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Toddler’s food preferences highly influenced by mum

A mother's eating habits highly influence her child’s food preferences, according to research that involved a large cohort of mother–child pairs across Brisbane and Adelaide.

Backgrounded by an increasing amount of children not meeting the daily intake of fruit and vegetables and consuming high amounts of energy dense, low nutrient foods, research focused on what influences food preferences in two year-old children.

Queensland University of Technology’s Heinz Postdoctoral Research Fellow Kimberley Mallan says despite the range of variables explored the key finding was the connection between mothers’ likes and dislikes and their children’s for both fruits and vegetables and non-core foods.

“Role modelling healthy food and a variety of food and having that available in the home is going to be very important,” Dr Mallan says.

“The second key finding is that child food neophobia, the fear of unfamiliar foods—high levels of that are associated with poorer food preferences.”

The 230 mother and child pairs from the control group of the NOURISH randomised control trial gave full data including questionaries collected at assessment clinics at four months-old, 14 months and two years-old.

Covariates like the mother’s BMI, age, education, and breast feeding information were accounted for and statistically weighted.

“A lot of these characteristics of mums and things like breastfeeding duration and the baby’s birth weight, and the age they are first given solids, may in some ways relate to the children’s food preferences.”

For example higher maternal BMI (four months after birth) was associated with the child having tried more non-core foods.

UWA Centre for Child Research’s Wendy Oddy says a child’s food preferences start in utero and maintaining healthy food habits before, during and after pregnancy is vital.

“It’s been shown that the child will have preference for the types of foods the mother consumes while she’s pregnant, because fragments of those foods are in the amniotic fluid and the baby gets a taste of all the foods the mother eats all the way through pregnancy,” Professor Oddy says.

“Breast milk ... will have fragments of the mother’s diets so they’re getting tastes of lots of different foods through the breast milk.”

She says ensuring healthy eating preferences is as simple as only offering healthy foods to children from a young age so they don’t develop tastes for the unhealthy foods.

“Make healthier alternatives like using healthy oils, have lots of vegetables and fruits and also things like chickpeas, legumes and wholegrains—incorporate really healthy and nutritious alternatives into the diet all the time so it becomes a habit,” she says.

Data collected from the full cohort of NOURISH children from three-and-a-half to four-years-old will be investigated for long term consequences of early food variety and neophobia.

Renee Sizer