Experiments in Cultivating a Non-picky Eater
Raising a healthy eater who is open to a variety of foods starts with us moms during pregnancy. Depending on what we eat during pregnancy we start to shape our childs palate.
“Things like vanilla, carrot, garlic, anise, mint — these are some of the flavors that have been shown to be transmitted to amniotic fluid or mother’s milk,” says Julie Mennella, who studies taste in infants at the Monell Chemical Senses Center. In fact, Mennella says there isn’t a single flavor they have found that doesn’t show up in utero. Her work has been published in the journal Pediatrics.”
Knowing this now, it makes sense that my son has never liked boring purees or flavourless cereals. Those foods certainly weren’t something my pregnancy diet primed him for. Instead, he’s interested in much of the same things I ate in abundance when pregnant. Fresh berries, intensely flavoured curries, plenty of fatty meats and fermented foods. Of course he hasn’t yet tasted those double fudge quinoa brownies that I love so much, but I’m sure once he does he’ll love those too.
My son is just starting to decide for himself which foods he likes and which he doesn’t. He shows me this by chucking chunks of raw apple across the room vs. devouring apple cooked in cinnamon butter in mere seconds. I adore watching him enjoy food, I can appreciate that all mothers experience this. It makes sense now why we try and accommodate our children however we can, even if all they’ll eat is french fries. We want to see them happy, full and content, so we do whatever it takes. Culturally it makes sense that our children love sweet and carbohydrate dense foods. Typical North American parenting practices involve an early diet of just that, grains, sweet cereals, sweet beverages and basically all things that babies don’t actually have the enzymes to digest.
What we feed our children from the womb throughout infancy establishes their taste buds for life. Why are pickles a comfort food for some and others completely nasty? Why is it that some people adore cilantro and others think it tastes like soap?
Taking a different approach to feeding babies looks more like what we would see in less affluent countries. No doubt, mothers all over the world want to see their babes enjoying food. The marked difference is the necessity inherent in a poorer (I hate this term but it gets the point across) nation’s food choices for their infants. So often children, even babies, just eat what their parents eat, and it makes sense. When did we start creating baby or toddler specific meals, separate from our own and how does that benefit us or our children?
This question really boggles my mind, I’ve always wondered about the practicality behind some of the things people do without question. Shitting in water for example, when we know that using a contained and sanitary composting toilet would then allow the cycle of life to complete itself. A little off topic but important nonetheless. Is it nutritionally necessary to feed babies baby specific boring ass foods? The answer is no. Cultivating a childs palate to be open to a variety of different flavours must start at a young age or we may never get the chance. Once that little mind decides what it likes and doesn’t, old habits die hard.
I started out practicing baby led weaning, which involves letting an infant age 6 months and up basically feed themselves. Standard wisdom suggests mashing and pureeing everything to spoon feed your baby. Up to a certain point this makes sense but babies, even as young as 4 or 5 months have a strong gag reflex, they have the mechanics to ensure they don’t choke because it’s in their very nature to put anything and everything in their curious little mouths. This method resonated with me, even though I’m a paranoid first time mom. I could see that my child was capable of feeding himself and frankly enjoyed exploring the foods I gave him more than even eating them. At this point his primary source of nourishment was still breast milk, food was merely an exploratory experience of tastes and textures. With baby led weaning, an infant first learns how to chew and then swallow, instead of the inverse.
A study from the University of Nottingham states,
“Babies who are weaned using solid finger food are more likely to develop healthier food preferences and are less likely to become overweight as children than those who are spoon-fed pureed food.”
One of the main reasons I chose to practice this style of nourishment is because it allows for the freedom to explore and learn in a more natural progression. It gives autonomy to the infant, whose capabilities often exceed our presumptions. And last but not least, it might be the key to raising a child whose open to different types of food.
Sally Fallon, leader of the Weston A. Price Foundation and author of various books on traditional diets recommends against baby led weaning in her book Nourishing Traditions Book of Baby and Child Care. Her points against this practice are valid, that by 6 months babies do have real nutritional needs beyond breast milk that need to be met, and we simply can’t just leave it up to them. It was for this reason that I did a combination practice of mostly baby led weaning with the occasional spoon fed meal of grated free range beef liver for iron and lightly cooked free range egg yolk for its abundance of b-vitamins. Other important nutrients for growing babies like omega-3 fatty acids were met through supplementation and it didn’t take long for Mav to decide he likes eating fish.
Let me be clear in saying I didn’t and continue to not cater specifically to what I think my child would like. I give him what I eat, even if there’s spices, bitter flavours, sour ferments and strange textures. Of course I’m not going to give him anything too insane that would burn his mouth, or load him up with diarrhea inducing amounts of fermented vegetables, there is balance. I disagree that we should be feeding our infants boring purees and cereals. It makes sense that this is setting them up to crave those types of food as they grow older. I’ve had to teach myself how to like healthy foods, literally, it wasn’t a natural thing to reach for that jar of sauerkraut or a big salad over a bowl of chips. I can’t help but think it would come more naturally if I’d been fed these foods as an infant.
I’ll be honest, when I first started baby-led weaning I wasn’t really convinced that my child would be interested in eating what I was eating and not just throwing it across the room. But I just continued to place an assortment of foods in front of him, he would pick and choose, play and explore. It took time for my brain to deprogram from the age old spoon fed puree style of feeding babies.
Fast forward 10 months since we started baby led weaning and my little man eats a wide variety of foods that I put in front of him. He enjoys an assortment of ferments like sauerkraut and kefir, curries and intense flavours like ginger and cinnamon, meats, including organ meats and especially fatty cuts and duck. I’m a lot less strict about sugar now that he’s a bit older but I still try and avoid it. On the rare occasion that baby gets something sweet at this point he’s really not that into it.
In the quest of establishing healthy eating habits, it’s possible to try too hard to be too anal. In a perfect world sugar wouldn’t engage the same brain centres as cocaine and we’d all live happily ever after. But we’ll never be able to keep our kids away from all unhealthy foods and its not worth stressing over. The point where we have control is where we need to utilize it. Right now, at a year and a half I get to choose for my baby what he eats and establish his taste buds to not turn up his nose at chicken livers when he’s older. I know it’s not always going to be that way. My house was the house kids would come to and gorge on pop, chips and pizza before returning home to kale and carrot sticks. And if your the PCP house, all hope is not lost either. Eventually I realized that eating junk made me feel like junk and started to train myself to actually enjoy healthy foods. It worked!
As a side note, what is more fun than watching your child experience a food for the very first time! It’s hilarious, the confused face which sometimes turns to a smile or a sour faced grimace. The bottom line is food should be enjoyable, and creating healthy food habits starts with us as parents.