Food habits, an integral part of all cultures, have their beginnings during early life. This chapter reviews the development of the senses of taste and smell, which provide information on the flavor of foods, and discusses how children's innate predispositions interact with early-life feeding experiences to form dietary preferences and habits. Young children show heightened preferences for foods that taste sweet and salty and rejection of that which tastes bitter. These innate responses are salient during development since they likely evolved to encourage children to ingest that which is beneficial, containing needed calories or minerals, and to reject that which is harmful. Early childhood is also characterized by plasticity, partially evidenced by a sensitive period during early life when infants exhibit heightened acceptance of the flavors experienced in amniotic fluid and breast milk. While learning also occurs with flavors found in formulae, it is likely that this sensitive period formed to facilitate acceptance of and attraction to the flavors of foods eaten by the mother. A basic understanding of the development and functioning of the chemical senses during early childhood may assist in forming evidence-based strategies to improve children's diets.
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