Notes Dr Leo Deng Jin, a paediatrician at Thomson Paediatric Centre, “It is important to start babies off on healthy food, as it is easier to cultivate such healthy eating habits in infants than when they are older toddlers. Younger infants are also generally more receptive to new food experiences than older children.”
Learning what foods to eat, how to balance a meal and how to widen our palate is crucial to health and is learned through parents and caregiver, adds functional medicine nutritionist and Nutritious N Delicious founder Karin G Reiter. “We also know that children who eat a varied diet have higher levels of nutrients and thus stronger immune systems.”
Not sure how to go about instilling good eating habits in your mini-muncher? Then follow our experts’ advice!
1. Turn off digital devices at mealtimes
Dr Leo advises that babies younger than than 18 months do not get access to any digital media. Toddlers between 18 and 24 months old should not get more than one hour a day of screen time and especially not during mealtimes.
Digital devices such as the TV and mobile phones can prevent your child from focusing on the task at hand― eating. Consequently, your child may end up overeating because they are too distracted.
Dr Leo adds, “When children are too focused on the television screen, they miss out on the chance to observe and learn from adults at the table on the proper way to eat. Being too stimulated by events happening on the TV screen may also distract them from the sensory experience of eating, preventing them from enjoying the food that has been presented in front of them.”
To make sure junior doesn’t see dessert as an attractive reward, don’t use threats… This is to prevent your child from perceiving the meal as something they have to endure in order to get to their final goal (snacks or dessert).
2. Don’t serve sweetened drinks, salt and refined sugars
Choose foods low in refined sugar and avoid using salt when you prepare meals, Dr Leo asserts.
Suggesting that parents remove sweetened drinks and fruit juices from their offspring’s diet, he explains, “An infant who has been given sweet fruit juices from young may become accustomed to it with time, and is likely to continue requesting such unhealthy food or drinks when older.”
Also, chugging sweetened drinks may ruin your child’s appetite at mealtimes. Instead, serve your bub plain water at every meal.
3. Offer a fruit and vegetable at every meal
Noting that fruits and vegetables are powerhouses of nutrition, thanks to the fibre, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants essential for health, Reiter states, “The quicker we start introducing them into our baby’s diet, the better off they are going to be in terms of their immune and digestive system.”
Expose your child to as many different types of fruits and vegetables as possible during meals, so that they become familiar with the texture, taste, colour and smell of these healthy foods.
So that your baby accepts fruits and vegetables as part of a normal daily diet, do not conceal these under other foods such as eggs or cheese.
Reiter says, “For babies, you may have to steam, purée and mash vegetables, but it’s also important for them to observe what the food looks like in its natural form.”
4. Downplay dessert as a reward
To make sure junior doesn’t see dessert as an attractive reward, don’t use threats like “You are not going to get your dessert until you finish your meal”.
This is to prevent your child from perceiving the meal as something they have to endure in order to get to their final goal (snacks or dessert), Dr Leo explains.
Cautioning you against serving sweet desserts, he suggests offering healthier alternatives such as yoghurt with blended or cut fruit.
5. Implement a regular meal and snack schedule
Make sure your child has a good gap of around two hours between milk feeds and formal meal times to ensure that they are adequately hungry for the next meal, Dr Leo advises.
Fixed mealtimes give structure to your baby’s daily routine as well, slowing them her to anticipate the next meal. Dr Leo recommends the following sample feeding schedule for a 6- to 9-month-old baby:
Early morning: Milk feed
Mid-morning snack: Milk feed
Mid-afternoon: Milk feed
Before bed time: Milk feed
Dr Leo warns, “The amount of milk feeds and solids consumed can vary from child to child and should be guided by your child’s hunger cues. Consult your paediatrician if you have any doubts.”
6. Be a role model for your child
Of course, the best way to instil healthy eating habits is to lead by example. We aren’t saying you can’t indulge in some chocolate cake now and then, but family mealtimes should generally consist of a well-balanced meal.
“Serving your child a healthy meal of steamed fish and broccoli while the adults are eating salty or deep-fried food will only send mixed signals to them,” Dr Leo states. “Preparing meals that are healthy and can be shared by the whole family will help your child learn that eating healthy is the only correct way to go.”
7. Be patient when introducing new and healthy foods
So, patience is key when encouraging your mini-me to eat nutritious foods for the first time.
“It takes about 20 times of a child to be offered something to go ahead and try it,” Reiter notes. “Do not give up and never label a child as a picky eater ― be patient and keep offering the healthy foods.”
Though you may face numerous rejections before your bub finally swallows that puréed broccoli or mashed carrot, it’s definitely worth the effort you make to get them to accept healthy foods in their daily diet.
“Do not allow mealtimes to drag on any longer than 30 to 45 minutes, and clear any unfinished food on the table quietly and without judgement.”
8. Do not bribe or berate your child into eating healthy dishes
Both Dr Leo and Reiter also advise against forcing your child to what you serve.
“Respect your baby when they are not interested to eat, and turn their head away or throw the food on the floor,” says Reiter. “Do not try to sneak and trick your baby into eating. A child needs to learn ‘hunger’ and ‘full’ feelings and how to eat by themselves.”
Also, steer clear of berating your bub when they refuse food. “Scolding your child only adds to their stress during mealtimes and can make eating seem unenjoyable,” Dr Leo notes.
He also frowns on bribing your baby by promising treats such as snacks or ice cream if they finish the food on their plate.
“Doing that reinforces the idea that eating healthy food itself is a ‘punishment’, and they will not learn to enjoy the food on its own,” he explains.
9. Make mealtimes fun
Pointing out that babies often learn by observation and are more likely to be more interested to eat if they see other family members doing the same, Dr Leo adds, “Do not allow mealtimes to drag on any longer than 30 to 45 minutes, and clear any unfinished food on the table quietly and without judgement.”
Meals will be more visually appealing if you always put five different colours (of food) on the plate, using the rainbow as your nutritional guide. Reiter quips, “Obviously, the colours should be from fruits and vegetable ― not gummy bears!”
10. Expect mealtimes to get messy
“Mess is crucial for your child to enjoy themselves and learn how to eat well,” Reiter notes. “Children learn through play and even eating needs to be learned through playing ― mashing, throwing and mushing the food is part of the process.
To minimise the mess, place a plastic mat under your baby’s feeding chair.
Allow your child to hold the food or spoon where possible, especially if they are old enough to do so, Dr Leo suggests. Even if it means they’ll make a mess sometimes, this allows them to explore their senses and stimulate their interest in food.
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