Since having children, its always intrigued me why some eat and why some don’t. Why some will eat everything and some are fussy. Why they love something one day and won’t touch it the next day.
If I knew the answers, I’m guessing I could be a millionaire overnight. But I don’t. My curiosity got the better of me however, so I decided to investigate the current research and opinions that are out there.
I was fairly new in my real food and whole foods journey during my first pregnancy. Although we probably ate out for dinner more than I would have liked, the rest of my diet was good. I never worried too much about what I ate although I was fairly strict about no junk or processed foods. Maintaining a wholefoods diet was difficult for probably the first 16 weeks. I didn’t want vegetables at all and went through a loaf of bread a week on my own (organic multigrain soughdough of course)! For someone who eats vegetables at most meals and doesn’t really touch bread, this was a difficult time mentally. But I turned the corner. After about the 16-week mark, my normal eating patterns returned. Interestingly, the exact same thing happened in my second pregnancy. Maybe that’s what convinced me it was a another boy when it wasn’t!
I also didn’t subscribe to the theory about avoiding highly allergenic food when pregnant. There are still some that advocate avoiding things such as dairy, eggs and nuts during pregnancy in order to reduce the risk of the baby developing an allergy to them. But that’s all it is, a theory with no evidence to support it.
When it came to breastfeeding, it was a minefield of conflicting information about what to eat and what not to eat. I have no history of allergies in my family but my husband does. Do I avoid them or don’t I? And what about eating highly allergenic foods whilst breastfeeding?
Although at the time I didn’t research it thoroughly, I threw caution into the wind. Why avoid things without a good reason to. Do cultures around the world cut out basic staples (to them) in their diets when breastfeeding, on the small chance it ‘might’ affect the baby? So I didn’t. And there was some trial and error. Chilli made my son vomit after I’d eaten it. Cabbage upset my daughter’s tummy. But just when they were very young and still exclusively breastfed. Onion was fine. Garlic was fine. All the herbs and spices I cook with regularly were fine. There were no issues with dairy or eggs or nuts. I’m completely aware that this isn’t always the case with many women but this was my experience.
Then came the introduction of solids. I started both my children on solid foods at about 5 months. My son took to it straight away with gusto and has never looked back. My daughter was a bit slow off the mark though and it took me a good 3 to 4 weeks to get her to eat solids. It was all about the tongue thrust reflex though and not the actual food. Obviously she wasn’t ready as early as I thought. She’s just turned one, and like her brother, eats anything I give her. And trust me, she gets a bit of almost everything we are having in a baby friendly form. I don’t have the time to prepare special meals all the time so she has been introduced to ‘family foods’ very quickly. It’s amazing how quickly they adapt to what is on offer.
And that’s what got me thinking about taste preferences and what influences them. I’m always hearing about fussy children but haven’t really experienced it myself. My interest was sparked.
Pregnancy and breatsfeeding diets
Little did I know with my first child just how much my pregnancy and breastfeeding diets would affect him and his tastes preferences. But I had an inkling. By the time I had my second child, I was much more aware how much my choices would affect her through ad hoc reading I had done.
So what’s the latest evidence?
There is now a few decades of research that supports the fact that flavours from a mother’s diet during pregnancy are transmitted into the amniotic fluid and swallowed by the foetus. Similarly these flavours also transfer into human breast milk. Subsequently, the types of food eaten by women during pregnancy and breastfeeding may be experienced by the infants before their first exposure to solid foods.
Years ago, it was standard to believe that the genes we passed onto our children were unchangeable. But we now know that external factors such as diet, exercise, stress and exposure to toxins can influence the switching ‘on’ and ‘off’ of our genes. This link between genes and lifestyle factors is called epigenetics. You can read more about epigenetics here.
This process of epigenetics for your child starts when you are pregnant. In other words, ‘foetal programming‘ which has the potential to exert an impact on the child’s growth and health into adulthood. This includes pre-disposition for conditions such as diabetes, obesity, cancer, psychiatric disorders and autoimmune diseases.
So what does this have to do with food? Well there is an association between maternal nutrient intake during pregnancy and the epigenetic patterns of the infant at birth. But, note I used the word pre-disposition above. As epigenetics is something that can be influenced at any stage in your life, don’t feel bad if those cravings or nausea derailed your diet during pregnancy. It’s not the only influencing factor and exactly how much influence it has on a child’s health is still being investigated.
Current evidence also strongly suggests that diet is an important driver in the development of the gut microbiome and could serve as a means of therapeutic intervention for prevention and treatment of diseases. This starts from infancy. Initial establishment of the infant gut microbiome is influenced by things such as mode of birth, mode of feeding, sanitary conditions and antibiotic use. There is some research suggesting the gut microbiome establishment commences in utero and is not sterile at birth but that’s quite preliminary at this stage.
So the pregnancy and breastfeeding diet of the mother has the potential to not only influence the taste preferences of the infant, but also their long term health.
Confused? Put simply, the diet (be it maternal, infant, child or adult one) has the potential to influence not only epigenetics but also the microbiome, both of which can impact health and disease.
Introduction of solids and beyond
So does it just end there? I don’t believe so.
I’m sure there are many people out there who followed a diet similar to mine during their pregnancy and breastfeeding journey but have fussy children. And the opposite would prevail just as much: a less than ideal diet but non fussy children. And believe me, mine aren’t always ‘non fussy.’ Like everything, children have periods in their lives where they fuss and like to exert their independence. We have days and weeks like everyone else. But on the whole, they are ‘non fussy.’
And here’s the next part of the equation that I truly believe goes in conjunction with an appropriate maternal diet. Not that it’s going to, or has worked for everyone but as I said earlier, it’s my experience.
Eat as a family
Food traditionally has been part of culture, tradition and celebration. In some ways, we have lost our way with respect to this in our modern society. It’s common for the kids to eat early and the adults to have their meal when they have put the kids to bed. I know that sometimes this is unavoidable but eating together should be a priority where possible.
Eating separately not only sets up a ‘them’ and ‘us’ culture, it also often means two meals are prepared. One kid friendly version and one for the adults. Eat together, talk about your day, share your stories. Eat the same meal and the kids will follow your example. My son went through a phase where he would explicitly eat something only because his daddy was.
Involve your kids in your cooking
I actually find this one difficult as my nearly three year old makes such a mess and has a really bad habit of sticking his hands on the chopping board to grab a piece of something when I’ve got a sharp knive out. Luckily we’ve had no accident yet. If I had a dollar for everytime I’ve said ‘sit back and just watch while I’m cutting….’
Anyway, this strategy is such an important one as they just want so desperately to ‘help’ and be part of the creative process. It’s also a perfect opportunity to teach them about the ingredients and is wonderful for their learning and development.
It’s not uncommon for kids to be more inclined to eat something they have been involved in making. And yes, I let my son lick the spoon (or the Thermomix spatula) so he can have the same fond memories I have in the kitchen with my mum!
Provide a variety of foods AND vary the same foods
Variety is the spice of life isn’t it! Having the same old food week in week out can get quite boring. I have a huge repoitoire of meals but I’m always on the hunt for something ‘new’ or a way to change it up with my own twist on an old favourite.
Kids feel the same. Sure, you have your trusty family favourites but throw in a few new ones here and there with some new ingredients and you might be surprised at the speed with which it’s consumed.
Also, when things are presented differently, they are often much better accepted. Instead of just steaming those vegetables, roast them (broccoli and cauliflower is delicious roasted). Or drizzle with some butter or balsamic vinegar or add some herbs and spices. Be adventurous! Try something different and they might surprise you!
Never stop offering
It’s very tempting to NOT give your child something they have refused in the past. It’s also very tempting to only give them things you know they will eat. It saves stress, arguments, frustration and waste. But would you give up on toilet training if it didn’t work the first, second or even third attempt?
Children’s tastes are changing all the time and so are their minds. Today’s favourite is most definately not to be eaten tomorrow and vice versa. They go through phases and sometimes they are just genuinely not hungry and that’s why they won’t eat something. Adults do this so why can’t children?
Be creative, be persistent and be enthusiastic!
Lead by example
Kids are like sponges and will follow everything you do. It’s honestly hilarious what my son wants to try and do in our house to be like ‘mummy and daddy.’
They will follow your lead and mimic your behaviour and this includes what you eat. If you only have real and whole foods in the house, then that’s what you (and they) eat. It kind of amazes me when people complain that their children won’t stop eating *insert processed packaged food name here.* Just don’t buy it and it won’t be in the house for consumption!
I always make sure I have a wide variety of nutritious foods available. Both raw and cooked. I get the odd complaint from my husband about our lack of ‘snack’ food but that’s only because he is looking for the wrong snack (in my opinion). There is always nuts, seeds, dried fruit, fresh fruit, homemade chocolate and some other homemade baked delicacy!
Granted, it’s probably a bit more challenging with older kids who have the opportunity to purchase their own food. But if you instil a healthy and positive attitude about real and whole foods from an early age, then they are more likely to continue to want to eat that way when they start to make their food choices independently. I know I feel like crap when I eat the odd processed or packaged food (yes it does happen) and I’m told kids feel the same and quickly learn what makes them feel ‘good’ and ‘bad’.