4 Steps to Build Healthy Eating Habits

Feeding your infant or toddler can sometimes feel daunting, especially if you're a first-time caregiver or dealing with a picky eater. 

Despite the challenge, there are many helpful tips that can make the process of starting complementary foods a lot easier on new parents and caregivers. A patient approach based on the principles of responsive feeding can help infants and toddlers build healthy eating patterns for life.

Starting early, even as early as pregnancy, is key to getting your infant’s diet off on the right foot. Some research has shown that the tastes that fetuses are exposed to in the womb can actually help shape their innate preferences for certain foods. So, if you’re pregnant, that salad you had at lunch may be doing much more than nourishing your growing baby. The flavors of those veggies may actually shape your baby’s taste preferences via the amniotic fluid, and make your baby more likely to accept these healthy foods when they are introduced later in infancy.

Most infants are ready for their first complementary foods around the age of 6 months. Remember that complementary foods are the first foods introduced to help “complement” breastmilk or formula. So the term “complementary” is very purposeful. These foods aren’t meant to replace breastmilk or formula, which should still be the primary source of calories and nutrients during the first year of life. The main role of complementary foods is to help the infant learn how to eat. Gradually varying the tastes and textures in your baby's diet is one important strategy to build their appetite for a variety of healthy foods.

Mealtime is also a great opportunity to bring the whole family together. Be present and engaged with your infant during feeding. This can help make mealtimes more fun for the whole family, and help your infant view eating as a positive experience.  Also, your infant is always watching and learning from you, even when you may not realize it. Modeling is a great way to get your child to try new foods. If you are feeding your infant a new food, try some too. Research suggests that this may make your infant more likely to accept the new food.

Use this infographic to get started on the basics of a responsive feeding approach. These four tips, along with the Starting Solids resource, will help demystify the process of infant and toddler feeding.

This blog post includes contributions from Julia Werth, a dietetic intern at the University of Maryland.