There doesn’t always have to be a battle over broccoli. According to Bee Wilson, parents have lots of power in helping shape a child’s food preferences.
Wilson explores this topic in her new book, First Bite. She writes her story from the perspective as a mother of three and food writer, and was recently named BBC’s “Food Writer of the Year.” In her book, Wilson discusses how genetics, culture, memory, and early feeding patterns all contribute to a person’s food preferences. In fact, taste can be developed even while a child is still in the womb.
Wilson tells NPR:
“One of the main things we know about taste is that liking is a consequence of familiarity, so the things that our mothers eat, even before we’re born, affect the way we’ll respond to those flavors when we later encounter them because they seem familiar.”
That being said, Wilson also believes that its possible for people to change taste buds, even after they’ve reached adulthood. The problem is that many adults aren’t willing to alter their eating habits. Instead, we tend to live our lives latched onto our favorite foods, whether that’s macaroni and cheese or chicken nuggets. We trick our brains into thinking we dislike certain foods, when in reality we may grow to enjoy them, or like them prepared in a certain way.
It’s a little bit easier with kids due to what Wilson calls “The Flavor Window.” The window refers to the time whee babies are most open to trying new foods, and it typically occurs between the ages of four and seven months.
Researchers I’ve spoken to [about] the question of how you get children to be less picky eaters [and] how you get them to try more different vegetables say that the World Health Organization advice, which currently says you should keep them on an exclusive milk diet up to 6 months, is wrong. It’s not that a child necessarily needs any nutrition besides milk before 6 months, it’s that you’re missing an opportunity to introduce them to all of these flavors which they would likely accept at this age.
Familiarity is also a large part of taste. In one study, researchers found that women who ate large amounts of garlic throughout their pregnancy had babies who were more inclined to enjoy the same flavor. The logic is that if a woman eats a large amount of garlic, the taste and the smell shows up in the amniotic fluid. After the baby is born, the smell of garlic provides a familiar sense of comfort.
The National Center for Biotechnology Information presents several studies on the differences between formula and breast milk:
That amniotic fluid and breast milk share a commonality in flavor profiles with the foods eaten by the mother suggests that breast milk may ‘bridge’ the experiences with flavors in utero to those in solid foods. Moreover, the sweetness and textural properties of human milk, such as viscosity and mouth coating, vary from mother to mother, thus suggesting that breastfeeding, unlike formula feeding, provides the infant with the potential for a rich source of varying chemosensory experiences.
Oh, and about the sweet tooth you’re so concerned about? We’ve all got one, Wilson says. Humans are hard-wired to enjoy sweet things, especially children. That doesn’t suggest kids are fated to get their fix from gummy worms and sandwich cookies; sweet flavors can come in a variety of foods, like yams or caramelized onions.
Unfortunately, there’s a whole genre of what we call “kid food.” This consists of bland flavors, like cheese pizza, french fries, and cereals high in sugar. We assume that children won’t enjoy the taste of things like salmon, asparagus, or whole-wheat pancakes. Have you ever heard a parent tell a child, “you won’t like that?” Statements like that might turn kids off from eating new foods for years.
But most parents, Wilson notes, are just trying to keep their kids happy and healthy. It’s a gift to watch a children finish their food, especially if they do so with a smile. And with the right exposure, broccoli might be able to just that.
Amanda Kohr is a 25-year-old writer and photographer with a penchant for yoga, food, and travel. She prefers to bathe in the moonlight rather than the sun, and enjoys living in a state of the three C’s: cozy, creative, and curious. When she’s not writing, you can find her driving her VW Bug, looking for the next roadside attraction or family diner. She also roams the internet at amandakohr.com.