Tips for Preventing Picky Eaters Before They Start

Nipping picky eating in the taste buds!
pregnant woman choosing fresh market produce
© Can Stock Photo / dolgachov

If you’ve ever wrestled a toddler or bribed a second-grader to get them to eat their broccoli, you are familiar with the perils of picky eaters. It turns out if you want your children to develop healthy eating habits, you should start with their taste buds, and you may want to start very early! In other words, you can influence your baby’s flavour preferences before they are even born! See how it works, then find out how to DIY a flavour-loving kid!

First taste experience, in utero-style

The first 1000 days in a child’s life represents a sensitive period for developing taste preferences. Babies first experience flavours in utero by drinking amniotic fluid. After birth, breast milk provides opportunities to offer a variety of tastes. When complementary feeding is introduced at five to six months old, babies are already showing taste preferences. By two years old, children start to show rigidity in food choices and by three to four years old, they are even firmer with their taste preferences, and voila! a picky eater is born!.

The evidence of fetal taste buds can be detected as early as 10–13 weeks of gestation and they are fully developed by 15 weeks. Newborn babies have more taste buds than adults and sensory receptors for bitter and sweet taste can be found throughout the entire GI tract. How we taste shapes how we eat, and being a somewhat picky eater makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. We are naturally attracted to sweet flavours, which indicate energy-rich foods. We avoid sour flavours, which may indicate spoiled food. And we avoid bitter tastes, which may indicate poison. Mom has to teach her child the nuances of what is safe to eat and this can begin while baby is still in the womb.

Taste bud testing: fetus in the dining womb!

Science bears out that simply exposing a fetus or a breastfed infant to a variety of flavours has the potential to save everyone from the frustrations of picky eating! To test this idea, a group of researchers from the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia conducted a study to see if a flavour experienced in amniotic fluid or breast milk could modify an infant’s taste preference for foods at six months old. Researchers selected three groups of mothers: one group consumed carrot juice daily during their last trimester, another group drank the carrot juice during the first two months of breastfeeding, and a third group served as the control. When the babies were six months old, the moms fed their babies either plain rice cereal or cereal flavoured with carrots. Researchers collected data on how much the infants ate as well as their facial expressions and acceptance of the food. While all three groups of babies ate the same amount of cereal with carrots, the groups that had been exposed to the carrot juice either via amniotic fluid or breast milk showed fewer negative responses. These responses suggest that very early flavour experiences can set the stage for food preferences later in life.

They continued their investigation and conducted another study to see if timing and duration influenced vegetable intake when starting solid foods. In this study, the mothers drank vegetable, beet, celery, and carrot juices at different stages while breastfeeding. When the babies were around six months old, the researchers recorded the infants’ acceptance of carrot-flavoured cereal, broccoli-flavoured cereal, and plain cereal. Infants exposed to the juices had fewer negative experiences with the carrot cereal. And timing seemed to matter as well; just one month of vegetable flavours in mother’s milk within the first few weeks postpartum was significant enough to influence later feeding behaviour.

It also turns out that these early influences have an impact on later food preferences in older children as well. A report published in Developmental Psychobiology examined a preference for garlic in eight and nine-year-old children whose mothers ate garlic during pregnancy. And another study found that six-year-old children who had been breastfed consumed more vegetables and were more willing to try new vegetables than children who had been given formula.

Conquering flavour fears

While not every toddler will eat broccoli no matter how much of it mom ate while pregnant, it is important for pregnant and nursing mamas to introduce a variety of flavours early to “season” taste buds and prevent a picky eater from darkening your dinner table.

Pick it up post-nausea

Can’t stand the thought of eating salad during the first trimester? Don’t worry! Taste buds aren’t formed until you’re 15 weeks along. Survive the first trimester, then start adding in a variety of healthy foods and spices.

Herbs for health

Don’t shy completely away from herbal remedies while pregnant. Always check in with a licensed professional before starting anything new, but after the first trimester most medicinal herbs are safe in low doses. Your baby will learn to be conditioned to herbal remedies and more likely to accept them when offered in childhood. 

Spice is nice

Include small amounts of spices such as garlic, onions, and turmeric in your diet. These additions will not only help reduce inflammation and ease aches and pains, they will expand your baby’s palate and make them more likely to enjoy more savoury and complex foods later on. While you are first breastfeeding, go slow and easy with spices as some babies may become fussy with too much. But by two to three months old, most flavours are generally well-tolerated.

Got formula?

Don’t be discouraged if formula supplementation is required! Breastfeeding even just once a day provides exposure to a variety of unique tastes. And if you are completely unable to breastfeed, continue eating a variety of fruits, vegetables, and spices. Your baby will smell these foods and be more likely to accept them into their own diet.

Parenthood is an adventure in all ways! Approaching eating as part of that undertaking early on with a can-do attitude and a mind to making your own life easier and your child’s diet healthier will pay you both back in many ways. Who knows? You might even develop some new favourite foods yourself along the way!