Since the 1950s, most American babies’ first solid foods—per pediatricians’ advice—have been safe, bland, refined rice cereal and high-heat-processed, jarred baby foods. Today, a growing number of children’s health experts insist parents can do much better than that.

To make rice cereal, most of the fiber, vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients are stripped out of the rice, which is a nutritional disaster for babies, says Alan Greene, MD, author of Feeding Baby Green (Jossey-Bass, 2009). In fact, highly processed cereal not only robs babies of flavorful, nutrient-rich whole foods, but it may also set them up for a lifetime preference for less healthy foods. Here’s the new advice on how to “imprint” healthy tastes for life.

What is nutrition imprinting?

Initial research indicates the first foods baby eats—and, even before that, the foods mom eats—can have a lifelong impact on her developing palate. Earlier research has also linked prenatal and early postnatal nutrition to risks for developing diet-related chronic diseases such as metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular disease, and obesity in adulthood. Overall, this “imprinting” research suggests humans are born with a taste blueprint, and early experiences can determine whether a child will prefer quinoa or french fries later in life.

“The foods you eat while you’re nursing come through in breast milk, so babies get a sense of different flavor profiles before they even take a bite of solid food,” says Anni Daulter, author of Organically Raised (Rodale, 2010). “The more variety you eat, the more your baby’s palate gets prepped for different foods.”

As babies grow, most jarred baby foods—although undeniably convenient—fall short on flavor and nutrition. “Baby food you buy off the shelf may have been heated to 500 degrees; that kind of heating kills all of the pathogens, but it also kills the color, flavor, and nutritional value,” says Daulter. Gently steaming, stewing, or roasting fruits and vegetables kills most pathogens while preserving more nutrients.