The palatable, energy-dense foods that characterize modern environments can promote unhealthy eating habits, along with humans' predispositions to accept sweet tastes and reject those that are sour or bitter. Yet food preferences are malleable, and examining food preference learning during early life can highlight ways to promote acceptance of healthier foods.
This narrative review describes research from the past 10 years focused on food preference learning from the prenatal period through early childhood (ages 2-5 years). Exposure to a variety of healthy foods from the start, including during the prenatal period, early milk-feeding and the introduction to complementary foods and beverages, can support subsequent acceptance of those foods. Yet development is plastic, and healthier food preferences can still be promoted after infancy.
In early childhood, research supports starting with the simplest strategies, such as repeated exposure and modelling, reserving other strategies for use when needed to motivate the initial tasting necessary for repeated exposure effects to begin. This review can help caregivers and practitioners to promote the development of healthy food preferences early in life.
Specific implementation recommendations, the role of individual differences and next steps for research in this area are also discussed.
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