Get It Right from Day One

Yesterday, I talked about how you’re in control of what your child eats, no matter how much he yells or cries or stomps his feet. Today, I’m going to talk about the best way to ensure your child spends as little time as possible yelling, crying, and stomping his feet about what he does and does not want to eat. It’s a very simple practice: get it right from day one.

Most of us have seen those articles about different meals around the world, right? Kids eating fish, fermented cabbage, broccoli, green beans, tofu, lentils. Things you wouldn’t dream of your childever touching! If children are born preferring cookies and chicken nuggets, how on earth did all these children in other countries end up agreeing to eat, even enjoying, all these “weird” foods? Why are Japanese children eating the same foods for breakfast that they eat for lunch and dinner? Why are Korean children eating fermented vegetables? Why are Indian children eating lentils? Middle Eastern children eating lamb? Italian children eating clams and mussels? French children eating beets and mushrooms and wilted greens?

Fresh red bell peppers. One of G’s favorites to this day.

The reason American children, in general, balk at these foods isn’t because they’re born with a preference for junk food, it’s because a great enough effort hasn’t been made to teach them to enjoy other foods. Children in so many other countries are fed these items from day one. Their parents (for the most part) make baby food at home rather than buying it on a shelf. They feed their children the same meal the rest of the family is eating rather than making something special that they think the kid will eat.

Mmm beef stew.

If you want your child to love food, to love all kinds of food, and, most especially, to love whatever you put in front of him, the best and easiest way to achieve that is to start from day one. Children are most receptive to new foods when they’re first being introduced; they’re not yet suspicious and skeptical of anything “new.” When a baby rejects a food, it’s because he genuinely doesn’t like the taste and, even then, if you continually give him that food every so often, he’ll most likely learn to love it. A friend shared this great article that illustrates my point so well, Rise and Shine: What Kids Around the World Eat for Breakfast. I recommend everyone takes a look at it, if for nothing more than to see photographs of the different foods children around the world eat. It really proves that our taste preferences aren’t so much innate, but learned, especially reading about how some Korean babies will grab their tongues or even cry after their first taste of kimchi, which must be one of the most well-known, beloved Korean foods we Americans know.

Interestingly, the article also points out that babies’ first taste isn’t their first puree, but what you eat while pregnant, which affects your amniotic fluid. Not only is the baby getting nutrients directly from what you choose to put into your body, but he’s also tasting it. In The Lost Art of Feeding Kids, Jeannie Marshall teaches us that what you eat also alters the flavor of your breastmilk. Have you ever tried it? I always taste the milk to make sure it hasn’t gone bad before it gets to my baby; you never know! And on any given day, your breastmilk might taste completely different than the day before. It might be a little sweeter, or a little more bitter. What you put into your body makes its way to your baby’s, which is a great reason to eat healthy as well as yet another reason to breastfeed rather than give formula; which offers no varying flavors to your baby’s palate, just sugar (more likely high fructose corn syrup) to make all those man-made vitamins taste good.

One big difference between how we feed our babies and how other cultures do is that we’ve turned it into a science, a medical one, at that. We’re so afraid of allergic reactions and so concerned with nutrition, we forget about the importance of teaching children to love food. So let’s get back on track. If you love healthy food, you’re going to be healthy, it’s as simple as that. You don’t need to know which vitamins are in which foods, just make sure you’re eating a little of everything. Each food group contributes to our diets differently and, within those, each different color of food designates a different vitamin. And, interestingly, foods that taste good together often aid each other in vitamin absorption. For instance, did you know that Vitamin C aids in the absorption of iron? Think about lemon and broccoli, lemon and dark leafy greens, lemon and fish. And did you know that legumes and carbohydrates each lack different amino acids, so form a complete protein when paired together? Think about traditional Italian foods: pasta fagioli (pasta with beans), white bean dip with crostini, minestrone (soup made with pasta and bean broth). Traditional cultural foods tend to be highly nutritious and there’s a reason for that far beyond putting each ingredient under a microscope to dissect it. Eat traditional foods and a plentiful variety of foods and you’ll have nothing you really need to “think” about as far as your health goes.

More sauce, please!

But enough information. Let’s get down to how to make this happen! Making your own purees; it’s so much easier than you would ever think! Even easier than cooking for yourself, especially to make large batches for freezing and quick-defrosting later. All you have to do is cut up a vegetable or fruit, roast or steam it, and puree it or mash it. The same with any other produce. The most work is washing, cutting, and dividing up the food to go in the freezer, but even that can be easy and it certainly is if you’re already washing and cutting up food for your own meals–just do it in bulk!

To get your baby started on the track of food love, you should expose him to as many flavors as possible and interesting combinations. There are a lot of great baby food books out there, my favorite being Tyler Florence’s Start Fresh: Your Child’s Jump Start to Lifelong Healthy EatingThe book is, in my opinion, as close to perfect as you can get. It’s not gigantic, so it isn’t overwhelming, and Tyler includes a lot of great information about cooking for children, including tips for making it easier on you (like making dinner for the whole family and just chopping it up small enough for the baby), as well as some of the greatest flavor combos. Who knew that spinach and pear is actually DELICIOUS? How about plain yogurt pureed with pineapple, avocado, and banana–a dairy/vegetable/fruit snack that I bring to work for myself because it’s that good! Tyler will take you from purees to table food, so there’s a little bit of something for everyone. And don’t forget, you don’t have to puree the food–does it look like something you might like to eat? Just leave your portion whole and puree the baby’s.

Every day, I’d make a big batch of smoothies for everyone to share. An easy and delicious way to get those nutrients!

My second favorite book is Karin Knight’s The Best Homemade Baby Food on the PlanetThis is a larger book, so a little overwhelming (so many choices!), but it has some of the best information I’ve seen to educate parents about how to feed their kids and what to feed their kids, and the recipes are really delicious. There’s even a section at the back that lists each one so you can log whether or not your child liked it. This and Start Fresh are my go-to books. The thing is, once I had made enough recipes from each of these, I was able to start coming up with things on my own so easily, cooking without recipes, and, like I said before, I even learned to use these books to cook for the rest of the family. They’re really tools for family eating, not just feeding a baby.

Now, let’s get back to the fact that, even if you go through all this effort, your baby might reject the food. Don’t forget that first impressions are not necessarily lasting impressions. Almost any food can be an acquired taste. In Jeffrey Steingarten’s The Man Who Ate Everything, he proves that anybody can acquire a taste for almost any food simply by eating it several times over. Hired as a food critic for Vogue, he was determined to learn to enjoy foods that had previously repulsed him in order to prepare to do his new job properly and he actually found that most foods he’d previously avoided had become likable, even delicious. Of course, there were others that he never became accustomed to, but that would be the exception, not the rule.

Studies have actually shown that it can take up to 12 tastes for a food item to taste good. Remember what that article said about Korean babies and kimchi? Clearly it’s not “love at first bite,” but if you spoke to a Korean adult, he’d probably speak of it with love. Keep in mind that it’s more difficult to get a person to not only try a new food as he ages, but also to try it another time if he doesn’t enjoy it at first. My husband is 34 years old and it has been quite the process to get him to accept and like certain vegetables. I’ve had to nag him, hide vegetables in his food, cut them up so small that he can’t possibly pick them out. I have a few tricks to get him to actually learn to like the food, but should I have to deal with all this? Do I want to deal with all this? No. And I certainly don’t want to deal with this from my children. I’m not going to make three different meals a night. In the words of so many mothers, “This is not a restaurant.” That’s why it’s so important to keep trying while your children are still young, while they’re babies eating their first purees and the most they can do to avoid the food is spit it out or clamp their mouths shut, not throw a tantrum and beg for something different. So, if your baby spits out her broccoli puree, just put it on the backburner for a week or two and then try again. Don’t give up on a food just because your baby or child rejects it. And remember, if you made a freezer stock, the next try is as easy as popping a cube out of the freezer to defrost!

It’s also helpful to think about different ways to prepare a food. For one, this can help immensely to get a kid to like something they have a distaste for at first, but it also brings something new and interesting to the table so that this one food doesn’t just hit one note. Think about what you can do to make something more appetizing. For instance, I hate tender crisp steamed broccoli, but love roasted broccoli, especially with minced garlic, lemon zest, and a little spray of lemon juice. It brightens and refreshes the flavor; I could devour it! So maybe your baby spit out the steamed broccoli, but what about roasted? What about adding herbs and spices to a food? You need to think outside the box. As long as you make food delicious and interesting, especially from day one, your baby will probably love it and love you for it!

Stay tuned for Lesson Three!

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