Fascinating feeding advice for fussy eaters
Last week I was invited to a webinar offered to those working in areas around childhood feeding. It was hosted by experts in both fussy eating and feeding, and although it was primarily about first foods for babies there was a lot of other gold too!
I’d love to share some of the information that was discussed as I feel it’s great information. Even if you have moved well beyond the baby stage there are some interesting observations that may be helpful.
This is also part of a general awareness that may help to prevent fussy eating so I’d love for us to be more informed so we can better help friends and family (and those future grandchildren ).
What we taste and why
One of the speakers used orange juice to explain a little more about taste buds. There are some good learnings in this, and I will also add my own spin!
When we look at a glass of orange juice we assume it’s sweet. Why? Because prior experience tells us it will be. We have expectations about food/drinks when we approach them. These thoughts can have a significant impact on how we will find that food/drink.
Many parents are surprised (frustrated?) that their child will happily eat new cookies or sweets but be fearful of mealtime foods. The reason for comfort with new dessert-style foods is prior experiences and expectations.
If we approach a holiday, a sport, or a food feeling that it will be awful and we won’t enjoy it, it often becomes the truth. Having a positive mind-set is important in many aspects of our lives.
But what happens when we brush our teeth and then drink orange juice? It tastes absolutely awful. Why?
If we are drinking orange juice without the toothpaste the receptors in our taste buds pick up the sweetness and transmits that message to the brain. But the toothpaste interrupts the sweet messages and so the body notices the natural bitterness in the orange juice that is normally masked by the sweetness.
The toothpaste also contains surfactants which again block the sweetness receptors. And all this seems bad, but it can actually be very useful. Read on to find out why …
We also need our nose to interpret the smells and collectively the receptors in the nasal cavity and on our tongue combine to produce flavour. This is part of the reason why pouches are such a hit with many children as they are receiving muted flavour messages to the brain.
Unfortunately, there are many receptors that pick-up bitterness in foods. This is in many ways an evolutionary protection measure as it is designed to prevent us from eating foods that may be poisonous.
However, it also means that many vegetables, especially the greens can taste quite bitter. For babies who are primed to enjoy the sweetness of breast milk this can be a bit of a shock. We may not think of milk as sweet, but it is how it is experienced.
For babies the advice is therefore to introduce those greens very early so a child does get used to eating them. Which we’ll come back to! For older children greens may be more of a challenge than other foods because of their look, taste, and texture.
Advice on eating more greens
Knowing your child intimately can be a superpower. What makes foods easy or challenging for them? Is it the visual, the texture or the taste? When I spent time working directly with children, my first task was to figure out which of these was most important.
1. If it’s visual – how can we make food look more appealing? Sometimes that is burying it in cheese or combining into a smoothie or a muffin.
2. If it’s texture – we can cook vegetables in different ways and that can be the difference between acceptance and discomfort. For example, most fussy eaters prefer raw to cooked carrots.
Green veg like kale can be roasted until crunchy or we can add spinach to other foods, like pancakes or pasta sauce where the texture is then not apparent.
3. If it’s taste – bitterness can be masked by sweetness or fats so we can use that to our advantage. Although we may not want to add sugar to the spinach we can use creamy sauces or marry it with cheese to mask some of the bitterness.
Over time we become more used to the flavour profiles of even the bitter foods, and they are easier to eat. To begin with we may just need some scaffolding to give us the ability.
Priming children to accept bitter greens
Which brings us to how we can program a baby to be more accepting of green foods/more bitter tastes.
There are 3 times that we can make a difference through our habits:
1. The maternal diet – I know, more responsibility to dump on mums, and especially at a time when often we don’t feel great and the thought of eating spinach is far from our minds 🙁
But the science says that baby’s taste buds develop really early on. During the 7-8th week of gestation they are forming. Wow! While still in the womb babies have adult functioning taste buds.
Babies swallow more amniotic fluid when it’s sweet so they are definitely tasting the foods that mum eats. Including lots of greens does help to prime those tastes for our baby.
2. Breastfeeding – if breastfeeding is possible then again it is an opportunity to share the flavours of the foods we’d love our child to eat once they are ready.
3. The first month of feeding – there are critical periods of time for programming taste preferences. A study just published in NZ tested babies who were fed just vegetables (and the bitter rather than the sweet ones) plus meat for iron, for the first month of feeding.
They held off on the fruit and carbohydrates and instead fed baby a range of veg and meats.
The results showed that babies fed veg and meat for the first month were far more receptive to greens than the ones who were given carbs and fruit.
I read a similar study before feeding my first son and did try veg first before fruit, although I included the sweet ones like carrots as well as more bitter ones like spinach. I did find he found the greens as palatable as the fruit. I also mixed with expressed breastmilk so he was receiving both a familiar taste and the sweetness!
The theory is that starting with sweet, starchy foods may be reinforcing a love of those tastes. The science seems to show that 6 months is a sensitive window for taste training.
Most of us have totally missed that window, but I feel there are messages in this for parents of older children too.
Lessons from the babies
1. Priming our taste buds – if we are used to receiving certain tastes it programs how we react to others, especially if bitter. It’s why it’s important to vary the tastes our child is used to, even if it’s only slightly.
It’s also why snack foods can become a staple as they have a uniform taste. Similarly, formula always tastes exactly the same (as opposed to breastmilk which varies dependent on what mum eats) so a child used to drinking formula or milk is being programmed to accept specific tastes.
Commercial baby foods tend to always have fruit as one of the ingredients – which totally primes a child to expect all foods to be sweet and to prefer the ones that are.
2. Textures – smooth baby pouches/jars teach a child to accept foods that are ‘manufactured quality’ smooth. Food that has even a little more texture teaches baby to eat things with lumps and ‘bits’.
Even if our child is older, varying textures is an important part of supporting them to accept different textures.
Hopefully this has provided some food for thought!
Any questions, please feel free to ask. I’m always happy to respond.
Judith, MA Cantab, is an AOTA accredited picky eating advisor and internationally certified nutritional therapist. She works with 100+ families every year resolving fussy eating and returning pleasure and joy to the meal table.
She is also mum to two boys and the author of Creating Confident Eaters and Winner Winner I Eat Dinner. Her dream is that every child is able to approach food from a place of safety and joy, not fear.
Learn more about Judith here: https://theconfidenteater.com/about/