Taste and Smell: The Foundation to Healthy Nutrition

As the parent of a child who lives on grilled cheese sandwiches and chicken nuggets, developing healthy eating habits in children has always been a mystery to me. Nutritionists tell us that the senses of taste and smell are developing even in the womb, and parents can begin to support their children's nutritional health by eating a healthy diet throughout their pregnancy, and by breastfeeding – whenever possible – for at least six months.

Experts also suggest introducing infants and toddlers to a variety fruits, vegetables, meats, and grains generally starting at 8 or 9 months. (Introduce these foods one at a time to watch for any allergies.) They also tell us that children often need to sample a food multiple times (perhaps as often as 15 [!] times) before they develop a taste for it. Parents also model nutritional behaviors through their own eating habits. As one mother put it, "I think generally, the goal is to just keep offering healthy options and eat them yourself."

Feeding is one of the fundamental ways to care for young children, and meals offer a way to spend precious time together as a family. Not only the foods children eat, but also the experiences they associate with eating will influence both their early development as well as their lifelong eating habits. For both children and adults, nutrition is a key to cognitive processing and emotional regulation, and is a significant component of maintaining a healthy weight. But providing a healthy diet is a challenge for many families.

Across the country, many young children do not receive the nutrients they need. This is true across income levels, but more so for low-income children. Many families do not have the knowledge or resources to provide nutritious foods for themselves or their children.

In Memphis, many families with young children struggle with food insecurity, making it difficult to prioritize nutrition. Compared to infants and toddlers in families that do not have to worry about having enough healthy food to eat, children under age 3 living in food-insecure homes are:1,2

  • Twice as likely to be in poor health
  • A third more likely to spend time in the hospital
  • 76 percent more likely to have problems in cognitive, language, and behavioral development

Parents facing food shortages are likely to resort to cheaper, calorie-heavy foods, and children in these families are more likely to over-eat when food is plentiful.3,4 These issues matter in Memphis, where financial hardship makes it difficult for many families to provide regular, nutritious meals for their children.

Not only does poor nutrition lead to diminished cognitive and motor development in early childhood, but children tend to develop taste preferences for the foods they eat early in life. In turn, food insecure children are more likely to perform poorly when they reach kindergarten. Nutrition is a keystone for optimal early brain development and kindergarten readiness.

Even a child's adult health is influenced by early childhood nutrition. The immune systems of children who received nutritious diets are stronger than children with improper nutrition, and food insecure children have a higher chance of becoming obese than food-secure children.

Babies in Memphis face a range of risks to their lifetime well-being. Food insecurity and poor nutrition should not be on their plate.


Rose-Jacobs R., Black MM, Casey PH, et al. Household food insecurity: associations with at-risk infant and toddler development. Pediatrics. 2008; 121: 65-72.

Hager ER, Quigg AM, Black MM, et al. Development and validity of a 2-item screen to identify families at risk for food insecurity. Pediatrics. 2010; 126: 26-32.

Rosales FJ, Reznick JS, Zeisel SH. Understanding the role of nutrition in the brain and behavioral development of toddlers and preschool children: identifying and addressing methodological barriers. Nutritional Neuroscience. 2009; 12(5): 190–202.

Food Research and Action Center. Food hardship: a closer look at hunger. 2010. Available at: http://frac.org/newsite/wp-content/uploads/2010/01/food_hardship_report_2010.pdf Accessed March 1, 2011.