prepare some of the food.

(3) The more hands-on they are the more they are more likely to eat the food.

Copy-cat age (Observational)

At 1 year (12 months), children are highly susceptible to maternal modeling. Their brains are like little sponges that absorb everything around them – most especially what mommy eats! This means that seeing their moms eat a wide variety of fruits and vegetables teaches them to copy the behavior. The window lasts until 2 years (24 months) and from then onwards they rely on peer-modeling. They copy what they see their friends and classmates are eating in school – not the best place to learn habits from unless the school has very strict rules on a no-junk-during-recess policy.

Simple colors (Categorization)

This window lasts from 2 to 2.5 (24 to 30 months) years old. Paroche et al. discovered that children associated general colors of food with its identity – rather than identifying the food with its taste and feel. They found that when the colors were too elaborate like chicken afritada or menudo; they could not associate it with anything they knew and then would not eat it. If the colors were very simple like a red colored meal or yellow colored soup; they would understand it as one item and would eat it.

So to limit food rejection, simplify your meals. Serve a plain squash soup or pick and choose one vegetable from an elaborate dish to give to your baby.

Adding a little sugar or salt (Associative Learning)

During the same window of 2 to 2.5 (24 to 30 months) you may mask the taste of bitter vegetables by adding some sugar or salt. This will allow your child to still eat the vegetables and associate it with a different taste helping them identify the food item as edible.

We hope this article armed you with more knowledge about the critical window for your baby’s healthy eating habits. Remember that even if you are past these time-points, human taste buds are trainable and take an average of 2 weeks of eating the same thing for them to adapt. Use this for those very difficult fruits or vegetables that you can’t seem to introduce but are very healthy for your baby.

Your partner in health,

Dr. Rayms

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Appetite 93 (2015) 75–84
Appetite 93 (2015) 75–84