When I introduced my baby daughter to solid foods, I thought I’d be the one to shape her attitudes about food, healthy eating habits, and table manners. But little did I know that in between mashing banana on the wall and painting her face with avocado, she would be the one teaching me how to eat.
Here’s what I’ve learned about healthy eating from my little one… so far.
1. Try a New Food Again. And Again.
I always thought my food dislikes were innate. That’s why I wasn’t surprised when my daughter spit out the piece of tomato I fed her. “Blech,” she said, red juice dripping down her chin. But I would be wrong to give up. A study of 7-month-old infants suggests that if you repeatedly introduce a new food, even if the baby dislikes it, she will learn to like it.
So, if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again — at least eight more times, according to researchers. “When a vegetable is initially disliked it is worth persisting in feeding it for at least eight subsequent meals.”
Over the years, I’ve learned to tolerate tomatoes, but perhaps I need repeated exposure to olives?!
2. One at a Time, Please
At restaurants and at home, we love a colorful plate filled with protein, veggies, and a bit of carbs. I was tempted to fill my baby’s high-chair tray with a little bit of this and that. But I’ve found that too much variety on the tray confuses my daughter. Why should she eat her string cheese if there’s a sweet strawberry within reach?
By limiting the options, you can find out what your baby really likes and help them make good choices.
I’m not saying we as adults should just limit one food to our plates — but perhaps too much variety can be a bad thing. Studies show that the more choices you have, the harder it is to maintain self-control. So I skip the pu pu platter and the dessert tray if I want to make healthier choices.
3. Hold the Salt!
“But isn’t that too bland?” my husband said, as I prepared steamed broccoli and roasted cauliflower for the baby.
Here’s the thing: We might think baby food might be too boring, but when babies switch from an all-liquid diet of formula or breast milk (which has as many flavors as mom eats) to solid food, it’s a whole new world of tastes, textures, and flavors to them, so there’s no need to add salt to the mix.
“When we first dove into this project, the question was ‘why herbs and spices?'” write Alessandra Macaluso and Amy Godiwalla, authors of What a Good Eater!, a cookbook of nutritious recipes for babies and toddlers. During their research, they found that in other countries and cultures, parents added herbs and spices to their babies’ diets right away, so the question turned into ‘Why not herbs and spices?’
And since Americans eat too much salt, I’ve started subbing in basil, garlic, cumin, mint, onion, and garlic instead of salt — for the whole family. In fact, a small study on infants and salt intake suggests that early exposure to salt may help shape babies’ preference for salty foods, so it won’t hurt to keep salt out of her food while she’s experiencing all these new flavors.
4. Slow Down
If I give my daughter a piece of food that’s too big, she spits it out. If I try to give her a piece of food while she’s still chewing, she won’t take it. Ditto for a drink. Even if she’s eating something she doesn’t like — or it’s too hot or spicy — she won’t take a sip of water until she’s finished chewing and swallowing. She also likes to stay in her chair and not be rushed.
Now that’s just good table manners — that she’s teaching me! I’ve learned to be more mindful of the food I’m eating, chew slowly, and take one bite at a time. A less rushed, more relaxed mealtime wouldn’t hurt me either.
5. Done Is Done
When this girl isn’t hungry anymore, she’s just not hungry. “All done!” she says. No amount of coaxing or cajoling will convince my stubborn tot to open up that cute little pucker of hers. And why should she? She’s not hungry. End of story.
Wish that my husband and I could learn from her! How many times have we said to each other, “I’m not really hungry, so why am I eating?” How many times have I been grazing on chips or popcorn just because the plate was there?
In the future, I need to channel my daughter, purse my lips and bang my hands on the table and say, “All done!”