What we choose to eat is not just about nutritional needs and hunger. There are many factors that influence the foods we choose to eat, especially in our early years. As children, we are not aware of external factors such as availability, income, culture, or family influence. These all play definitive roles in the foods that are available to us as children. However, we often don’t realise how our choices are shaped by even earlier experiences – from our time in the womb to our first foods.
Why do we choose what we eat?
Many of our lifelong eating behaviours develop during the first years of our life. Experiences of actually eating, seeing and touching food, as well as watching the eating behaviours of others is how children learn about what they want, and how much they want to eat.
Whilst social influences play an enormous role, the foods we choose to like or dislike are also very much determined by inborn factors. For example, we tend to prefer sweet foods, and they often only need to be introduced one time before we accept them. This is thought to be to do with the fact that sweetness is often linked to the presence of carbohydrates, and therefore calories needed for energy, something that our ancestors were always on the lookout for. In contrast, bitter foods are usually disliked, which is thought to be due to bitter compounds in plants often being toxic (an evolutionary plant protective mechanism). Studies have shown that it can take up to 12 times to introduce new foods to children. Therefore, supporting parents in their understanding of repeated exposure and variety of foods is key, even when a food is rejected the first few times.
Pre and Postnatal Effects
Frequently preferences for sweet and salty foods have an inherent element to them, however, these inbuilt preferences can be adapted and adjusted by. We may not realise how much of our choices are determined by our family, particularly our mothers.
Exposure to the components of flavour begin whilst pregnant and play a role right through to early milk (breast or formula) feeds in the first 6 months of a child’s life. These experiences are thought to lay the foundations for later food choices.
Human milk contains the flavours that directly reflect the foods, spices and drinks that are ingested by the mother. It is thought that this, alongside with influences in the womb, can affect an infant’s liking and acceptance of certain foods. Different formula milks often have slightly different tastes, which also will affect acceptance of food when it comes to introducing solids. The variety of tastes from breast milk is thought to be a potential reason as to why breast-fed babies tend to be more willing to try new foods.
Studies showing this early influence highlight the importance of a balanced varied diet for pregnant and breastfeeding women, not only for the mother’s health, but also the ongoing relationship her children will have with food. It also highlights the need to support parents that use formula milk, and the importance of repeated exposure to new flavours when it comes to introducing solids.
A lot of learning about food happens during the transition from an exclusive milk diet to introducing solid food. These early experiences are influenced by genetics as well as our unlearned preferences for sweet and salty tastes. However, the area where parents can have the most influence on their children’s feeding habits, can be seen in the research behind how children choose what they like and dislike based on how familiar a food is. As Lucy Cooke, from University College London, put it “children like what they know and they eat what they like.”. There is a direct link between exposure to a food, the frequency of which you offer a food and a child’s food preferences.
Often parents will only offer a food two or three times before deciding the child didn’t like it. Repeated exposure in the first few years is key.
Understanding what determines the choices of food that people make, particularly in the first few years of a child’s life, is critical when working with young families and highlight the need to introduce a wide range of foods from the outset.
Chef and Nutritional Therapist specialising in infant nutrition
Alice holds first foodie workshops in London; practical hands-on cooking workshops learning about infant nutrition and the wide variety of different ingredients you can offer when introducing foods to your little one. For more information on her workshops and one on one consultations visit Alice Fotheringham