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How to introduce spices like cinnamon and garlic to your baby

Move over boring, bland, mushy peas and soggy cereal. Things are really hotting up in the parental kitchen. Sure, we don’t recommend whipping up a fiery red curry for your infant or putting a plate of steaming hot chilli in front of baby, but experts say it’s OK to spice things up — just a little bit.

Including aromatic herbs and a hint of spice into a baby’s or toddler’s diet exposes a child to a more diverse range of foods, enhances the taste and flavour of the food without adding salt or sugar, and introduces them to a whole new world of exciting seasonings.

Adding a little zing to your baby’s foods also has health benefits, as some herbs and spices have therapeutic or disease-fighting qualities. For example, mint is rich in vitamin C and helps with indigestion and inflammation, while rosemary stimulates the immune system. Even anise can help to soothe a colicky baby at night.

So when is a good time to bring on the spice? After your happy little cherub has been on solids for a few months, president of the National Herbalists Association Leah Hechtman says it’s OK to add a dash of spice. When a baby first starts solids, at around six months, according to Hechtman, they need a bit of time to get used to textures, flavours and different food groups. “Spices are best added after 9–10 months,” she says.

Tempting tastebuds

The first foods a baby consumes form a blueprint for the foods they’ll enjoy and it all begins in the womb: if you like a pinch of spice in your foods, your baby will become used to those foods, too.

As a baby develops in the womb, they begin to develop tastebuds at around 7–8 weeks of gestation. Julie Mennella, who studies taste in infants at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in America, says research has found a baby can actually taste flavours in the fluids surrounding the foetus. “Things like vanilla, carrot, garlic, anise, mint — [these] are some of the flavours that have been shown to be transmitted to amniotic fluid,” she says.

The first foods a baby consumes form a blueprint for the foods they'll enjoy and it all begins in the womb.

This concept of ingesting different flavours or “flavour learning” can lead to the foetus developing a preference for those flavours that can persist through infancy and childhood, even onto adulthood. In other words, some of your baby’s food preferences are established even before he or she is born.

Breastfed babies also sample whatever foods their mother ingests. So, by the time many babies are eating solids, they’ve already been exposed to a range of flavoursome rich tastes in utero and through Mum’s breast milk.

Spicy palates

In Southeast Asian countries like Thailand, babies are served up spicy fare; in Korea, children are happily munching on a range of tasty, spicy fare while they are babies. Meanwhile, here in Australia, bubs are slurping up bowls of mushy pumpkin and rice. If they could talk, do you think your baby might just be rolling their little eyes and saying, how about a little more zing?

Accredited practising dietitian and nutritionist Deb Blakley from Kids Dig Food says tastes are as unique as we are, and it doesn’t always hold true that babies prefer plain or bland foods.

Try growing a few fresh herbs at home: parsley, mint, dill and oregano are easy to grow in pots and your toddler will also enjoy helping you water them and picking them when the time is right.

“I work with a lot of families who are dealing with babies rejecting foods and, when you dig a little deeper, you get the sense that the baby prefers strong tastes and flavours that you wouldn’t normally associate with giving a small child,” she says.

In fact, Blakley’s understanding of how young tastes can work evolved in part by doing a little research closer to home. “My child was only four and asked to try some lemons I was cutting up,” she says. “I waited for the ‘I don’t like this’ scrunched-up face, but she just sucked that lemon until there was nothing left. I soon learned that she had a strong preference for sour-tasting fruits rather than sweet ones.”

So next time you are whipping up dinner, add a dash of basil to carrots, grate a little lemon zest into chopped chicken or crush a few cooked garlic cloves into potato mash — you may just find your baby cleans their plate and is looking around for seconds.

Hold the chilli, though

Strong flavour preferences, however, don’t green-light liberal use of all spices. Adding chilli to a young baby’s foods can irritate the gut, causing abdominal pain, cramping and diarrhoea. Hechtman suggests avoiding spices like chilli until a child is at least 18 months old. “If chilli is a staple part of your family’s diet, then they’ll be used to it earlier, so you could start off using it gently, but otherwise it’s best to wait,” she says.

Dispelling the myths

Spice does not have to equate to mouth-numbing, eye-watering heat. Kate Di Prima, an accredited practising dietitian and spokesperson at the Dietitians Association of Australia, says spice is all about aromatic seasoning. “Spice is simply flavour. People become frightened of the word, but it doesn’t have to mean a fiery vindaloo or very hot curry,” she says.

Di Prima says introducing a baby’s palate to herbs and spices builds on their culinary repertoire at an early age, which is important. “Babies need to be exposed to different tastes early, sampling foods with international flavours like ginger, garlic, coriander, basil and sundried tomatoes,” she says. “Adding spice adds flavour to foods without adding unnecessary salt or sugar.”

Another reason some parents might hold off adding herbs and spice is because of a belief that spice contributes to colic in babies. This is a commonly held misconception: colic occurs across different cultures and is equally common in babies who are bottle fed and breast fed.

"Spice is simply flavour. People become frightened of the word, but it doesn't have to mean a fiery vindaloo or very hot curry."

Neonatal paediatrician Dr Howard Chilton says colic isn’t exacerbated by spicy foods at all. Its root cause, he says, is linked to overstimulation, often at the end of the day. When baby attempts to self soothe, they suck, overfeed, ingest air and then become uncomfortable.

Spices have also earned a dubious rep as a contributing factor in food allergies yet, according to estimates by the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, spice allergy is responsible for only 2 per cent of food allergies.

Natural substances found in herbs and spices (as well as a wide variety of fruits and vegetables) may contribute to some food intolerances, however. Blakley says organic compounds, such as salicylates and amines, can build up over time and create a gut reaction, with symptoms such as diarrhoea, constipation, stomach upset or irritability.

If your baby shows signs of an allergy, such as itching or eczema, or symptoms of a possible food intolerance, check with your health professional for further advice.

Turning down the heat

When you sip or chew foods, the moment the food touches your tongue, your tiny little taste receptors snap to attention, creating a chemical reaction and sending messages pinging along to your brain that what you’re eating is sweet, sour, salty, bitter or savoury (umami).

Spicy food is subjective. What sends one person chugging down pitchers of milk to quell the heat sends another’s tastebuds soaring into orbit. So, basically, what is too much spice for some is bordering on bland for another.

But when it comes to spicing things up for babies and toddlers, there’s another important factor to consider: infants have around 30,000 tastebuds or receptors and adults only around 10,000.

When introducing spices to children, Blakley says less is always more. “Remember, your children will pick up the flavours more quickly than you will because their palate is so sensitive,” she says.

When you are adding new taste sensations to your child’s diet, be it herbs, spices or other foods, don’t rush it — but, equally, don’t take it too slowly. That’s Blakley’s advice, based on a quantum shift in thinking by experts over the past few years. “The old approach, of introducing a new food and waiting a few days to see if there was any reaction to it meant kids were getting to 12 months of age with only a very narrow range of foods they were eating,” she says.

Making it a family affair

If you enjoy spicing up your family’s food, just tone things down a little for babies or toddlers. Di Prima says it’s important not to get into the habit of serving up one meal for adults and another for the kids. “It’s OK to expose them gradually to natural favour enhancements, herbs and spices; by 12 months of age my benchmark is children should be having a derivative of what the family has,” she says.

Ground, dried or fresh?

Fresh herbs are, of course, more nutrient dense than those that have sat on the shelf for months. However, dried or ground herbs are usually more potent than fresh herbs, so add a little less. Try growing a few fresh herbs at home: parsley, mint, dill and oregano are easy to grow in pots and your toddler will also enjoy helping you water them and picking them when the time is right. Pick as needed and wrap any leftovers in paper towel in the fridge. Store dried herbs in airtight containers in a cool place and regularly check use-by dates for freshness.

Say no to salt

The National Health and Medical Research Council advocates a healthy intake of 460–920mg of sodium per day, or 1.15–2.3g of salt. However, most Australians consume 10g  — around five times that amount. Too much salt from an early age can mean developing a “salt-adapted palate” so, without a liberal sprinkling of it at the table, food may taste bland without it. Don’t add salt to your baby’s food. Add herbs and spices instead to give food a flavoursome health boost.

DIY baby food

Making your own foods for baby instead of opting for store-bought varieties allows you to have a little more input into ensuring they have fresh, nutritious ingredients in their meals. By making your own baby food, you can start to experiment with different flavour combinations, textures and aromas. For very young babies, try adding a small amount of vanilla to apple, ginger to mashed pears or cinnamon to yogurt. To spice up a vegie selection for your baby, try cardamom and sweet potato or pumpkin with a dash of nutmeg. Experiment with spice blends to see what your baby enjoys.

As baby grows, you can introduce a range of finger foods with added spice to tempt their tastebuds. Enjoy experimenting with herb and spice flavour combinations, unleash your inner chef and your whole family will benefit!

Spice rack

To get your little one used to added zest, start with mild spices such as cinnamon, fennel, dill and lavender, then introduce other flavour enhancers such as garlic and onion. Here are some more suggestions from Leah Hechtman:

  • Cinnamon added to stewed fruits is therapeutically supportive to warm the body (helpful with newborn circulation challenges) and warm digestion (helps them digest foods more easily).
  • Fennel is a great carminative (relieves gas). The essential oil content eases wind and helps the release of digestive enzymes to break down and assimilate foods eaten. Great for colic or tummy upsets as well.
  • Dill is also a carminative but is gentler and milder-tasting than fennel. Excellent when added to a vegetable mash for windy babies.
  • Lavender flowers can be added to baked goods to help settle anxious, sleep-averse little ones. Homemade healthy muffins are a good way to include this or make a herbal tea and add to a night-time bottle.
  • Introducing garlic and onion from a young age helps to make these two superfoods a staple inclusion in meals. Onions and garlic are both immune-boosters and excellent for eradicating and protecting the digestive system from gut bugs. As everything goes in babies’ mouths (even sand from sand pits), it’s important to regularly provide support to protect against infections.

Carrol Baker

Carrol Baker

Carrol Baker is an award-winning freelance journalist who is a passionate advocate of natural health and wellness. She writes for lifestyle and healthy-living magazines across Australia and internationally.

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