Guest post: "How we learn to eat"
We need to rethink how we feed our children, says Bee Wilson, author of First Bite - and it starts with weaning
Author, First Bite
Posted on: Thu 14-Jan-16 12:12:23
(237 comments )
Is any meal as hotly anticipated as a baby's first bite of solid food? As parents, we anxiously research our options. Baby rice versus sweet potato. Purée versus baby-led weaning. Offering the first morsel, we stare at the tiny face for signs of enjoyment. Will we get a smile or will it – the trauma! – be rejected?
So desperate are we to make our babies happy, we haven't noticed that we have got feeding the wrong way round. We try to give our children what they like, when really we should be trying to help them develop their palates so they relish a wider range of flavours.
Newborns the world over beam at the taste of sweetness and treat bitter foods like poison. If you only give them the foods that automatically make them smile, you are setting them up for a sweet tooth.
I definitely made this mistake with my daughter, our middle child. I bought a weaning guide and spent hours whipping up batches of vegetable mixtures. Every time she tasted one, I drew an emoticon next to it in the book. Butternut squash: smile. Broccoli: frown. Spinach: double frown. Ah, I thought, so she's not a green vegetable person.
What I did not fully realise then was that we are not born with our preferences. They are something we each have to learn for ourselves. When my daughter grimaced at a bite of spinach, she was not telling me that greens sucked. It was just a natural physiological response. As adults, we still pucker our mouths on tasting a slice of bitter lime, but it doesn't necessarily mean we hate citrus fruit.
If we want our children to eat a varied diet, we need to persist with offering them a spectrum of flavours – preferably without grimacing ourselves. The main way anyone learns to like anything is simply to try it a lot of times, in a positive way.
According to a government survey from 2010, 57% of British parents offer baby rice – with its bland, sweet flavour - as the first food. But a fascinating study published last year, involving 139 families, showed that babies weaned straight onto a varied vegetable diet in those early months are more adventurous.
I had no idea how fraught the basic matter of getting food from plate to mouth could be until my third child was born with cleft palate and he and I both struggled at mealtimes.
One group of parents gave their babies a smorgasbord of different vegetables for two weeks. 'Day 1: Carrot. Day 2: Spinach. Day 3: Peas. Day 4: Swede', and so on. A control group were weaned onto the usual baby rice. On Day 15, both groups of babies were offered a taste of unfamiliar artichoke purée. The babies weaned onto a rainbow of vegetables ate significantly more of the artichoke.
The science suggests that any baby is capable of learning wide enough tastes to eat a balanced and healthy diet. The good news is that no one is doomed by their genes to be a chocoholic.
I'm not saying every child will find it easy. When you are trapped in teatime battles, it's annoying to encounter smug parents whose children will 'try anything – celeriac's her favourite!' Some babies are born with conditions that make eating trickier, such as a delay to the oral-motor system. I had no idea how fraught the basic matter of getting food from plate to mouth could be until my third child was born with cleft palate and he and I both struggled at mealtimes. He is now six and new dishes occasionally still provoke tears (usually his).
But recent work by feeding psychologists has shown it is possible for even extremely selective eaters to slowly broaden horizons. The secret is what Dr Lucy Cooke – a psychologist who works at Great Ormond Street – calls 'Tiny Tastes'. If the piece of food being attempted is as small as a pea or even a grain of rice, it is much less traumatic for a child to taste it. At clinics in America, this method has been tailored to fussy eaters on the autistic spectrum. In one case, a toddler called Jim went from eating nothing but toasted cheese sandwiches and hotdogs to enjoying 65 different foods. This is life-changing.
'Tiny Tastes' can also work with less extreme fussy eaters. Dr Cooke – who has trialled the method in UK schools and homes – finds it works best if the tasting sessions are done outside mealtimes, to reduce the pressure. The child chooses the vegetable to work on, which makes them feel less trapped. And they get a sticker for every taste – even a lick. I used 'Tiny Tastes' on my own youngest when he was four and was startled by how quickly it turned him from someone who said 'yuck' when he heard the word cabbage to a happy nibbler of raw green leaves.
Ultimately, that first meal matters less than all the ones that come after. Given the chance, children are capable of learning new tastes at any age. Even as adults, we can change our palates, bit by bit.
Oh, and my daughter? She's now 13 - and it turns out she is a green vegetable person after all.
NOTE: Following discussion on the thread below, the title of this guest post has been updated to better reflect the author's intentions.
Bee Wilson is the author of First Bite: How we Learn to Eat.
By Bee Wilson
I think feeding a baby a wide variety of foods, is much easier than doing so with an older child. Both my school were fed a huge range of foods when they were little, and I'll admit I was a bit smug! However, as they've developed their own personalities, one continues to eat a great range, and the other has limited his 'acceptable' foods quite significantly.
Both were raised the same, but they are different people.
This is the first time I've ever wanted to greet a guest post with a resounding ODFOD
The title alone made me grind my teeth, Ouryve.
All 3 of mine were born fussy eaters. Little monsters refused that lovely powdered milk and would only drink breast milk even from a bottle!
So I second, third, forth ODFTTFSOFD!
Yes, thank you ouryve, couldn't have put it better myself!
4 DC here, first three all eager eaters. Last one, vomited up every mouthful of food spooned in, stuck with finger foods, he is now nearly 5 and has a very limited range of food he will eat, alongside other sensory sensitivities.
I'd say he was born with it.
All three of mine ate everything as babies and then turned into fussy buggers as they got to school age.
Message withdrawn at poster's request.
Message withdrawn at poster's request.
How many kids who turn out to be lactose intolerant are forced to eat dairy, but told "don't be fussy"? Similarly with other foods that cause medical problems e.g. IBS
There can be some point to children disliking some foods- they have learned that those foods cause them pain or discomfort later on.
Plus, generally speaking, the impulse to reject bitter foods is a useful one- most bitter things are poisonous. Children, with their smaller bodyweight and less developed bodies are more susceptible to toxicity, so the reject mechanism is stronger in them.
Many plants produce toxic substances to ward off insects/pests from eating them, and children are more sensitive to these than adults. It also takes time to learn which foods may have a slight toxic component, but are also sufficiently rich in calories/nutrients to be worth taking that hit.
Where the balance between the positive and negative lies is different in every person, and different in the same person over time. For example, if you are deficient in one vitamin, you might love the taste of something one day as it is rich in that vitamin. so you gorge on that food for a week. The result is that your stores of that vitamin are replenished and you then go off that food for a bit, because the trade off between cost and benefit has altered. This totally explains why some kids love a food for a few days/weeks, then totally go off it.
So, for all it worth trying new things and gently expanding tastes, it is not worth severely distressing a child, forcing them to "learn to like" things that might be doing them harm (at that point in their lives) and teaching them to override their instincts about food and appetite. it's a recipe for anxiety about food and detachment from their own bodies in the future.
I hate this "you must eat everything and like it or you're an inferior person" bullshit.
Thank you ouryve
3 dcs. All weaned and fed pretty much in the same way. We eat as a family a lot. I'm pretty sure I have done all the "right" things.
2 will eat pretty much anything. 1 is significantly fussier.
I agree ouryve
My ds is nearly 2 and eats most things but I'm sure he will hit his fussy phase. I doubt anything I can do will change that
Let's remember all Dc are different
Well said, Ouryve.
When I had my first baby, I had it all planned. I was going to breast-feed, and then wean onto homemade, healthy food.
DD would not, or could not breastfeed, so she was bottle-fed.
I waited until the midwives said it was the right time to wean, and gave her lovingly prepared home made purée. She hated it. I tried all types of food, but she didn't like anything. All she wanted was her bottle of milk. In the end I tried powdered baby food from my free Bounty pack. She didn't exactly enjoy it but she would eat a few mouthfuls. Then we managed to get her to eat jars of baby food, although there were only two or three that she liked. She wouldn't eat anything home-made. She never moved on to jars with lumps. At nearly two, she was still eating jars of baby food for six month old babies. We managed to wean her onto proper food, but she had a very limited range of things that she would eat. She is still the same, now at 18. She has had stomach problems and IBS, which I think gave her almost a fear of food.
Three years after DD, my second baby came along. Again, I tried to breastfeed but was unsuccessful. It seems that both my DC have tongue ties, as they can't stick their tongues out at all.
DD2 was bottle-fed, and then when I started giving her solids, she ate everything. She loved fruit, vegetables, toast, everything. She was so eager to try something new, and is the same now as a teenager.
I don't believe that we make fussy eaters, they really are born that way.
DS was weaned on what some would consider very adventurous food for a baby, saag paneer, kidney curry, aubergines and all types of obscure vegetables and he's an OK eater now and refuses the look of food (I shove it into his gob, then he realises he likes it, sometimes) so I don't buy your line of thought.
DS was weaned (BLW, not purée) onto all sorts that he won't eat now. His favourite food used to be broccoli and now he won't touch it.
Weaning had bog-all impact on his later palate.
ouryve pretty much sums up my feelings when I read this.
My child raised on baby rice and purees is much more adventurous at eating than my child who was offered a wider range of flavours and textures throughout his life (and the 'give it to them at least 10 times and don't give up, then they'll like it' advice) who is so fussy and eats the grand total of 3 different vegetables now. Children are all different. But I'll add it to the list of crap things to blame myself for shall I? because I don't do enough of that already!
Babies and children have been fed and weaned for thousands of years, they cannot read books or blogs but rely on us their Mothers to trust our instincts.
Now if I had trusted my instinct when my toddler became ill she may be still alive today. I read blogs and consulted Dr Google instead and wasted precious time getting her to the hospital.
Green leaves would not have kept her alive but anti biotics would.
Couldn't have put it better myself.
Ouryve was slightly more polite. Sorry.
Not too sure how you explain two children fed the same things with one fussier than the other. First born ds ate mostly anything; broccoli, spinach etc no problem from being weaned. Still a pretty adventurous eater.
Dd raised exactly the same and still to this day at 3yo refuses anything green - and salad, tomatoes, potatoes, rice, most meats, the list goes on. She's a fussy mare to cook for but I refuse to get into a battle, put it on her plate and if she doesn't eat it no problem.
Sorry but I do believe they are born that way. Everyone's taste buds are different - look at how some people taste coriander as soapy, like myself, and some not.