Importance of texture
Starting solid foods not only provides nutrition, but also gives them a valuable opportunity to learn about different tastes, smells, and textures, an important milestone for all babies. Whilst taste is often talked about, texture often isn’t discussed, but this can be just as important.
Introducing whole foods exposes babies and toddlers to a range of textures is key in getting them to move on from soft, pureed foods.
Texture in foods: Learning to chew
It is crucial that from around seven to eight months, babies learn to chew. At this stage in their development, babies should have the ability to chew their food (some babies at six months are ready to munch on soft finger foods). You can offer a mix of soft or mashed food, but it’s good to offer foods that require chewing.
If you do not offer these foods at this stage, babies have been found to have a strong preference for their foods to be extremely soft. This can not only be frustrating but limits the range of foods they will eat and can impact their nutritional intake.
I’ve seen it a lot where small children only like yoghurt, fruit and plain pasta. These foods are great as part of a varied, balanced diet, but if that is all they are eating, that limits the food and doesn’t make space for nutrient-rich vegetables and protein. The longer it takes to introduce, the harder it becomes to introduce later on.
Like any new introduction, they may reject the food change initially – however over time these harder foods will become familiar and accepted.
When it comes to whole foods, a common concern is a fear of choking. However, many soft finger foods easily break down in the mouth, even if there are no teeth. Foods like cooked carrot, broccoli or bread. Small, hard round pieces of food such as whole nuts, popcorn, and raw hard vegetables like raw carrot, cherry tomatoes, olives or grapes need to be avoided until your baby is older, as these foods can get stuck.
On the other hand, mixed sandwiches on wholegrain bread, pieces of cooked pasta, strips of chicken or red meat, cooked vegetable pieces and cheese sticks are all important nutrient-rich foods that small children will benefit from eating regularly – both from a nutritional and developmental perspective.
Why texture is so important
Little ones can be incredibly picky about texture – try offering mushrooms or avocado to most toddlers and you will know what I mean! But we adults can be just as particular about texture, even if we do not realise that is what makes us reject something.
Not only does the texture of a food play a huge role in whether we will initially accept or reject a food after that first mouthful. It is also essential in identifying it! Babies exploring new pureed foods do not necessarily know what food is in its whole form, but it’s the same for adults. Research has been done where food was pureed and given to adults – who could only identify less than half of the foods pureed! Flavour alone is not enough.
And the same goes for giving your baby’s food.
Babies and adults alike are sensitive to texture. But babies do not yet have the memories and experiences we associate with a particular texture. They rely a lot on touch, which is an important part of their development and should be encouraged, not only for learning what a food feels like in the hand, but also for that important pincer grip and hand-eye coordination. But as well as touch, and the sight of food, the sound (whether a crunch or squeak) and the kinesthetics (sense of movement and position) are also important and part of why we enjoy some foods and others produce an almost physical disgust.
So get them exploring different tastes AND textures from early on, repeated exposure is key in this, as babies and children like what they know. Its messy work, but great fun and has been shown to have enormous implications on a child’s lifelong eating habits and relationship with food.