Beginning around nine months when most children move away from blended baby food to solid foods there is a significant shift from a relatively well-balanced diet of fruits, vegetable and whole grains to one that increasingly is dominated by sweets, salty snacks and sugar-sweetened beverages, according to analysis of data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey presented at the Experimental Biology conference in early April.
According to the research, which included 11 years of data focused on the dietary patterns of 0- to 2-year-olds, by the time children are one year old less than 30% eat vegetables on any given day and those who do mostly eat potatoes.
In addition, most children eat only about one-third the recommended amount of whole grains, according to the research, which was commissioned by baby food maker Beech-Nut Nutrition Co.
At the same time, about 40% of babies eat brownies, cookies, crackers and salty snacks, the report notes.
The result is “by the time they are a year old, most children are having as much sodium as is recommended as the upper limit for a 150 pound adult,” said Nicole Silber, a registered dietitian and pediatric nutrition expert contracted by Beech-Nut Nutrition Company
She explained to FoodNavigator-USA that these “remarkable” findings are due in part to parents not understanding how or what to feed their children.
“Parents have great intentions with how to feed their babies, but there really aren’t good guidelines for children under 2 years,” she said, noting that the current US Dietary Guidelines start at age 2. However, she added, efforts are underway to develop guidelines for younger children for the 2020 dietary guidelines.
Until then, she said, food manufacturers can help fill the information void – and build brand awareness and consumer trust – by providing educational resources to teach parents what foods to feed their children and how much.
For example, she lauded Beech-Nut for providing in-depth but manageable resources on its blog about how best to introduce solid foods to children – including a web video series featuring Silber.
Offer children a full sensory eating experience
Manufacturers also can help parents teach children to eat healthier by offering products with a full sensory experience that allow children to touch, see and smell the ingredients to help them understand what food is, develop their palates and establish an attraction to healthy ingredients.
“Children need foods that are vibrant, exciting colors and strong flavors,” she said.
She discourages parents and manufacturers from falling for the old trope that children don’t want savory foods with herbs and bold spices.
“Kids should eat the same foods as adults, but in smaller portions,” she said.
Back off the fruit
Manufacturers and parents should reconsider how much fruit or fruit-based products to feed children as a way to limit their intake of sugar and curb their craving for sweets later in life, Silber said.
She acknowledged that fruit is healthy, but she said most children just need one or two servings of it a day, and parents should try to select products that are more vegetable-forward or savory to help develop a wider range of taste desires. This in turn could lead to a new area of product development for some manufacturers.
Extend the use of baby food
Finally, Silber recommends, that manufacturers of baby foods promote ways to extend consumption of their products beyond the year mark by using them as an ingredient in more complex meals.
For example, she said, for picky eaters who don’t like vegetables, mixing veggie based baby foods into pancakes is a good way to sneak the foods into children. Another option is to swirl fruit-forward baby food into unsweetened yogurt as a way to cut down on added sugar of sweetened yogurt and incorporate more fruits.