This post was originally published on http://www.iron-kids.com/blog/create-long-term-healthy-eating-habits.aspx.

The “French paradox” has been recently getting a lot of attention from food writers and researchers.

It looks like the French are able to enjoy a balanced diet without excluding the foods that are considered indulgent, like cheese and foie gras, and still remain one of the slimmest and healthiest nations among the developed countries.

As a pediatric dietitian, I enjoy researching how feeding practices used by parents may contribute to better eating habits and lower obesity rates among children. A recent study published in Appetite suggested that French parents may plant seeds for good eating habits when their babies are very small.

According to the study, French parents consider the period of starting solids (6 to 12 months) a “now or never” opportunity for introducing new flavors, developing long term eating habits and teaching a child to enjoy a variety of foods. It seems to make a lot of sense since previous research shows that, indeed, more variety in babies’ diets is linked to better food acceptance and in diet quality as they grow up.

Unfortunately, when North American parents are provided with feeding advice, most of it is related to portion sizes, food safety and nutritional requirements. Very few resources mention variety in diet and palate development as an important goal for introduction of solids.

At the same time, the first few years of life are extremely important for the formation of food preferences and eating habits. By the time children are ready for school, they may already show behaviors related to unhealthy diet such as entrenched picky eating and eating in absence of hunger. Many of them at this age need more time and effort to develop an acquired taste for more challenging foods like vegetables.

So when is the best time to start exposing our kids to dietary variety?  When they start solids!

The period of introduction of solids is a perfect opportunity to impact a child’s life long eating habits. Here are some recommendations for parents who want to teach their baby to enjoy a variety of foods and eat the amount that is right for them:

  1. View the period of introduction of solids as a narrow window of opportunity to expose your baby to as many flavors as possible.
  2. Introduce the baby to the food the family is eating. Adapt the texture and seasoning is necessary. For example, if the family is having a roasted chicken, rice and green beans for dinner, all these foods can be pureed or finely chopped for the baby.
  3. Acknowledge that learning to like certain foods is a process and remain patient as you serve them to your baby again and again. To make vegetables more palatable, add seasoning and fat.
  4. Make meals about connecting and enjoying the baby, not about getting him to eat a certain amount or certain types of food.
  5. Be guided by your baby at mealtimes and feed her as fast or as slow as she chooses. Stop when she shows she had enough to strengthen the ability to self-regulate energy intake.

References:

Mennella J., Nicklaus S., Jagolino A., Youtshaw L. Variety is the spice of life: Strategies for promoting fruit and vegetable acceptance during infancy Physiol Behav. 2008 April 22; 94(1): 29–38.

Schwartz C, Madrelle J, Vereijken CM, Weenen H, Nicklaus S, Hetherington MM. Complementary feeding and “donner les bases du gout” (providing the foundation of taste). A qualitative approach to understand weaning practices, attitudes and experiences by French mothers. Appetite. 2013 Sep 14.

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