It’s no secret that a diet high in fresh vegetables and fruits, whole grains and quality proteins is the key to overall health and wellbeing. So why, in this day and age, are we suffering the consequences of dietary shortfalls in these key nutritional principles? Why do childhood and adult obesity statistics continue to rise and the health spinoffs related to poor diets plague our families, society, and the nation?
Well, the answer may lie in a key period of an individual’s development when we can influence and make a difference in the lifelong acceptance and preference to a healthy diet. A key window of opportunity to flavor train and set palates on a healthy path of acceptance and preference for a diet rich in nutrients and packed with fresh vegetables before cravings for chicken nuggets and French fries kick in.
Numerous studies have indicated this flavor training window lies within the first 1,000 days of life, and in particular between four to seven months. A window of opportunity when infants are receptive to almost anything, and if introduced in the appropriate way, appears to have the most significant impact on molding preferences well into childhood and even adulthood.
Flavor training is not the same as complementary feeding. It begins before babies need nutrition beyond breast milk or formula. Flavor training is a time for exposure, exploration, experimentation without the stress of ‘feeding’. During this process, babies may only swallow miniscule amounts of food, but they are experiencing new flavors that can build a preference for healthier choices in the long run.
There are few points to consider for successful flavor training:
- ‘Flavor training’ at around 4 months is not intended to provide nutrition or replace breast milk or formula. Rather flavor training is the deliberate, repetitive exposure of a very small amount of pulped vegetables, a dab on a clean finger or teaspoon.
- Variety is key. Flavor training should include vegetables spanning the whole flavor spectrum, with a particular focus on the bitter, umami, and sour profiles. Babies have a natural preference for sweet (apple sauce) and salty, so these flavors should not be a focus at this time. Savory sweet vegetables (squash, carrots, sweet potato) are ok if balanced with a healthy exposure to bitter (broccoli, spinach, brussels sprouts), umami (asparagus, avocado, eggplant) and sour (tart fruits such as lemons, limes, cranberries).
- Purees should be single vegetables, i.e. a bitter vegetable (broccoli) should not be masked with a sweeter vegetable (carrot). The success of flavor training lies in the exposure to a wide range of flavor profiles, and especially those that take a little getting used to.
- Repetition. We know it can take 10+ exposures to acquire a liking so perseverance is required. Having said that, we are only talking about a very small taste so what a great time to do it, before nutritional demands kick in.
- There’s no need to wait 2-3 days before introducing a new flavor. The window is short so capitalize on every opportunity to extend the palate. And avoid infant cereals, as they are bland and offer nothing in the way of flavor.
- Normalize and continue to offer fresh vegetables well beyond the flavor training window. Exposure is everything and the key to lifelong enjoyment.
Flavor training is a super exciting opportunity when parents can really make a difference in setting health trajectories, without the fear and stress of meeting nutritional demands. It presents an opportunity for parents to be in the driving seat, setting healthy eating habits and the lifelong benefits that these bring.