Navigating a culinary landscape is an adventure for the senses—and mothers who enjoy a diverse diet play a key role in raising adventurous eaters.
On a quest to discover what makes our children curious or cautious of different foods we consulted Pediatrician Dr. Nimali Fernando and feeding specialist Melanie Potock, two moms behind the award winning book Raising a Healthy, Happy Eater: A Stage-by-Stage Guide to Setting Your Child on the Path to Adventurous Eating. Learning to eat a variety of foods is tied directly to a child’s motor and cognitive development from birth to age 6 and influenced by parenting, child temperament, family dynamics and overall health. Dr. Fernando (Doctor Yum) and Melanie (Coach Mel) teach parents how to keep their children from falling into picky eating habits plus provide insight should trouble arise during these crucial years for sound nutrition.
The cognitive and chemical connections which influence taste
Raising an adventurous eater can start well before a baby takes her first bites of food. To get some insight into just how early let’s look at how taste develops from the prenatal period to infancy.
Taste buds (called papillae) develop at around ten weeks gestation and early in the second trimester will begin to function. The pattern of the papillae on the tongue in late gestation is similar to that of an adult. In fact, studies suggest that tastes transmitted from a mother’s diet into the amniotic fluid can affect taste preferences in a baby’s first months of life.
But taste isn’t just about the tongue. Taste and smell are intimately connected. Taste allows us to perceive basic sensations like bitter, salty, sweet and sour. When we eat, odor molecules from food travel into the nasal passages to create the sensation of smell. The combination of the taste and the smell create the complexity of flavor that we perceive when we eat.
Chemoreceptors in the nose that detect smell begin to develop in the first trimester. In the second trimester the olfactory nerves that transmit smell to the brain begin to develop. Finally, in the third trimester amniotic fluid can flow freely into the nasal passages and a fetus can actually distinguished flavors using smell and taste.
Newborns are flooded with sensory experiences from the moment they are placed on mother’s belly and experience skin to skin contact outside the womb. The first time baby latches to the breast, a multitude of flavors and smells wash over the taste buds while the air circulating in the oral and nasal cavities carry the aromas via receptor cells to the olfactory nerve to the brain. For a breastfeeding baby the flavors of the milk can vary day to day depending on the mother’s diet. Those experiences continue as babies develop the skills to eat solid foods with a variety of tastes, textures and temperatures.
5 tips for developing a more diverse palate
Mom’s Diet Matters: In utero experience of taste can be the first steps on the road to adventurous eating. While pregnant, be mindful of nutrition during mealtimes, but also offer the unborn baby a variety of flavors to experience while still in the womb. Your baby will be born with a desire for the flavors.
Tastes Pass through Breastmilk: If breastfeeding, continue to eat a variety of healthy options so that baby experiences the taste and smell of those foods via breastmilk. Whether breast feeding or formula feeding, keeping baby nearby while you’re enjoying your meals establishes early on that mealtimes are a time to connect and experience the aromatic pleasures of healthy foods.
Make First Bites Flavorful: Exposing babies to a variety of tastes can give babies a strong base of experience in tasting. In many cultures, babies are quickly advanced from simple foods to foods with a variety of flavors from herbs, spices and other seasonings. This can develop a much wider acceptance of foods. By exposing babies early to new tastes, parents are giving kids a head start in practicing and experiencing an array of flavors found in a healthy diet.
“Taste” with the Hands: Typically developing babies are able to sit upright in a high chair, reach out and grasp soft foods for mouthing and accept a spoon presented with purees. In the upcoming book, Baby Self Feeding: Solid Food Solutions to Create Lifelong Healthy Habits (July 2016) co-author and feeding specialist Melanie Potock notes that purees provide the bridge from breast or bottle feeding to quickly becoming confident self-feeders. Offering both purees and soft, safe finger foods in a mindful way allows a child to experience a variety of tastes, textures and even temperatures. The key is frequent exposure to different aromas, flavors, tactile experiences (purees vs soft, steamed broccoli held in tiny baby’s fist and mouthed) while building confidence in trying new foods.
“Taste” with the Heart: Raising a healthy happy eater is not just about tasting food, but also experiencing food. The olfactory nerve is near both the amygdala, the emotional center of the brain and the hippocampus, the brain’s memory center. These connections can begin before solid food is introduced. Once baby begins to eat solids, make time to find JOY in eating together, connecting positive emotions with the tastes that you offer.
Learn more at www.ParentingInTheKitchen.com