Baby Bites: Start your kids out young to keep them interested in vegetables

A show of hands, please. How many of us swore, when pregnant, that our babies would grow up eating nothing but organic vegetables and whole grains … but now find ourselves heating up plate after plate of frozen chicken fingers more often than we’d care to admit?

Surely I can’t be the only one raising my hand (while using the other hand to cover my face in shame).

In fact, I know that I can’t be the only one, because according to Marilyn Tanner, registered dietician at St. Louis Children’s Hospital, as soon as babies move beyond jarred baby foods and start eating table food, “there is a dramatic downturn in the amount of fruits and vegetables we see children consuming.”

And this downturn is quite disturbing, given the exponential rise in adult-onset diabetes in children and childhood obesity. No parents want their children’s diets to make them overweight or ill … yet getting finicky toddlers to feast on foods that aren’t sweet, fried or refined truly is easier said than done. (Which is why it’s the pregnant women, and not the been-there-done-that moms, who are the ones taking those vows of junk-food celibacy.)

For this reason, the first foods you offer that do not come out of the breast, bottle or jar are absolutely critical.

Syndicated radio talk-show host and bestselling health book author Gary Null was among the original crusade of health experts who lobbied manufacturers to have sweeteners, starches and salt removed from baby food; nowadays, thanks to their efforts, most jarred baby food consists strictly of vegetables and fruits puréed with water. Null argues that once babies move beyond the jar, they should continue to be offered fruits and vegetables in their purest form (perhaps diced or chopped instead of puréed). This is the best way to avoid corrupting children’s taste buds and fostering a preference for junk food, he said.

Make no mistake about it: This is going to be hard work. Your baby, if he’s anything like mine, might scrunch up his face and spit out the carrots … or perhaps it will be peas or even bananas that you will be wiping off the walls. Don’t give up, Tanner urged. Recent studies have shown that some children will need to have 15 exposures to any one food before they accept it – but after that 15th exposure, they will eat it without protest.

And how the food is prepared may have more to do with whether it’s accepted than the actual flavor, Tanner said. Babies and young children prefer their food at room temperature, hate anything with a thick, stringy texture (like pot roast) and will turn up their little noses to bitter or spicy foods.

With all that in mind, Lidia Bastianich, host of the PBS cooking show “Lidia’s Family Table” and author of a cookbook by the same name, suggests a very mild vegetable soup in a light chicken stock as a good food to cut baby teeth on. And don’t wait till baby can expertly use a spoon to ladle out the soup – introduce it as early as possible. Of course, that does not mean pouring it into a baby bottle! Quite the contrary: The American Academy of Pediatrics urges holding off on feeding anything except breastmilk or formula until a baby is at least 4 to 6 months.

What it does mean is getting your child used to the smells and activities of the family kitchen “almost at the natal stage,” Bastianich said. The tasting will come later, but seeing, hearing and particularly smelling the process of food preparation is a crucial part of cultivating a healthy attitude towards food, she explained.

“Babies will accumulate an olfactory memory bank of the foods of the family, so when the time comes to introduce them, they will not be completely alien,” she said. “Crack herbs under the baby’s nose, let them sniff an orange. And when the time comes, let the baby taste what the family’s eating. It’s OK if she spits it out. It’s OK if the baby just plays with the food while the family is eating. It’s a natural progression.”

So if you’re like me and missed the boat with early food exposure – sleep deprived as I was, I don’t have many distinct memories of my son’s newborn days but am positive that they did not entail rubbing cracked herbs under his nose – is there any hope for converting a chicken nugget addict into a carrot-eating champion?

Take heart. Tanner has recipes (see below) that transform healthy foods like sweet potatoes and squash into little-kid favorites, and Bastianich even has a vegified version of chicken fingers in her cookbook (see recipe). It’s all about being creative and using a little bit of whole wheat breadcrumbs to make the broccoli go down.

“And Parmesan cheese,” Bastianich added, “is a wonderful conduit for all things healthy.”