PhotoExposing children to a variety of healthy foods–starting as early as possible–can help promote healthy eating habits into adulthood, new research shows.

Following a review of data gathered from more than 40 peer-reviewed studies on how infants and young children develop preferences for healthy foods, researchers concluded that familiarizing kids with a variety of healthy foods starting very early helps to lay a foundation for healthy eating habits later in life. 

Starts during pregnancy 

The road to getting kids to enjoy healthy foods can begin even before the child is born, researchers say. 

Women who stick to a healthy diet while pregnant expose the child in utero to the flavors of healthy foods via amniotic fluid. Once the child is born, moms who breastfeed pass on the flavors of the healthy foods they eat through their breast milk. 

In addition to helping familiarize the baby with specific flavors, these early exposures can help infants become accustomed to the experience of variety. Familiarizing infants’ palates with the flavors of various healthy foods can help set the stage for when they’re ready to graduate to solid foods.

Early exposure is important

When children are slightly older, it’s just as important to continue exposing them to a variety of healthy foods like vegetables and fruits. 

In an interview with ConsumerAffairs, lead author Stephanie Anzman-Frasca, assistant professor in the pediatrics department at  the University at Buffalo Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, explained that “neophobia” -- or a fear of new foods -- is a normal part of children’s development.

Kids’ reticence to try new foods changes over time, she said, adding that neophobia is lower during infancy and increases from there, making early life a great opportunity to promote the acceptance of new foods.

Persistence is key

While taking advantage of periods of low neophobia is easier on parents and likely to yield better results, Anzman-Frasca says it’s not too late to expose children to new foods in early childhood and beyond.

Cajoling kids into eating healthy foods they initially rejected can be a challenge for many parents and caregivers. However, given the critical importance of healthy eating behaviors later in your child’s life, the authors encourage parents not to give up–especially on an entire category of healthy foods, like vegetables.

“As they develop, children may go through phases where they suddenly like foods they previously wouldn’t touch, or don’t like foods that used to be their favorites,” Anzman-Frasca said. “So, we would recommend continuing to make a variety of healthy foods available and continuing to test out these different strategies that are supported by research.” 

Getting kids to eat healthy foods

Repeated exposure is generally an effective strategy for getting kids to eat specific healthy foods, she says, but there are other strategies parents can try in challenging circumstances. 

Anzman-Frasca and her colleagues recommend the following strategies: 

  • Flavor pairings. New foods are paired with an already-liked food over multiple occasions to increase the taste for the new food on its own.
  • Modeling. Children can eventually learn to like new foods after watching parents, siblings, or peers enjoying them. 
  • Small tastes. Setting up a low-pressure environment can help too. Encourage the child to take a small taste of the food as opposed to pressuring him or her to finish a whole portion. “In this kind of setting, a child might just decide that today is the day to taste and like a green bean,” said Anzman-Frasca.

The study has been published in the journal Obesity Reviews.

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