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Repas familial.. © INRA, MAITRE Christophe

Dietary practices and their trends

How children acquire food preferences

It is a well-known fact that the diets of young children in many European countries are a far cry from recommendations. Studies have shown that food preferences and variety in diet are formed in part from childhood. That is why it is important to understand the factors associated with the early development of food preferences and habits. Sylvie Issanchou, director of research at INRA, works at the Centre for Taste and Feeding Behaviour in Dijon.

Updated on 09/22/2017
Published on 03/17/2015

To rise to this challenge, different projects based on complimentary approaches are underway at INRA. For example, a cohort study of approximately 300 mother-child duos was set up in Dijon, with a view to understanding how children under the age of two develop food preferences. Likewise, experiments were carried out within the framework of a European project to compare different strategies for helping children learn to accept new vegetables. Different tools were used to conduct these studies, such as questionnaires to gather data on the practices of mothers regarding their children’s diets and how children reacted to sugary or fatty foods, and sensorial tests to evaluate the behaviour of infants and very young children when they encounter different tastes and smells.

Thanks to a survey, it was found that most mothers gave up trying to get their infants to eat a food after three unsuccessful tries. However, the studies have shown that repeated exposure works to increase the consumption of a food initially refused by an infant, or to increase the consumption of an unfamiliar food in infants and toddlers between the ages of two and three.

Findings from within the framework of the Opaline study and from experiments showed that when diets begin to be diversified, the vast majority of children accept new foods. The Opaline study measured the extent to which different parameters come into play in the development of vegetable likings in children up to the age of two. This data modelling confirmed the positive impact of proposing a variety of vegetables during a period of diversification. The analysis also showed that, on the one hand, the more one-year-old children reacted negatively to bitterness and some smells, the less they liked vegetables between the ages of 12 and 15 months, and on the other hand the more often children between the ages of 15 and 21 months ate vegetables, the more they grew to like them. Lastly, the impact of some parental practices was brought to light.

Moreover, it was observed within the framework of the project SweetLip-Kid, financed by the meta-programme DID’IT, that children prefer higher levels of salt and sugar than adults. Despite this, low levels of salt and sugar seem sufficient to promote the adequate intake of food.

In conclusion, the work carried out responds to one of the challenges of the meta-programme DID’IT, namely to characterise food behaviours and dietary practices and describe the mechanisms that shape behaviour. These data also help find ways to get people to adopt a diet more in line with current recommendations.