All children go through a stage of fussy eating. Consultant paediatric dietitian Ruth Charles tells us why it’s important to start early if you want to encourage your child to eat a variety of foods from the beginning.
Virtually every young child goes through some level of picky eating at one time or another. Parents who have the children who turn out to be ‘good eaters’ will tell you that the key to successfully navigating these stages is to put firm and healthful eating habits in place from the beginning, and then stick to them, even when the going gets rough.
If you want to raise kids who don’t put up a fight every time a new dish or a vegetable is set before them – start thinking now, in the early eating days, about your food and dining choices. By learning how to work with, rather than against, children’s natural instincts, adults can actually reduce feeding conflicts while at the same time teaching a lifelong enjoyment of healthy foods. Teaching children to eat well using the powerful tools of development feels natural and easy, and many parents report a sense of freedom when apparently intractable struggles with a difficult eater seem to melt away.”
The following seven points are particularly helpful during the first three years, when healthy eating habits are being established.
1. Accept a division of control
One of the important elements of encouraging good eating habits is to give children control over how much food they eat. Children have the biological signals that determine hunger, fullness and whether a particular food looks and smells appealing. What this means is that children’s day-to-day calorie intakes are surprisingly constant even though any given meal may be extremely large or small. So parents and caregivers should focus on putting healthy foods on the table that children can reasonably be expected to enjoy, and then, most importantly, let the children exercise control of portion size.
Recognise your child’s hunger signs
Learning to recognise children’s signals of hunger and fullness is very helpful. A young infant signals hunger by crying, fist chewing, or looking irritable. An older baby signals that she wants to continue eating by leaning forward, watching her bowl, and even opening her mouth for more when she has swallowed the last mouthful. As she starts to get full, she will take smaller amounts off the spoon and will swallow more slowly.
Finally, she refuses to open her mouth, turns her head away, or lets the last spoonful dribble back out. Most two-year olds can tell you if they are hungry, but they may not. Fussiness before lunchtime or sitting unusually pale or still usually means that a child has become hungry early. A small low-calorie snack will keep him in good humour until mealtime.
Know when they have had enough
Likewise, food signals during meals will tell you how full a child is. Most two year-olds start off eating at a great rate when they are hungry. Big spoonfuls, crammed in at a rapid pace, are completely normal. Halfway through the meal, the child eats at a more leisurely pace, stopping to talk and look around.
Toward the end of the meal, spoonfuls will go in at perhaps a quarter of the rate they did at the beginning. Avoiding persuasion is also an important element of growing a healthy eater. As much as babies and toddlers want to imitate what and how adults eat, they’ll instinctively reject foods that we actively encourage or use incentives or demands to promote.
2. Exploit the 12 – 21 month ‘window of opportunity’
From about 12 to 21 months, babies and young children try to put everything in their mouths, and it is a great time for getting all safe foods accepted and enjoyed. By the time a child is two, he or she can have a repertoire of 100 to 200 healthy foods that are recognised, eaten and enjoyed.
3. Use the power of dietry variety
Most children older than about eight months instinctively seek food variety unless their life is unsettled or they are discouraged. In fact, they often push their parents and caregivers to provide variety by refusing to touch what they ate yesterday.
This is a common source of irritation, but can be viewed much more positively if parents think of it as nature’s way of making sure that children get all the essential micronutrients they need.
Almost any menu can supply enough calories and protein, but only a varied diet with a rotating supply of different vegetables, fruits and protein sources can supply the right balance of vitamins and minerals required for lifelong health.
Adults can make an ally of children’s variety instinct to minimise fussiness. Many food refusals are caused by boredom, and demands for less healthy foods are often a plea for something different. If children are offered a varied and interesting selection of the foods adults want them to like, and a very limited variety of less healthy items, they will naturally gravitate to the foods their caregivers want them to enjoy.
A different vegetable or two with dinner every night of the week provides healthy variety, while keeping only one brand of plain biscuits in the house keeps an excessive biscuit habit from forming. Plain staples, such as milk, bread, and cereal, which are eaten for hunger and thirst, should be offered every day.
Changing the appearance, taste or texture of food provides variety. For example, potatoes can be baked or mashed; chicken can be served as fingers or in a stir-fry.
4. Overcome caution with the ‘rule of 15’
Being patient with cautiousness also brings rewards. It can drive parents crazy if they don’t know why it’s happening, and it may even make them give up on trying to introduce their children to healthy choices.
Kids are cautious for a reason
But imagine yourself at age two in the long-ago past, when humans were hunter-gatherers. You are now able to move around independently, and perhaps you are encouraged to do so because your mother has a new baby on the way. While a small amount of something poisonous would probably not kill you, a whole meal might.
A tendency to nibble something several times before making a whole meal of it would enable you to find out which wild foods were good to eat while also minimising the chance of poisoning. Put in the context of our human ancestors, the cautiousness of a two-year-old makes perfect sense. What parents need to do about this very basic instinct is be patient but persistent. Research studies have shown that it is necessary to offer a child of two years or older a particular food up to 15 times until it is accepted and enjoyed.
Yes, there is some potential for food waste, but children’s portions are small. At home, parents can eat the food a child rejects themselves or freeze it for another meal. Don’t try to offer the food in question at every meal. Let it go for several days, then offer it again. It may be rejected again – and again – and it is very important to treat the rejection as inconsequential.
By all means say, “Okay, I’ll eat it,” but don’t use bribery, threats, or active encouragement or you will encourage instinctive rejection. At some point, the child will suddenly accept the new food, perhaps even eating a whole portion with gusto, without ever realising that you wanted him to do so.
5. Create bridges of familiarity to speed up acceptance of new foods
Children, like adults, learn by comparing new experiences to their internal blueprint of familiar ones, and this is as true for foods as for other things in life.
Appearance, taste and texture are all things a baby or child notices when given new food, and each item is compared to memories of alreadyfamiliar foods. A child recognises that roasted chicken is similar to grilled chicken, but understands that carrots are very different. By exploiting similarities, parents can gradually move a conservative child from one similar food to another and increase the repertoire of healthy foods with minimal fuss and bother. You can also build a bridge of familiarity to rescue a difficult food.
At 18 months, Dr. Susan Roberts’ (author of How to Feed Babies and Toddlers in the 21st Century) daughter didn’t like roast chicken, a family favourite, and seemed about to prove an exception to the rule of 15. So she was switched to chicken nuggets and chicken with barbecue sauce and enjoyed them. Pretty soon, she was enjoying roast chicken, too!
6. Expect imitation – of yourself and others
This means that it is most important for parents to be good role models and keep undesirable influences outside. When a nine-month-old sees you enjoying squash, she wants to do the same. The same is true for a two-and-ahalf year old, although she is instinctively more conservative and may need to watch you several times before trying it.
Kids learn to love virtually anything that they see their parents really enjoy, from ants (in some parts of Africa) to raw fish (in Japan) and snails (in France). They also imitate peers. Tomatoes and carrots refused at home may become favourites when friends are observed to enjoy them.
Watching and learning
What you don’t eat at home is as important as what you do. When you keep sweets out of the house, your child will probably never learn to crave them, even if you love them and eat them when you are at work. However, children will sooner or later encounter sweets, crisps, soft drinks and other unhealthy foods at the homes of friends and family, at birthday parties, and on excursions.
As they become more aware of the world around them, they may also try requesting unhealthy foods they have seen in commercials on television. If you take the position that it is generally fine for children to try modest amounts of different things and at the same time keep outside influences outside, you establish the important principle that home food is different from outside food. Children are remarkably place-specific in their food requests, which makes maintaining a healthy home or child care menu much easier than it might sound.
7. Get young children involved with food
From the time they can walk and talk well, many children seem to like nothing better than getting involved with food. They are thrilled to plant a seed, thrilled to see that it has come up and thrilled to pick the crop when it is ready to eat.
They also love to cook, and will proudly make a simple salad dressing years before they can write or count with competence. Parents can use this interest in food and growing things as a way to introduce their children to foods they otherwise might not eat, especially vegetables.
Poking around the garden, making dinner together, and even talking about items while shopping together at the supermarket, can all be valuable ways to make otherwise-unglamorous foods interesting. Busy working parents may not have the time or energy for these activities except perhaps on weekends, but they can look for child care settings where these activities are part of the ‘curriculum.’
Good foods to try include:
- All fresh fruits and vegetables – raw and cooked, plain and dressed. (Avoid hard raw vegetables such as carrots and celery until babies start chewing food, and even then cut in small strips to prevent choking.)
- Breads, low-fat crackers, low-sugar cereals, pasta, potatoes, rice, tortillas, and cooked grains. Include regular modest amounts of high-fibre types so children will learn to like them, but don’t expect 12-21-month-olds to eat large portions because fibre requirements are low at this age.
- All kinds of meats, poultry, fish and shellfish, except those containing nitrites (such as most hot dogs, ham, bologna, sausage and bacon).
- Dairy products, including milk, eggs, yoghurt, and cheese (butter and cream in moderation).
- Beans and peas, and bean products such as tofu.
- Foods with small amounts of spices and herbs – even tiny pieces of the herbs themselves, so that children can learn their taste.
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