Early Development of Food Preferences and Healthy Eating Habits in Infants and Young Children

Andrea Maier-Nöth

Early development of taste and food pleasure plays an important role for children and has long-lasting influences on subsequent food preferences and choices. Eating a variety of foods is essential to achieve adequate coverage of macro- and micronutrients. However, children’s vegetable consumption often falls below current recommendations, highlighting the need to identify strategies that promote better acceptance of vegetables. 

Apart from our innate liking for sweet foods and disliking for very bitter foods, sensory pleasure for foods is mostly acquired through our early eating experiences. Infants have a fine palate and more taste buds than adults when they are born. They have about 10,000 taste buds all around their tongue including the roof and the back and sides of their mouth. The flavors of what a mother eats while pregnant can reach the fetus and help set up flavor preferences later on. From birth, infants can taste and smell foods, an experience that can take place through human milk as the food eaten by the mother influences the flavor of her milk and, thereby, the child’s preference. 

Thus, preferences for specific flavors develop early through milkrelated flavor exposure or even during pregnancy, allowing an easier acceptance of new flavors and textures. Breastfeeding favors the acquisition of a taste for a variety of foods. At weaning, food preferences develop due to repeated exposure to a variety of foods, especially vegetables and fruits. The persistence of these early influences seems to be long-lasting. Factors favoring the development of food acceptance at the beginning of complementary feeding include, in particular, the role of early variety, repeated exposure, timing of food introduction, and sensory properties (texture, taste, and flavors) (Fig. 1). 

During the third year of life, most children enter a neophobic phase during which the introduction of new foods becomes difficult. However, habits of eating a variety of vegetables and foods acquired early in weaning appear to attenuate this neophobia.

fig1

Fig 1. Early food-related variety experience is associated with higher intake of new vegetables. Intake (mean ± SE) at follow-up 3, i.e., when children were on average 6 years old. a Breastfed and formula-fed infants. b Three experimental groups (no, low, and high variety).

Recently, experimental studies have reported promising interventions that increase acceptance of vegetables and new foods. The first, offering infants a high variety of vegetables during weaning, increases acceptance of new foods, including vegetables. Frequent (daily) changes in vegetables offered appears to be more effective than changing every few days. In addition, breastfeeding (as opposed to formula feeding) followed by a wide variety of foods at weaning produces the greatest acceptance of new foods (Fig. 2). The second, offering an initially disliked vegetable at 8 subsequent meals, markedly increased acceptance for that vegetable.

fig2

Fig. 2. Effect of exposure on intake (mean ± SE) of the initially disliked and liked vegetables. * p < 0.05 vs. the mean intake of the initially disliked vegetable.

These effects have been shown to persist into childhood. This underlines the importance of promoting access to a variety of healthy foods (such as vegetables and fruits) in early childhood. 

In conclusion, early experiences with vegetable variety during weaning can influence food choice and preference into childhood, and parents should actively encourage their children to try new vegetables and foods. If a new food is initially disliked, it is worth offering at 7–8 subsequent meals since this will usually lead to its long-lasting acceptance. These strategies provide the basis for science-based recommendations to help parents promote healthy eating habits in their children.

Suggested Reading

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