What we feed babies is important for their growth and development but we are finding out it is also important for the development of their future food habits. The food we offer is priming their tastebuds for later life.
This idea was sensationally brought to the world’s attention when the results of study in rats showed feeding high sugar, high fat food during pregnancy resulted in offspring that craved the same kind of food. The news media stories trumpeted the disaster of human babies born craving the same junk food their pregnant mothers ate. While this is scientifically a big stretch, it does underline the idea that babies learn to eat what their mother’s eat even before they are born. Baby’s first taste sensations are from the amniotic fluid surrounding them in the womb and this is influenced by the mother’s diet. They next experience flavours passed on via breast milk, which again is determined by the food mum is eating (bottle fed babies miss this stage). This is why Indian babies eat curries, Japanese babies eat fish and Italian babies eat garlic in their first foods – they’ve tasted it before and are more accepting of it. The next step in a baby’s flavour journey is the introduction of solid foods at around 6 months.
Many parents say commercial baby food tastes awful and bland, but it is a mistake to judge baby food with an adult palate. Their taste-buds are pristine and highly sensitive; not yet beaten down by over-seasoned, flavour-enhanced and sickly sweet fare.
Babies don’t need the kind of intensity of flavour we grown-ups eat in highly processed food. The salt and sugar/starch levels in most prepared, packaged and restaurant foods are way too high for us and bordering on toxic for babies. The baby food industry has stepped up to the plate with many now offering ‘clean’ labelled products with no added anything, and with improved texture grading to allow older babies to progress from puree to mashed to lumpy as is recommended. As good as quality commercial baby foods are, in my experience they miss out on the full flavour spectrum of home prepared foods which still hold a pivotal place in an infant’s diet. Home prepared foods are also ‘real’ flavours: I tasted one brand of banana custard for babies with ‘natural banana flavour’ that did not taste like any banana I’ve ever eaten. It’s still worth the effort to prepare vegetables, fruits, grains, legumes, meat and fish you don’t find in a jar (or pouch, as is increasingly the trend).
You can also offer lower GI grains such as quinoa, barley and polenta and low GI legumes such as lentils, chickpeas and kidney beans in a suitable texture according to baby’s stage. And you can add herbs and spices as well, such as: cinnamon to apple; nutmeg to banana or cardamom to custard; basil to pasta or dill to fish. To offer variety and make baby meal planning easier, the good old ice-cube method works well: freeze individual portions of cooked meats, fish, vegetables, grains and legumes in an ice cube tray and simply take them out as needed, choosing a balanced meal of protein (meat, fish or legumes), grain/starchy vegetables and a green and red/orange vegetable (just like a adult).
As a baby reaches a year old they should be progressing to ‘family foods’. They need finger foods they can hold and feed themselves and one of the easiest is a finger of bread but most bread is very salty – it pays to hunt down a lower-salt brand. Babies are naturally curious about what we eat too – nothing is so enticing than food which is headed for our mouth – but increasingly the morsels we share are passing on bad habits rather than modelling healthy preferences. New life is cause for joy but perhaps a baby can also be the catalyst for a healthy change in family foods as well.
Nicole Senior is an Accredited Practising Dietitian and Nutritionist, author, speaker, consultant, and commentator with an interest in how we can learn to love good food that's good for us.