Baby feeding is a highly debated topic these days. Should you use baby led weaning or feed purees? Is it better to offer fruits or vegetables first? And when should babies get their fist taste of solids? But there’s another question that isn’t asked as often: How many times should you offer your baby a food before deciding they don’t like it? Maybe this doesn’t seem like a big deal to you, but research would beg to differ.
Studies dating back to the 1980s have been exploring this topic and have consistently found that repeated exposure does, in fact, help increase food acceptance (1). One study found that after being offered a vegetable 10 times, babies increased the amount they consumed. The babies also showed an increase in positive nonverbal responses during the feedings, according to their parents. Nonverbal responses could include things like facial expression and body posture (i.e.leaning in toward the food as opposed to away). The results were consistent for formula-fed and breast-fed infants (2).
Unfortunately, studies have also shown that most caregivers only offer new foods five times or less before deciding an infant doesn’t like it (3, 4). This statistic isn’t so terrible on it’s own, but when you couple it with the fact that 75% of Americans (including children) don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables, it becomes problematic. We are not giving babies the chance to accept these nutrient-dense foods. And we know that increased vegetable intake is associated with all sorts of good things like chronic disease prevention and weight management, to name a few (6).
The Action Plan
What can you do with this information? If you are a parent of an infant, the follow up is fairly simple. Offer new foods at least 10 times before determining your child’s preference. And if you decide your child dislikes a food, it should still be offered. Never force your child to eat anything, but non-preferred foods can be offered along with favored foods to give your child the opportunity to change his tune. At the risk of stating the obvious, if you do not routinely offer a particular food, your child will never have the chance to learn to like it.
And if you have an older child, the principle holds true. Do not remove an item completely from your menu just because your child refuses to eat it. Keep it on the menu- just offer it along with other foods you know your child likes. Request that they taste it, but do not coax or plead with them. And perhaps most importantly, model healthy eating habits yourself. Try foods that are new to you as well and talk to your children about these experiences. (“I tried roasted cauliflower for the first time at that restaurant and I really liked how crispy it was!”). After all, your children are watching!
- Birch, L.L.; McPhee, L.; Shoba, B.C.; Pirok, E.; Steinberg, L. What kind of exposure reduces children’s food neophobia? Looking vs. tasting. Appetite 1987, 9, 171–178.
- Sullivan, S.A.; Birch, L.L. Infant dietary experience and acceptance of solid foods. Pediatrics 1994, 93, 271–277.
- Carruth, B.R.; Ziegler, P.J.; Gordon, A.; Barr, S.I. Prevalence of picky eaters among infants and toddlers and their caregivers’ decisions about offering a new food. J Am Diet Assoc. 2004, 104, S57–S64.
- Maier, A.; Chabanet, C.; Schaal, B.; Leathwood, P.; Issanchou, S. Food-related sensory experience from birth through weaning: Contrasted patterns in two nearby European regions. Appetite 2007, 49, 429–440.
- Boeing, H; Bechthold, A; Bub, A; Ellinger, S; Haller, D; Kroke, A; Leschik-Bonnet, E; Muller, M; Oberritter, H; Schulze, M; Stehle, P; Watzl, B. Critical Review: Vegetables and Fruit in the Prevention of Chronic Diseases.Eur J Nutr. 2012 Sep; 51(6): 637–663.