Learn how to get your baby started on the path toward less pickiness, one step at a time.
One of the best parts of life is getting to experience it through all of your senses—and taste is one of the best and earliest ways we can experience the world. A baby's taste buds are developed from the time they're born, and it's up to you to introduce new flavors and textures to your little one. But how exactly do you do it? Here, the experts share everything you need to know about taste training, including when to get started (which is probably, um, now!).
Why is taste training important?
Taste training does more than ensure that your baby eats a varied, healthy diet. "Teaching kids to appreciate a wide variety of foods is just as vital as other life skills," explains The Baby Steps registered dietitian Diana K. Rice, R.D. "Not only will it help them regularly consume a more nutritious diet, it's also a very important social skill for later in life and will reduce stress on the parents as feeding situations outside the home inevitably arise."
It also helps your baby interact with their siblings (either current or future) and can help build bridges that connect you and your children. Think about that awesome heirloom family recipe or your simple Taco Tuesdays: Families often share dietary preferences that while not inherited, are encouraged through the generations. "Taste training is important because it is unavoidable," explains Adina Pearson, R.D., blogger at HealthyLittleEaters.com and co-teacher at FeedingBytes.com. "If you want your children to enjoy the foods your family enjoys, they have to have experience with it."
When should you begin taste training?
Some experts believe taste training happens as early as the womb, based on the diet of the mother, but it officially begins when your baby samples solid foods, Pearson says. "All babies get taste training simply via the selection of foods offered."
But there's more to it than just which flavor profiles—sweet or salty, sour or bitter—your baby enjoys. You'll also want to encourage your child to interact with various textures so he doesn't develop an aversion to something mushy or crunchy, for instance. "The principles supporting taste training, such as positive meal routines and food exploration, can be instilled as solids get introduced—for instance, allowing an older infant to touch and explore food when he starts developing fine motor skills," explains Grace Wong, R.D., MSc, a pediatric dietitian who specializes in feeding.
How do I get started?
With all those food options out there, it can seem a bit overwhelming to figure out how to introduce your child to a variety of flavors and textures. Here's how to do it right:
Don't just give him what he wants.
If you have a child past the age of 3 (or you've seen one portrayed on TV), then you know what a picky eater is like. To avoid creating your own finicky diner, try Rice's counter-psychology tip: If you discover your baby likes carrots, grab the mashed beets. “Switch up what you’re offering. Don’t think, ‘Oh he likes this, I’ll be sure to give them to him often.’ Think, ‘Okay, he likes this, so I’d better try a different vegetable today.’ Offer the carrots again in about a week so that your child will remember them,” Rice explains. “You can also use the foods your baby displays a preference for as a platform for additional flavors. Think carrots roasted with garlic and herbs or tossed in a tangy dressing of balsamic vinegar.”
Make eating a family affair.
Though many families struggle to find the time to sit down and enjoy a meal together, it’s not only important for building strong bonds, but for normalizing tastebuds, too. Wong says that even if you can’t manage to do this each and every single night, aim to have family meals at least on the weekends. During this time, your baby will start to watch how the rest of the family eats, and become more comfortable with sharing and trying new food—especially if they watch you eat it first. Wong says this creates the mindset that there isn’t a difference between "kid meals" and "adult meals." “Adults and children can share the same meal, including foods that are familiar to your child as well as foods that are new," Wong says. "This way, you would not be stuck in a rut of serving the same foods over and over again. You have the freedom of serving a variety of foods and provide them opportunities to explore and get acquainted to new foods.” Of course, make sure that any family foods are an appropriate texture for your baby. Mash it until smooth, or cut it into small chunks as a finger food.
Give him a true tasting, not a meal.
On those rare nights where you and your mate get to venture out on the town and make it past 9 p.m. without collapsing, you might sample a bottle of wine before shelling out the cash for it, right? Rice recommends offering the same gesture to babies and toddlers, so their budding senses aren’t overwhelmed. “The two most important things to keep in mind are to start small and offer foods consistently. Offer just a pea-sized amount of a new food and don’t place a whole dish of it in front of your child in the hopes that she will like it and decide to eat more,” she says. “If the child eats the morsel, you can offer more, but don’t pressure her. And whether or not she ate the small bite of food, offer it again in a few days until she’s ultimately willing to eat it.”
Don’t get disappointed if he doesn’t like it.
Repeat after us: It’s not a personal attack on your parenting and cooking skills if your kid just can’t get behind peas. Or broccoli. Part of taste training isn’t making your babe into a novice chef with a refined palate, but rather, allowing him to explore his own preferences. “I like to encourage parents to try this exercise: place the kid in the high chair and offer him three small toys. Does he gravitate towards one toy and ignore another? Do you feel like a failure because your kid is ignoring a toy you offered? I highly doubt it! Who knows why kids have the preferences they do?” Rice says. “With food, the important thing to do is consistently offer a food the child has previously rejected until they come to accept it. And if they really seem to hate a handful of flavors, let it slide. Most adults have a few things they prefer not to eat, too.”
Better late than never...
If you're already past the starting-solids state, there's still time to engage in a little taste training. "It's not too late if your kid is already a toddler. Just start as soon as possible," Rice recommends. "The taste preferences we develop in childhood influence our lifelong eating patterns. The more your child grows to be wary of new foods, the more work you'll need to put in to reverse these preferences.”