Have a kid who will only chow down on plain rice or bread-crumbed nuggets and sweets? You count yourself lucky to get a tiny piece of veg on past their lips.
Well, it really doesn’t have to be this way. By setting the foundations of healthy, balanced eating with your little one now, you’ll be able to maximise your chances of fuss-free mealtimes and a healthy diet later.
Here’s what to do…
1) Encourage more adventurous tastes
Picky eating is partly genetic. Some children are simply born fussier than others. But that doesn’t mean parents should just accept picky eating. Encouraging a diverse palate can help you counter this tendency.
Professor Marion Hetherington, a biopsychologist at the University of Leeds in the UK, believes that what parents do when introducing solid foods can make a significant difference. “Research has shown that if babies are given a wide range of healthy foods from 6 months onwards, they are likely to develop healthy eating habits.”
Nobody loves every type of food. Accepting this can take the pressure off your child and reduce any fussiness.
2) Introduce variety in the first weeks of solids
Younger babies tend to accept new textures and flavours more readily than slightly older ones, when a certain natural wariness kicks in. By bringing as many different foods to them between 6 months (when you start to wean) and 9 months, you’ll maximise the chances of your baby happily eating them longer term.
And we do mean lots — aim to offer five different fruits and vegetables every week. To make the most of this window of opportunity, vary the textures too.
“If vegetables or lumpy textures are only given at, say, 9 months of age, then this predicts lower acceptance of vegetables and fussier eating later in childhood,” Professor Hetherington explains.
3) Sneak veg into your baby’s milk (yes, really!)
The idea of mixing vegetables and milk might turn your grown-up stomach, but this can be a very effective way of ensuring that baby gives them a go.
Professor Hetherington explains, “At around 6 months, add some vegetable purée to breast or formula milk, to give [them] just a taste of this new food using a spoon. After exposing your baby to a range of vegetables in milk in this way, say over 12 days, then try vegetable purée in baby rice.
“Finally, gradually reduce the rice component to offer pure vegetable. This will ensure that your baby is given the new flavour alongside a well-liked one.”
4) Be persistent — it may pay dividends
You’ve fed your tot some carrot — or squash, or broccoli — and they’re making that screwed up, “no way” face. No doubt they’ll use their tongue to push it all back out of their mouth. Or spit.
At this point, it’s easy to give up and assume they’ll never like this offending food. But stick with it. “Most new vegetables take at least five to 10 exposures to be accepted — possibly even more,” says Professor Hetherington. “This is the case both with babies and older children, so keep at it!”
5) Watch out for the first sign of reluctance
Even if they were unfussy babies, many children become fussier as toddlers. This could well be a natural instinct: At this age, little ones might begin to move around more independently of their parents. Biologically, being averse to picking up and eating unknown foods — or non-foods — helps keep them from danger.
“At around 24 months, infants become neophobic — fearful of new foods,” explains Professor Hetherington. “This means they’re likely to reject them and even reject those they previously liked.”
Frustrating? Very! But the good news is that most children do grow out of this. In the meantime, keep calm, carry on dishing up and don’t make a fuss about the irritating new preferences your tot seems to have developed. By keeping mealtimes relaxed and not giving attention to this behaviour, they can move on from this fussy stage more quickly.
“Most new vegetables take at least five to 10 exposures to be accepted — possibly even more.”
6) Pair familiar and unfamiliar foods
Young children seem to get overwhelmed by too much newness on their plate all at once. By combining new and old tastes together in a more grown-up version of the milk-and-veg trick above, sampling something becomes a less intimidating experience.
Researchers demonstrated the impact this can have when they presented groups of children with new-to-them types of chips and either a familiar or unfamiliar dip. Those with the familiar dip were more likely to try the new chips. So, perhaps make your toddler’s usual pasta sauce, but serve it with gnocchi instead of their usual Thomas the Tank Engine pasta. Or add a tiny bit of their favourite cheese sauce to a new vegetable.
Plus, you know that if they don’t touch that strange new thing on the plate, they can still fill their tummy with the rest of the meal.
7) Don’t push them too hard to “just try it”
Mealtimes can so easily turn into a stressful battle of wills, but research has demonstrated that pushing children too hard to taste something can be counterproductive.
Researchers quoted in the academic journal Appetite explained that preschoolers who were pressured to eat actually consumed significantly less than those who were not, and they made more negative comments, too. So, ease up to get them to gobble up!
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