Jan 26, 2023 • 6 min read

Setting the Stage for Lifelong Healthy Eating

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Written by Judy Singer, RDN and Zaya Provider

The first 1,000 days, from the time of conception to your child’s second birthday, is a critical period of growth and development. This period sets the stage for your child’s lifelong health. The course of that development can be largely influenced by you, the parents, in all the ways you care for yourself and your child. 

Setting the stage for lifelong healthy eating nutrition during pregnancy

From a nutrition perspective, everything from what you eat during pregnancy and breastfeeding to introducing baby to solid foods plays a role. Not only in your child’s immediate growth and health, but their food and flavor preferences for years to come as well. This is called taste imprinting: the theory that a child’s lifetime food preferences can be shaped by exposure to foods and flavors early on in life.

During pregnancy, flavors from the foods you eat are transferred to the amniotic fluid, essentially giving the baby “tastes” of different foods. Even at this early stage, you can start preparing your child to eat a wide variety of healthy foods. Eating a diet rich in fresh, whole foods including produce, beans, nuts, fish and lean meats, can help set your baby up for success.

Setting the stage for lifelong healthy eating includes nutrition while breastfeeding

The same is true during breastfeeding, with flavors changing daily based on mom’s diet. Unlike formula fed babies, breastfed babies can be exposed to a wide array of flavors while nursing. Familiarity with different flavors can then support a baby’s acceptance of solid foods down the line. So don’t be afraid to try a new cuisine or experiment with spices! It’s a great time to check in on your own diet to make sure it’s full of healthy variety and flavor. 

Introducing solid foods while setting the stage for lifelong healthy eating

Once you move into introducing solids, the real fun begins! This is an exciting milestone for both parents and children. For babies, it marks the beginning of a new phase, where they are able to explore new flavors, textures, and types of food. For parents, it’s both momentous and messy to watch your child experience the world of food. It’s also an especially important step in establishing those healthy eating patterns in the first 1,000 days. 

Babies are typically ready to incorporate some solid foods into their diet between 4-6 months of age. Some babies express readiness on the early side, while others are not ready until later. The best way to determine when the time is right is to talk with your pediatrician and look for baby’s signs of readiness, which include:

  • The ability to hold their head up independently
  • The ability to sit upright in a supportive chair
  • Showing some interest in foods, by reaching or opening their mouth when food is nearby

There are several benefits to introducing solids to babies at the appropriate time. For example, breast milk or formula provides babies with all the nutrients they need for the first six months of life. However, as babies grow and develop, solids can help provide additional nutrients, such as iron and zinc. These nutrients are important for brain development and immune system function.

Solids can also help babies feel more satisfied and fuller for longer periods of time. This can be especially helpful for babies who are experiencing growth spurts or who are becoming more active and tend to get hungry more frequently. Eating solids can also help babies develop their oral motor skills, such as biting, chewing, and swallowing. These skills are important for proper speech development and overall health.

Is there a right way to introduce solids while setting the stage for lifelong healthy eating?

Other than taking the appropriate safety precautions, (like making sure baby is seated and upright, and food size and texture is appropriate for baby’s age and development), there is no one best approach to introducing solids. Different things work for different families, and there’s no requirement to subscribe to a single methodology. 

Whether you start with purees or Baby-Led Weaning, know your end goal, which is teaching your baby to sit at a table and eat a nutritious and varied diet. Then, slowly work your way there, following baby’s lead. This should be a playful, light-hearted experience for you and your child. This stage is more about tasting than eating, so allowing your baby to explore new foods by licking, chewing, mushing or playing is all part of the process. 

Critical nutrients for your child

Once you’ve decided how you’ll approach feeding, you can start thinking about what foods to feed your child. Gone are the days of bland rice cereal. This is your chance to optimize your child’s nutrition and palate. Between 6-12 months there is a magic window of opportunity for taste imprinting. At this age, babies tend to be widely accepting of new foods, even after only a few exposures. 

As babies reach toddlerhood, it’s common to see more pickiness and refusal of foods as kids experiment with autonomy. It’s a great strategy to take advantage of this early window by exposing your child to as many foods and flavors as possible. First and foremost, you’ll want to offer a variety of healthy foods across all food groups. This means vegetables, fruits, beans, whole grains, full fat dairy, nut butters, fish, poultry and meat. Offer your baby many different foods over the course of each day, and try pairing new foods with foods your baby already likes. Experiment with cooking foods in different ways (i.e. vegetables can be sautéed, steamed, roasted or raw).

Try a variety of flavor combinations by pairing different foods and using a wide array of herbs and spices. The only things that are off limits are adding sugar (including honey, which is not safe for children under 1 year) or excessive salt to foods. Other than that, anything goes as long foods are cut to appropriate sizes and texturally manageable for your child. (i.e.Hard nuts and whole grapes are choking hazards, but nut butter and cut up grapes are a go). 

In terms of allergens, research has shown that early introduction of the major food allergens is the best strategy for most children. If your family has a significant history of food allergies, talk with your pediatrician about the best approach to introducing your child to these foods. 

>> Learn more: Best foods to eat during the first trimester

Does the order of foods really matter while setting the stage for lifelong healthy eating?

Don’t worry about the order of introducing foods.  Babies have an innate preference for sweet tastes and the order in which you introduce foods does not change this fact. Regardless, babies can learn to like many flavors, especially with repeated exposure. It’s common for babies to react with expressions of surprise, delight or distaste to new foods. It’s all part of the learning process. You should continue to offer foods your baby dislikes. Some parents find that starting with naturally sweet produce like fruits and mild vegetables, such as carrots, peas, bell peppers and string beans, and then moving to more bitter and complex flavors, is a helpful strategy. It’s also a good idea to introduce some meats and leafy greens. These are rich in iron, an important nutrient for children that is lacking in breast milk.  

Another great way to help your baby develop a liking for many different foods is to include a variety of textures. Babies both need to learn how to chew and swallow different textures, and accept different types of foods. Introducing textures early on can help ward off pickiness later. When your baby becomes comfortable with a specific texture, make sure to advance to the next stage. A typical progression would be smooth purees, lumpy purees, soft finger foods, firmer finger foods, and eventually, crunchy foods.

Modeling healthy eating habits

Lastly, modeling healthy eating habits goes a long way. The more you can eat alongside your child, the more likely they are to accept the foods they see you enjoying. Try serving everyone the same food as often as possible, with textures and pieces altered to match your baby’s abilities. 

No matter how you approach it, introducing your baby to the world of food is a fun experience! And it can have a lasting impact.  Despite pickiness that may occur in later years, kids tend to come back to the foods and flavors they had at an early age, especially when those foods are consistently around throughout childhood. Seizing this opportunity to showcase a host of nutritious foods will set the stage for raising a lifelong healthy eater. 

Zaya Care is a network of maternity care specialists covered by insurance. Judy is a Registered Dietitian and received her Master’s in Public Health Nutrition from New York University. She is passionate about helping women support their bodies through the life-changing experience of starting and growing a family. To book a consultation covered by insurance, click here.

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Judy is a Registered Dietitian and received her Master's in Public Health Nutrition from New York University. She is passionate about helping women support their bodies through the life-changing experience of starting and growing a family. Whether it's learning to nourish yourself through pregnancy, supporting your healing postpartum, or building healthy habits and relationships around food for you and your little ones, Judy is here for it all. A mom of 3 young girls herself, Judy understands the complexities of navigating early motherhood and how difficult it can be to prioritize your own health. Judy will help you learn to tune into your body and establish easy, sustainable, healthy routines for you and your family.