Picky Eaters are Made, Not Born

Study: Children given foods that require chewing before 9 months less likely to be picky eaters at age 7.

March 4, 2009

If you'd given her solid food sooner, you wouldn't be in this mess.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Brussel sprouts. Broccoli. And Beets. Those three B’s are the bane of every child’s dinnertime existence—but perhaps they needn’t be. A new study shows that vegetable lovers may be made in their first nine months of life.

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THE DETAILS: Researchers from the University of Birmingham in England followed up on the children involved in the Avon Longitudinal Study of Pregnancy and Childhood (a large study on the introduction of solid foods after 9 months), checking to see how those children were faring, eating-wise, at age 7. All told, the researchers received reports from 7,821 parents: 12.1 percent of their children were given solid, textured foods before the age of 6 months; 69.8 percent, between 6 and 9 months; and 18 percent (a group the researchers refer to as “delayed”), not until 9 months or later. At the age of 7, the delayed group ate fewer foods overall than the kids who'd been introduced to lumpy foods early. Also, they ate fewer fruits and vegetables, and were described by their parents as just pickier overall.

WHAT IT MEANS: Early introduction of solid food lines up with what many experts are saying. The World Health Organization recommends introducing solid foods that require chewing between 6 and 9 months of age. That’s because, according to the lead study author Helen Coulthard, children can rapidly develop preferences for different tastes and textures between 4 and 7 months, whereas in later childhood, 10 or more exposures to a certain food might be necessary before the child accepts it. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends first introducing solid foods (not lumpy foods requiring chewing, but solids nonetheless) at 4 to 6 months—and they’re currently rethinking the best strategy for doing that. The new, recommended approach would be to introduce nutrient-rich foods (meat, fruits, and vegetables, pureed at first) rather than the traditional approach of starting with cereals.

“For instance, breastfed infants need iron and zinc, and the best dietary source for that is red meat,” says Frank Greer, M.D., professor of pediatrics at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine in Madison and chair of the AAP’s Committee on Nutrition. “The present practice of introducing cereals, then yellow vegetables, then green vegetables, then fruits, with meat last and avoidance of meat, eggs, fish, peanut butter, all of which are nutrient-rich, is based on long-standing tradition with no science behind it. And it may actually increase the risk for allergy to gluten, fish, eggs, and nuts.”

Not to mention boosting the reluctance of kids to try those late-introduced foods.

Here’s how you can give your children the lumpy food they need:

• Start early. Introduce fruits and vegetables early, between 4 and 6 months. Puree them initially, then as your child’s motor control develops and allows him to pick up small pieces (between 6 and 9 months), introduce “lumpy” fruits and veggies by boiling bits to make them mushy or lumpy.

• Make sure your child eats while sitting. This will help him understand how we eat (and encourage eating like a grownup) and help to guard against choking. “Infants can mush food very well without teeth,” assures Greer. “Just make sure the solids you feed your 6- to 9-month-old are mushy or lumpy like

• Rethink the old ways. The way your mother fed you may have had more to do with the times than with science. “My grandson loved berries of all kind at 10 months of age,” says Greer. “My own mother wouldn’t have introduced any of that to me at that age, but, of course, those foods were only very seasonably available back then. The choices to mothers today 12 months a year make it much easier to introduce fresh fruits and vegetables throughout the year.” Do try to provide as many local, organic food choices as you can, though, since they’re better for your kids’ health and for the environment. Consider visiting farmers’ markets or joining a CSA to get fresh produce.

• Set a good example. “Infants want to eat what you do,” says Greer. Make sure what you’re eating is nutrient-rich and rife with veggies, and they’ll get into the same habit.

• Never give up. “Don’t ever assume your child just won’t become a fruit and vegetable eater,” says Greer. “Just keep introducing and reintroducing fruits and vegetables. It may take many exposures.”