Mothers wanting their children to eat their greens should consume plenty of vegetables themselves while breast feeding, new research has suggested.
Scientists have discovered that babies' taste buds are primed between the two and five months after birth by the flavours they are exposed to and this can influence their preferences in later life.
Researchers found that children fed a bitter and sour tasting milk formula during these early months of their life continued to like its taste as they grew older and even into adolescence.
Those who were given the milk formula for the first time at six months old rejected the drink.
Dr Gary Beauchamp, director of the Monell Chemical Senses Center, in Philadelphia, who led the research, said it appeared that children's exposure to flavours during these key first few months of their life shaped their taste preferences and therefore food choices in later life.
Babies are typically exposed to low levels of flavour compounds from the food their mothers are eating through their breast milk.
Dr Beauchamp believes breastfeeding mothers can "prime" their children's taste buds to be familiar with fruit and vegetables by eating them themselves. In contrast formula milk is "bland and constant tasting", he said.
"We have demonstrated that there is a very sensitive period between two and five months of age when infants will learn to like these milk formulas," he said.
"This learned preference for formula milk will last at least into adolescence and we believe for their entire lives.
"By exposing infants at this very sensitive period is appears to be possible to make them like something that they would otherwise deem to be horrible.
"If we could enhance consumption of vegetables amongst pregnant and nursing women, it ought to impact on their children's later food choices and result in healthier eating.
"We have yet to do this work, but we would like to run a large-scale trial to see if this would be the case."
Dr Beauchamp presented his findings at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington yesterday. The study has also been published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
Taste preferences are generated through a combination of inherited genes which leaves individuals more sensitive to certain taste and odour molecules.
Earlier research has also shown that infants are exposed to small quantities of their mother's diet while in the womb which can help to prime some of their preferences.
The latest findings now add to the evidence that exposure to different tastes during early life has an impact on what people like and dislike eating as they grow older.
They will also fuel about whether breast feeding babies is better than giving them formula milk.
Campaigners insist that breast feeding can give children a better start as it boosts immune systems as well as being linked to lower risks of heart disease, obesity and cancer in later life.
Dr Beauchamp said: "There is some evidence that if children are exposed to variety, they are more likely to go after a wide variety of food.
"In the breast fed infant, they are routinely exposed to variation in flavours through their mothers milk. In the typical formula milk fed infant, they are exposed to an extremely bland and constant tasting food.
"One concern we have with formula feeding is that infants do not get the varied sensory experience that children who are breast fed get.
"Nutritionally the formula milk is almost identical to human milk as is possible, but from a sensory point of view formula milk is impoverished."