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FAQs

Flavor Training

GF FAQ Flavor Training Image

Can training healthy eating habits really help prevent lifelong obesity?

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Absolutely! We now know that eating habits and relationships with food developed prior to your child’s 2nd birthday are likely to be what he carries through into adulthood. So a diet laden with deep-fried food and sugary beverages, and eaten in excess (overriding fullness cues), especially to overcome boredom or emotional needs rather than hunger, can and does result in significantly higher rates of weight-related issues. 

Conversely, healthy eating habits developed before his 2nd birthday can and do remain with him for life! Learning what is healthy, how to develop and enjoy preferences for these foods, when to respond to cues of fullness to promote appetite regulation, and why to not offer foods as rewards and/or for anything other than hunger, are all imperative. Guiding your child through these skills will ensure he has the start in life he deserves. [12, 16, 17, 23, 24, 30, 52, 60, 69, 85]

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Is eating healthy a learnt or inherited behaviour?

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Establishing healthy eating habits is a learned behavior, just like learning to read. We don’t just pick up a book and instantly know how to make sense of the symbols on the page. We start with letters, then words, and then eventually string them together to form sentences. It’s the same with eating. Start with natural foods, encourage plenty of practice and repetition, offer variety and complexity, and the result is a healthy equation of vegetables, whole grains and fruit, and habits and preferences that are with us for life [30, 50, 58, 60, 70].

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When do I start training healthy eating habits?

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Research has shown that by the time baby is 3 years old he has already developed his food likes and dislikes, good or bad, healthy or otherwise! The good news is we are presented with a window of opportunity [5] to alter these preferences through exposure during a very sensitive period of his life [24, 48]. These first exposures can start as early as 8 weeks post-conception, via a mother’s amniotic fluid, and later on via breast milk. Therefore, a  mother can start flavour training long before the introduction of solid foods, simply through the foods she chooses to eat [65, 84]. 

We also know our babies’ brains are little sponges and even in the first 6 months of life they are soaking up everything around them. Whether you are breastfeeding or not, had a diet of kale or cookies throughout pregnancy, it is never too early or too late to start this learning.

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Why do humans like sweet foods?

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Both breast milk and formula are predominantly sweet. Through evolution, we are all born with an innate preference for sweet (high calories, safe to eat) and salty (minerals) and a natural aversion for bitter foods (poisonous) [16, 23, 27, 30, 69]. Couple that with an environment laden with convenience options, often high in sugar and low in essential nutrients, targeted at infants and toddlers, [29] it is little wonder children aren’t growing up reaching for the veggie draw.

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What is meant by ‘window of opportunity’?

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We know that babies are born with an ingrained preference for sweet and salty. However, the start of complementary feeding is a very sensitive and malleable period in an infant’s development. With the right exposure and experiences to a wide variety of healthy foods, he can and will develop lifelong healthy food preferences. Unfortunately, this also means that if an infant’s first exposures are limited to sugary processed foods, these can also enhance a lifelong preference to these foods. It is therefore important for caregivers to capitalize on this window of opportunity to introduce a wide variety of healthy nutritious foods and build healthy preferences. [4, 11, 14, 42, 50, 86] A spoonful is all that is required as this is about exposure to different tastes, not nutrition or to satisfy hunger (that is the role of milk in this early phase). [5, 13] The focus is very much on taste experiences and building the foundations for healthy preferences. 

It is also a huge advantage that by the time that solids do play an important role for nutritional requirements [14] (somewhere between 6 and 7 months), he has a good grasp and preference for these foods. If all he has been exposed to up until this point is sweet fruit and infant cereal you are more likely going to struggle to transition to healthier, more nutrient-dense alternatives. 

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What are the physical signs my baby is ready for solids?

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Sometime between 4 and 6 months is generally when babies are physically and emotionally ready to start solids. However, every baby is different so it is important that you watch for clues he is ready rather than going by the calendar. Here are some signs that he may be ready:

  • He can sit upright and hold up his head
  • He may start to take an interest when you are eating
  • Reaching out and grabbing food
  • He has lost the tongue-thrust reflex that automatically pushes food and/or spoon out of his mouth
  • Eagerly opens his mouth when a spoon touches lip or as food approaches
  • Can keep food in his mouth and swallow it
  • Watching and leaning forward when food is around

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My baby seems to be really hungry and has started waking at night. He is not yet 4 months old but can I start him on solids anyway?

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Some babies go through a growth spurt at around 12 weeks and may want more feeds. This is normal and does not signal the need to start solid foods. It is tempting to think that by giving some solids it may satisfy him for longer and therefore sleep for longer. Giving solids too early rarely helps these problems and may lead to other difficulties. These include:

  • Poor growth if solid food replaces breast milk or formula. Milk is a far better source of energy than solid food when babies are very young. This is because babies won’t actually get many calories from food in these early stages.
  • Loose bowel actions or diarrhea as his digestive system is not developmentally capable of digesting the food. A number of key enzymes required to digest solid foods do not start until closer to 5 and/or 6 months of age. Introducing solids before the gut is physically ready can lead to irritation and inflammation of the intestines.
  • Increased risk of tummy upsets and tummy bugs. Immune systems are still developing and will continue to do so over the next 1 to 2 years. Up until 4 months this immature immune system is unable to fight off pathogens that may be introduced with solid foods.
  • Obesity. Researchers have discovered that inflammation and changes in gut bacteria over a child’s first year of life can affect his metabolism. This can have long-term effects on energy production, insulin resistance, and the ability to burn fat. This places a child at risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes even before his 1st birthday.
  • Dehydration. Before 4 months of age, babies have a limited renal capacity to conserve fluids and excrete dissolved solids. 
  • Gagging and choking. Infants are born with a tongue-thrust reflex that automatically pushes food out of his mouth. They do not start to lose this reflex until 4 or 5 months of age. Introducing solids too early can cause babies to gag as they do not have the ability to move food to the back of the mouth to swallow. We want to keep this journey as positive as possible, even if it takes a little longer than expected. 
  • Allergies. Introducing solids too early may contribute to an increased allergy risk. [76] 

So if he is going through a hungrier spell, instead of reaching for the solids, provide extra milk feeds.

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Is there such a thing as waiting too long to introduce solids?

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Yes, there are a number of reasons why delaying the introduction for too long can be potentially disadvantageous. 

  • Smaller window of opportunity to create healthy eating preferences. It is well known there is a window of opportunity [5] between 5 and 7 months, whereby babies are very accepting and receptive to new flavors and experiences. [9, 42, 45] 
  • Nutrient deficiencies. By 6 to 7 months babies start to need extra nutrients [14] in order to optimize growth and development. [72] These extra nutrients can no longer be sustained by milk alone and so must be provided by the solid foods he eats. It is therefore important that, by 7 to 8 months, babies have established the ability to accept a wide variety of nutrient-dense [23] solid foods. 
  • Increased risk of allergies. The late introduction of solids (7+ months) may actually increase the risk of food allergies. Mounting evidence has suggested that the earlier the exposure, within guidelines, [45] the decreased risk of development of allergies. 
  • Delayed motor development. Learning to chew, through exposure to a wide variety of textures, [42] is a developmental milestone that all babies must learn in order to learn to eat. These motor skills are also important for the development of speech. Delaying the development of these motor skills, much beyond 7 months, can therefore incur future developmental delays. [66]
  • Food fussiness Missing the window of opportunity [5] to develop healthy eating preferences can increase the chances of food pickiness. [14, 43, 66]

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What should be baby's first foods, and how much?

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Veggies, veggies, veggies, flavor, flavor, flavor! A baby’s first foods are not about nutrition, but rather, the experience and the exposure. In fact, how much a baby ingests in these very early stages are, more often than not, not very much at all! For the first 2, 5, or 15 times, it might be at most a teaspoon or two. All babies are different and all progress at different rates so it is important to listen to them and progress when they are ready (also known as responsive feeding) [36]. Remember, all his nutrition is coming from milk right now, so use this opportunity to build on a range of flavor exposures and experiences. Experiment and have fun and you just might be surprised! It might take several times for him to accept a new flavor, that’s normal.

Repetition (a spoonful or two is all that is required) and persistence is the key to building acceptance and preference. [5, 9, 91] The good news is, studies have shown that this persistence pays off. Exposure to a wide variety of minimally processed vegetables, spanning right across the flavor profiles, in their single form (i.e. not mixed with a sweet puree), on multiple occasions, can dramatically increase his chances of solidifying healthy preferences for life. [2, 3, 7, 10, 19, 21, 32, 45, 51] Unfortunately, this can go both ways. If his dietary exposures are predominantly over-processed (infant cereal), sweet (the use of fruit and sweet vegetables to mask savoury or bitter flavors), or salty (as are most savory snacks), it is likely these will be the preferences he will take with him into the future. So, veggies in their single form first, veggies in variety, and veggies in repetition.

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What if my baby doesn’t like it, can I mix it with something they do like?

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A common way to get vegetables into children is to ‘hide’ them in something they do like, e.g. mixing broccoli in with his favourite carrot. However, although this delivers the benefits of consuming tricky vegetables, it does nothing for learning to like, eat, and develop preferences for these vegetables in the future. Children can learn [2] to like a wide variety of flavors and textures and the only way they can do this is by being exposed to them on a regular basis. [6, 27, 31] This means carrot is carrot and broccoli is broccoli. Remember, a taste is all that is required. [5]

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What if my baby turns his head away, or pushes the spoon away, or seems upset to go in his high chair?

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Even if he has been accepting of solids, there will be days he just might not want anything to do with it. Just putting him in the high chair might be enough to upset him. That’s OK. The most important thing to keep in mind is to not make a fuss [37], and try again later in the day or tomorrow. You may want to try feeding him cradled in your lap. Remember, for the last 6 months his comfort has been in your arms for milk feeds. For some reason, on this particular day his emotional world [9] maybe a little unstable and just may require this added comfort and closeness.

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What time of day should I schedule his introduction to solids?

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Initially, until he gets the hang of it, he will only need one ‘meal’ a day. Mid to late morning or mid-afternoon are often good times to start. The morning milk feed is often his biggest feed of the day, so we don’t want to compromise this. Try and feed him roughly an hour after the first morning feed. This will give him time to process the milk, but be content enough to try a new experience. He has not yet made the connection that solid foods will satisfy hunger so he will be less accepting of solids if he is frantically hungry. 

It is important to make an infant’s introduction and first experiences surrounding food an enjoyable experience, so choose a time that is free of stress for both you and baby. 

Remember, eating is a sensory experience, so when it suits, sit him up to the family table at mealtimes. He will feel included and be more likely try new foods if he sees the family eat them. [62] 

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Why a vegetables-first approach?

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We are all born with an innate preference for sweet foods and a dislike for bitter. However, we all know that vegetables are nutrient powerhouses and as a nation, we don’t eat enough of them. What if there was a way to not only get children to eat them, but want to eat them [2]? Well, there is! [19, 51] Numerous studies have indicated that the beginning of introducing solid foods is a very sensitive time in terms of learning and processing. If we capitalize on this window of opportunity [5, 45] it is possible to train preferences for a wide range of flavor profiles, including bitter and sour. Offering small tastes of a wide variety of vegetables, in their single form not masked with a sweet puree [12], on multiple occasions, helps to promote willingness and acceptance of new foods beyond infancy and into childhood/adulthood. [10, 11] A spoonful is all that is required [5] as this is about exposure to different tastes, not nutrition or satisfying hunger. The focus is very much on taste experiences and building the foundations for healthy preferences. [3, 14, 15, 21, 32]

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What is responsive feeding?

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Although infants can’t verbally tell us when they are hungry or full, they do tell us in nonverbal ways. Responsive feeding is when caregivers acknowledge and respond to these cues in ways that will foster and reinforce healthy eating habits. [30, 49, 71] Failure to do so can lead to overconsumption, poor appetite control/regulation, emotional eating, and result in an increased obesity risk. [31] It is not OK to say “just two more mouthfuls” or “finish this before you can get down” or “I know you’re not hungry but have this anyway.” Forcing your baby to eat will create an unpleasant environment, cause elevated anxiety (for both you and him), and may lead to food phobias or not wanting to eat at all.

Responsive feeding is crucial for supporting babies and children in developing appetite regulation and form the basis for healthy feeding practices [37].

Signs of hunger at 6 to 12 months old:

  • Reaches for the spoon
  • Points to the food
  • Gets excited when food is presented
  • Leans forward with mouth open
  • Distress when cues aren’t listened to

Signs baby has had enough:

  • Shakes head
  • Turns head away
  • Pushes spoon away
  • Easily distracted
  • Indicates wants to get down

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Should I give my baby fruit?

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We encourage a vegetables-first approach [35], then fruit and sweeter vegetables can also be introduced. Variation is the key to extend your baby’s palate to a wider range of taste experiences. Even though fruits are deemed as healthy and should be included in our diet, most still contain high amounts of sugar, in the form of fructose. It may be considered ‘healthier’ than highly refined sources, but at the end of the day, sweet is sweet, regardless of its source! Evolution has primed us with an innate preference for sweet, however, research has shown we can train healthy eating preferences toward a range of flavor profiles, including bitter and sour. [13] We just need to provide our children with plenty of opportunities to do so. [20, 21] 

So, vegetables first, vegetables in repetition, and vegetables in a wide variety, with small amounts of fruit dispersed throughout. While it’s easy to offer the familiar banana and apple, try to also include sour fruits such as tart plums and tart apples.

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Baby-led weaning or purees—what’s best?

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The traditional method of transitioning babies onto solid foods is to offer smooth purees on a spoon, gradually moving to thicker and then textured purees. However, more recently, baby-led weaning (BLW) has taken favour. A BLW approach is to introduce or offer foods in their intact form, instead of pureeing, and allow the baby to feed himself. By offering only finger foods, in appropriate sizes, e.g. cooked vegetables, meat, and soft fruits, parents allow their babies to choose and be directed as to what they do and do not want to eat. This helps to engage all the senses while eating, and develops key motor skills and the muscles involved with chewing. It can mean the foods are more nutritious, if the alternatives are poor-quality, watery puree. However, it is one thing to offer highly nutritious foods, but it is a different matter if they are not consumed.

We know that by 6 months, an infant’s requirements for iron in order to optimize growth and development [14] increase considerably. Iron-rich sources include red meats [24] but they are generally more difficult to consume as a finger food in the early phases. The variety of vegetables can also be somewhat limited to consume in a safe way. Peas, for example, pose a choking risk [41] if not mashed and green leafy vegetables are difficult to process without adequate motor skills. And when healthy alternatives are not on hand, it is easier to turn to processed, prepackaged foods such as bread, rusks, or biscuits. [39] 

A great compromise is to provide a highly nutritious puree, alongside some appropriate finger food. Thus, allowing autonomy and a sensory experience, while ensuring the exposure and consumption of a wide variety of flavors, textures, and nutrition. Regardless of feeding method, a responsive-feeding approach [36] is paramount.

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Should I give him infant cereal?

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Today, few pediatricians recommend that parents start with infant cereal. Dr. Frank Greer, former chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), encourages parents to stay away from infant cereals. Here’s why:

  • Eating infant cereal limits the opportunities to develop food preferences for healthy alternatives. [5] We know that the first 6 months of introducing solids is a critical period for learning and developing food preferences. Offering a bland overprocessed product instead of healthy wholefoods can lead to a preference and habit for these types of foods. 
  • Infant cereal is nutrient poor. Not only does baby rice/cereal offer nothing in the way of assisting preferences toward a healthy diet [14], they are also nutritionally poor [23]. Although fortified with iron, iron in this form is generally not well absorbed [24].
  • Infant cereal can lead to sore tummies. The developing gut, in the early stages, does not produce enough of the enzyme required to break down grains. As a result, grains can cause inflammation and irritation [57] of the digestive system if introduced too early.
  • Infant cereal is high in carbohydrates and low in fats and protein. Babies use fats [51], not carbohydrates, as their primary fuel source. A diet high in carbohydrates (infant cereals, refined sugar, fruit juice) and low in good fats and protein, will require high levels of insulin to process it. Over time this can have a detrimental effect on how the body utilizes foods as fuel in the future [14].
  • Infant cereal can cause constipation. Rice cereals in particular are very low in fiber and known to contribute to constipation. [54, 90] Whole grains, on the other hand, are a good source of fiber, as well as many other health benefits, so should be considered in his diet, as appropriate [55].

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Should I be giving my baby something to drink other than milk?

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Milk (breast or formula) should remain the number one source of fluids through to your baby’s first birthday. However, you can offer a little water in a sippy cup when starting solids, provided that it does not displace the regular milk feeds he is receiving. Babies can get dehydrated quickly so having a sippy cup on hand is a great habit to get into. Drinking water is also a habit babies should develop, not to mention children and adults alike. 

Bone broth

  • Another option is a salt-free bone broth, warmed slightly and offered in a sippy cup. Homemade bone broth is not only an amazing source of nutrients for the whole family but also helps to broaden the palate. As milk is comparatively sweet, introducing a umami flavor profile can help enhance preferences for savory. The nutrients that leach from the bones through long slow cooking provide an easily digested form of calcium and magnesium, which help build strong healthy bones and teeth. Bone broth can also provide specific amino acids that help boost immunity and improve digestion, and collagen has the ability to strengthen the intestinal tract, which in turn can reduce the risk of allergies and food sensitivities. 

Fruit juice

  • Babies under 12 months should not be given juice, even 100% fruit juice. Sugar is sugar, regardless of its origin, and fruit juice has nearly as much sugar as fizzy drinks. Not only does this exacerbate preferences for sweet, but is also detrimental to dental health, excessive weight gain, and can play havoc with energy levels and developing metabolic processes. Fruit juice can also displace more nutritious foods and/or milk through reducing appetite, and can also cause diaper rash and/or diarrhea.

Cow’s milk

  • Cow’s milk should not be given before 12 months old. Cow’s milk does not contain the nutritional profile of breast milk or formula so if cow’s milk is given instead, he may not be receiving all the nutrients he needs to optimize growth and development. Cow’s milk is also difficult to digest in babies due to their immature digestive system, and is also associated with iron deficiency. It is OK to cook with cow’s milk before 12 months and it is also a good idea to introduce small amounts of dairy-based products such as yogurt and cheese. 

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Disclaimer: The information provided is the opinion of Good Feeding, it has not been evaluated by healthcare professionals, and is for educational purposes only.  Before starting any new foods or feeding practices, please consult your baby's healthcare professional.