Food pouches might be easy, but they might not be the best way to serve food to your kids.
That’s according to Courtney Byrd-Williams, behavioral scientist at the University of Texas School of Public Health, who recently oversaw a study about the dietary habits of babies and toddlers in Texas.
They are convenient, appetizing and seemingly healthy, which is why sales continue to grow, but the pouches can adversely affect a child in three ways: their overall eating habits, their experience with new foods and even their muscular development, she says.
When you’re a new eater, this could lead to lifelong struggles to enjoy eating vegetables that don’t taste like apples.
“We found that in most purees, it’s fruit and vegetables combined, and it’s predominantly fruit,” she says. Researchers didn’t find any pouches that were vegetable only, which means “kids aren’t learning to like kale, they are learning that kale tastes a lot like applesauce,” she says. That’s how they start to develop that preference for sweets at such an early age.
Even without added sugar, pureed foods aren’t as nutritional as their whole counterparts. A pouch can contain the same amount of sugar as what’s in several apples, “but not many people sit down and eat three apples in a row.”
Byrd-Williams, who has two children, says she understands the appeal, but she was surprised to see just how many pouches — sometimes more than one at a time — were in the lunchboxes sent to the daycares that were included in the study.
“It’s not about demonizing them, but we worry about overconsumption,” she says. “These pouches are a sometimes food. As long as kids are getting experience with whole foods in addition to the pouches, that’s the most important part.”
Food companies want parents to think that their baby-adapted food products, including pouches, are the only kinds of foods that they can eat, but Byrd-Williams says that you can start feeding a baby with table foods as soon as they are ready for solids, which is at about six months old but can be as early as four months.
This approach, often called baby-led weaning, is the opposite of pouches, she says. By touching food and feeding themselves with their hands, young eaters have a multisensory experience as soon as they start to transition off of a breast milk- or formula-exclusive diet, and that helps them naturally learn how to chew and swallow an array of foods.
When first introducing children to food, you can start with bananas, avocados and other soft foods they can gum, but babies have surprisingly sturdy gums that help break down foods, she says.
Infants have a more sensitive gag reflex than older children, which is nature’s way of keeping them from choking. Some parents, and especially grandparents, Byrd-Williams says, are particularly worried about young children when they trigger their gag reflex, but it’s important to let them try foods at their own pace so they can develop muscles in their mouth and throat that help them chew more kinds of foods and move that food around.
Many parents will introduce a food to a child, and if they don’t like it, the parents will put the food on a list of “no” foods, but instead, Byrd-Williams recommends thinking of those foods as ones that the child is simply learning to like, even if they aren’t yet actually eating it.
Children often require 15 exposures to new foods before they like or accept it, she says, and although it’s a challenge to make food fun, you don’t have to cut up the fruit or vegetables in crazy shapes or serve them in a bento box to get kids to eat them.
Sometimes, the goal is just to have them smell, lick or “kiss” the surface to experience the food’s other sensory elements.
Another important lesson for parents to learn is to trust children when they say they are full. “An infant will turn its head away and that’s them telling them they don’t want it any more,” she says.
“The first thing to soothe a baby shouldn’t be food,” she says. Food can be calming, but you don’t want your child to immediately turn to food when they are seeking a calming activity.
Byrd-Williams says that kids also need role models to show them how to eat a wide variety of foods while sitting down at a table.
For example, if the only vegetables that parents eat are blended into a smoothie, the child isn’t going to learn how to eat whole vegetables on their own.