I love food. I have a master's degree in nutrition. One might say I'm obsessed with eating. Yet, until recently, I couldn't understand why so many moms talked—with pride or despair—about whether or not their kids were "good eaters." Then I had kids.
Watching my oldest son Julian's first bite of pears two and a half years ago, I got it. If you appreciate delicious, healthy foods, there's nothing more satisfying than watching your child discover the joys of eating. But how do you cultivate a kid who prefers fruit to french fries and doesn't turn her nose up at broccoli and salmon? Short answer: Start now. "Most of our taste preferences are formed early in life—in the first couple of years and especially in the first year—by the kinds of exposures we have," says Alan Greene M.D., author of Feeding Baby Green: The Earth-Friendly Program for Healthy, Safe Nutrition. "[As parents], we have the ability to teach kids to recognize and enjoy healthy amounts of good foods. When we miss that opportunity we end up with picky eaters who only like kids' foods and whom we fight to get to enjoy vegetables." So embrace that early window. Here are 10 strategies that, from that first spoonful of solids, will help you to raise a child who will learn to eat—and love—everything.
1 Time those first bites right "The best time to feed your baby solids for the first time is when he's feeling bright-eyed and bushy-tailed—in the morning or right after a nap," says Karen Ansel R.D., a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association (ADA) in Long Island, New York, and co-author of the upcoming book The Baby and Toddler Cookbook: Fresh, Homemade Foods for a Healthy Start. Make sure he's hungry but not starving and older siblings aren't running wild around him (it's distracting). Turn the TV off and stash your iPhone. There's no rule about what to give first. It could be brown rice cereal mixed with breast milk or formula. Bananas and avocados tend to be easy transitional foods, but you can start with vegetables or even meat. During the first few feedings, your baby will probably take only a couple of bites. When he purses his lips, turns or shakes his head or becomes distracted, he's had enough.
2 Bombard her with variety After your baby has gotten used to the act of eating, introduce new foods rapidly, suggests Dr. Greene. Be creative. Beets are great! Why not try figs? Some experts recommend feeding the same food for a few days so that if an adverse reaction should occur it's easier to pinpoint the food that caused it. Others, including Dr. Greene, recommend introducing new foods every day—and mixtures as soon as possible. "The idea of single foods just teaches kids to be pickier eaters," says Dr. Greene. Use familiar foods to bring in new ones, says chef Geoff Tracy, co-author of Baby Love: Healthy, Easy, Delicious Meals for Your Baby and Toddler and father of three in Washington, DC. If your child is digging bananas, mix in papaya. If he likes apples, blend them with blue-berries. Looking for a fun way to decide what new foods to try next? Work your way through the colors of the rainbow (think: guava, pumpkin, corn, broccoli, etc.), and your baby will get a variety of flavors and nutrients.
3 Try, try again The carrots were a bust—so try again in a couple of days. Repeat as necessary. Studies say about three out of four moms throw in the towel after their baby refuses a new food five or fewer times. The problem is, research shows it can take up to 15 tries before a child will accept a new food. "If you can get your child to try something six to 10 times, you have a very high likelihood of forming a preference for that food," says Dr. Greene. As an example, he cites one study in which researchers asked moms to give their babies the vegetable purée they hated the most every other day. "A little after two weeks [and eight exposures to the veggie], most of them loved the food," says Dr. Greene. As your baby gets older, be prepared for periods of pickiness, and when your toddler declares his once-loved carrots "yucky," just switch up how you serve them: roast them one day, grate them into muffins another, steam them and offer them with a side of hummus.
4 Spice things up "There's no research that says we have to give babies a bland diet," says Jeannette Bessinger, co-founder of realfoodmoms.com and author of Great Expectations: Best Food for Your Baby & Toddler. "Once they're enjoying a food plain, introduce it with mild herbs and spices." Blend cilantro into avocado, nutmeg into sweet potatoes, cinnamon into apples, suggests Tracy. The possibilities are endless when you make your own purées. A few baby food companies, including Jack's Harvest and Petite Palate, offer blends infused with spices and herbs such as ginger, vanilla, cinnamon, sage and mint. Toddlers might even enjoy a little heat. After her daughter's first birthday, Lisa Pawlik, a mom in Underhill, Vermont, started feeding her mostly whatever she and her husband were eating—including a Thai red curry dish. "I remember her at 18 months carefully draping her face with the noodles, waiting for us to laugh at her and then quickly eating them all," says Pawlik.
5 Help him connect to food Hand your baby an avocado and say "avocado." If learning and using any signs with your baby, also make the sign for it. "Naming foods—and signing them—helps kids recognize those foods really early on," says Dr. Greene. "And kids fall in love with things they recognize." As your child gets older, play "where's the avocado?" "If you ask kids, ‘Where's your nose?' or ‘Where are your ears?' they're going to learn those things," points out Dr. Greene. "It's the same thing with foods." Go to farmer's markets. Plant a garden. Look at pictures of foods. One recent study found that toddlers were more willing to taste unfamiliar fruits after their parents read them books that included these fruits.