More than just Boxed Cereal – Why do Babies need Diverse Flavors?

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The joy that every parent derives in offering their itty bitty babies first tastes of solid foods is hard to put into words. Every culture, every society celebrates this initiation with the choicest foods. For example, in Tamil culture this is called அன்னபிரசன்னம் (Annaprasana), which loosely translates to “offering rice” – one of the most treasured grains in Southern India. This is an intimate ceremony with loved ones present and amongst this group of family, the baby, decked in glorious clothes, is lovingly offered tastes of sweetened rice. This marks the baby’s first foray into the social and cultural experience of eating.

“Already, by thirteen weeks, the taste buds are mature. A thirteen-week-old foetus weighs maybe an ounce, with no fat under the skin, no air in the lungs. Yet already they can not only swallow but taste, and these sips of fluid leave memories. We are all born with echoes of our mother’s diet, which means that no one is a totally blank slate when it comes to flavour.”

Bee Wilson : First Bite – How we Learn to Eat

What are today’s First Foods?

Since food is deeply social, we expect that these first foods will represent the child’s culture. Yet, in the last 100 years, we have made a drastic shift in the kind of foods we offer our babies. Today, most babies the world over share the same first foods. Whereas, merely a few decades ago, pounding millet flour in South India was common, today, we buy Cerelac off the shelf. Somehow, companies have convinced us that it is better to leave baby food preparation to the experts – and have even convinced us that “banana powder” counts for fruit! 

Maybe as a consequence of being provided to babies across the world, boxed cereals are bland and use highly refined flour. To these, we are told to add pureed vegetables and fruit from bejewelled jars of varying colors. These jars contain blends – beets, bananas and blueberries form a sweet tasting purplish-blue mish-mash. Alternatively, you could get kale, spinach and avocado; apple, pumpkin and carrot; or peas, broccoli and pineapple. Not a single jar comes without the promise of something sweet. The aim is to provide a full nutrient profile, but by offering these blends, we end up with a single flavor profile – sweet. Apart from this, blends also combine flavors when young babies need individual experiences to appreciate what they are eating. What does beetroot taste like? Does it go well with cinnamon? Why does apple taste delicious with cinnamon? How does pumpkin go magically well with sage?

In the pursuit of conveniently providing nourishment for babies, we forget the deep social significance of food.

What could First Foods be?

Babies are incredibly curious and much more willing to try a wide variety of foods. So, first foods must be whole foods, spices and herbs. In babyhood, we want to introduce a wide range of grains starting with rice and oat cereal and gradually upgrading to whole wheat, whole oatmeal, brown rice, quinoa to millets. We must take care to offer fruits and vegetables in their whole form instead of mashing them all into pastes of exact consistencies. A few examples are broccoli broken into florets and steamed soft enough for a young baby to grasp while the same broccoli pan-seared with thyme and butter for an older baby. Corn kernels with butter for a young baby while corn on the cob buttered with paprika and lemon for an older baby.

Typically, babies accept sweet flavors because of their familiarity with breastmilk/formula, both of which are sweet tasting. So, when we offer a baby a wedge of lemon or some dandelion greens, they will be quick to grimace. This is a little like an Indian trying Peruvian food for the first time or an Ethiopian trying French food for the first time. There is no promise that any one person will immediately like the new flavors. It takes several attempts to even remember the names of some of these dishes. Bearing this in mind, our role is to repeatedly offer diverse flavors (merely offer, but never force) so babies’ palates begin to accept these tastes.

Why Diverse Flavors?

  • Babies have a sensitivity for foods

Here’s the thing. Babies experience what are called ‘sensitive periods’ for weaning. Think of these as an allure – babies experience an intense allurement for foods that they see their families eat. The entire experience of eating cultural foods – using hands, using utensils, having conversations and deriving joy over food is something babies observe from birth. So, typically, somewhere around 5-6 months, babies begin to show obvious signs of wanting to participate in this experience. This is an ideal time to effortlessly tap into their natural curiosity and offer them diverse flavours. When we miss the window of opportunity, it will be that much harder to invite them back to explore foods. 

I say harder and not impossible because, babies brains are immensely plastic and we CAN always cultivate interest in foods. But, the work is so much harder when this window crosses over. 

  • Babies are NOT neophobic

Once babies start to walk and move into toddlerhood, they begin to experience what is called neophobia – an aversion or rather, caution for new foods. Neophobia is an evolutionary trait that young toddlers (and several mammals including gorilla toddlers) use to protect themselves from potential toxins in the wild. As young toddlers can simply walk away from us, they are at a risk of taking anything to their mouths. So, this is like nature’s gift to protect them from possibly ingesting something harmful. So the wariness for ALL foods, while developmentally appropriate, is a hard obstacle to overcome for parents who are desperately trying to get their toddlers to try new foods. 

In other words, babies are more than happy to take most things (pretty much everything) to their mouths. 

  • Babies are the guardians of culture

The significance of diverse foods is supremely important because each baby is the torchbearer of grandma’s recipes, of every treasured ingredient and the safe-keeper of the intricate nuances that define their community. Our babies are the custodians of all that we hold dear. Our babies are the guardians of our identity. So, when we feed our babies, we are establishing a connection with food. We must take care to pass on not just the mechanics of eating food but also the nuances of preparing and cherishing it. 

All of babyhood is just about sowing seeds for flavors. There is really no pressure to get them to like or dislike anything. If we concluded just after 3-5 attempts what a baby prefers, we will end up with a sorry number of foods that they ‘like’. Diversifying their palates takes time and only by gradually introducing a wide range of herbs, lentils, spices and grains, can we layer their palate. It is just about investing time to get them to explore the idea of eating. Human attachment with food is far beyond nutrition and it is this whole idea that we want to present to the baby. And, as they begin to experience food in its entirety, there is a familiarity that dawns on them. They will begin to form connections in their brains for what food means in their culture and accept them gladly. 

“Like children, many of us eat what we like and we only like what we know. “It is possible to educate children in the pleasures of food; and that doing so will set the children up for a lifetime of healthy eating. Feeding is learning.”

Bee Wilson : First Bite – How we Learn to Eat

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