6 ways to make mealtimes fun

Here are the six most common feeding curveballs and the best solutions if the food starts to fly.

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Teething troubles

Bouts of teething usually start from around 6 months. When your baby is teething or poorly, once foodie-favourites are rejected as mouths get sore and your baby’s just plain crotchety. “Your child might not be eating because he has a cold coming and doesn’t even know it, or a headache that he can’t tell you about,” says child nutritionist Judy More, author of Happy Toddler Mealtimes.

Tackle the curveball Hang in there. Illness and teething pass, and if your baby needs the food enough, he will eat it. “Babies and children don’t need the same amount of food every day,” says More. It’s more important to ensure your baby stays hydrated if he is unwell.

When babies assert themselves

If your baby used to be happy to let mummy guide him in his food choices but is suddenly batting
 away reliable favourites, he might be discovering
 his independence. This is particularly common at around nine months, when babies realise they have preferences and want to assert themselves. “Even little people don’t like being told what to do and how to do it,” says consultant child psychologist Emma Citron.

Tackle the curveball Give your baby finger food he can enjoy on his own terms. Or offer him a spare spoon to play with while you use another spoon to feed him. “That way, you give the impression he has independence, even if you’re masterminding
it otherwise,” says Citron. If your baby still isn’t interested, leave it. “Don’t make the dinner table a battleground, the most important thing is to keep mealtimes as happy and relaxed as possible.”

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Close an eye to the mess

You’ve encouraged your baby to use his fingers, but suddenly food has become a toy. To a baby who’s in the first few stages of eating, typically from 6 to 9 months, meals can get messy: Mashed potato balls fly across the room and upside-down sippy cups become fascinating waterfalls.

Tackle the curveball Make mealtimes more relaxed by letting go of the mess. “The idea of food turning to mush and ending up on the floor isn’t appealing but we have to overcome our own issues about tidiness,” says Citron. “Allowing your child to explore and touch food is an important part of learning to enjoy meals and helps him become independent, so encourage him
to press on.” This is where it’s also wise to watch his snack intake. Babies often play with their food if they’re not hungry and have eaten too much between meals. “But if your child is hungry, don’t worry, he will get enough food in his mouth,” Citron says.

When baby is too tired to eat

In your baby’s average day, lunch and dinner tend to be the precursor to naptime or bedtime, so meals are all too often at a time when your baby is already at his rattiest.

Tackle the curveball “If you feed your baby just before a nap, he’ll want to sleep more than he’ll want to eat, so that could spell disaster,” says Citron. Make the main meal of the day at lunchtime, when he’s less likely to be completely zonked. And if you’ve missed the boat and he’s rubbing his eyes and shunning foods you know he likes, go off-menu. “Give your baby something small such as a piece of banana or a finger of toast, put him down for a nap, and feed him afterwards when he’s more refreshed and receptive,” Citron suggests. Easy to do at lunchtime, but you won’t want to give him a nap before bedtime. “At the end of the day, a small snack followed by bedtime milk will be enough for an overtired child and is a less stressful way of keeping him nourished,” Citron explains.

Babies want familiar foods

When you start weaning your baby, he’ll discover lots of new tastes pretty quickly. But at around 18 months, a once-happy eater can become very fussy, only wanting the same foods. “It’s thought toddlers tend to eat familiar foods because of in-built self-preservation,” More says.

“In the second year, children are able to walk away from a parent, and if they wandered to a bush and picked red berries or fungi, they could poison themselves.”

Tackle the curveball Understand and accept that it’s a phase. “The mistake parents make is to give the same meal in desperation, but persevere with new foods — it takes about 15 times for a food to become familiar to a child. Keep offering and eat meals together where possible,” More advises. “Children are learning all the time, and if your toddler eats in a social group — with you or at nursery — through role modelling, he will learn that it’s safe to eat new foods.”

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Photos: TPG/Click Photos