Kids, eh? It sometimes seems like your baby turns their nose up at everything. Then as a toddler, they will only chow down on plain pasta or breadcrumbed nuggets and chips. Oh, and you’ll be lucky to get a tiny piece of veg on their fork, never mind past their lips.
Your toddler's emotions are all over the place which can often result in a mealtime meltdown. No one wants to find themselves pandering to the whims of a pint-sized food dictator, but how do you stop your kids being fussy? Well, if we try to understand why children have picky eating habits there are plenty of things we can do to encourage them. We fill you in on everything you need to know about fussy eating - how you should deal with it, what you should feed little ones and even a quiz to help you find out exactly what type of fussy eater your little one is.
Why are babies and toddlers fussy eaters?
A study on children's eating habits, conducted by global healthcare company Abbott, found that a staggering 80% of UK parents have children who are fussy eaters. According to the research, some parents spend anything up to an hour EVERY meal time tempting their child to eat their food.
So fussy eating is clearly a phenomenon that lots of parents are dealing with. But why is it that toddlers are often picky about food? The simple answer is that most children go through a phase of picky eating between 1 and 3 years old. It may be down to developmental reasons: their weight gain is slowing, they are entering exploration mode and are less interested in sit down meals, they are demonstrating independence and starting to learn what they like and don't like.
Plus, picky eating is partly genetic. Some children are simply born fussier than others. Studies have shown, that how sensitive we are to certain flavours is inherited. We are hardwired to fear new foods, something that was handed down from our ancestors, as a safety device to avoid eating something poisonous. Similarly, we favour sweet foods over bitter ones as our instinct tells us the latter might be bad or even deadly.
A lot of parents worry about fussy eating because they fear their child isn't eating enough. Melissa Little, paediatric dietician says: "you have to remember the proportion of babies failing to put on enough weight is really tiny compared to those who are overweight’.
Instilling good food behaviour early is a great start but there are several reasons why your child might be refusing to eat that might not be down to being fussy, like teething or even just tiredness!
Fussy eating quiz: What type of picky eater is your child?
If you and your child are struggling with picky eating then it is important to understand why this might be happening. Research from the University of Illinois found that there are four major types of picky eaters. Each type describes children with very different issues with food, which each need to be handled in different ways. Take our quiz to find out what sort of picky eater your child is, so you can learn exactly what you can do to help them.
How to deal with a fussy eater:
We've compiled an exhaustive list of tips to help you deal with a picky eater. The advice comes from Mother & Baby experts: Professor Marion Hetherington, a biopsychologist at the University of Leeds, Lowri Turner, a nutritionist, Pixie Mckenna, a GP and mum-of-one and Melissa Little, a paediatric dietician. By setting the foundations of healthy, balanced eating with your little one now, you should be able to maximise your chances of fuss-free mealtimes and a healthy diet later on. Here’s what to do…
15 fussy eater tips and tricks:
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 to counter this tendency.
1) Encourage more adventurous tastes
Professor Marion believes that what parents do during weaning – or ‘complementary feeding’ as she prefers to call it, to avoid confusion with stopping breastfeeding – can make a significant difference. ‘The period around complementary feeding is a sensitive one,’ she says. ‘Research has shown that if babies are given a wide range of healthy foods from six months onwards, they are likely to develop healthy eating habits.’
Rather than offering up the food your toddler loves best first, make sure offer a few veggies as a starter, when they are most hungry. If they are truly hungry, they are less likely to be picky about what they do eat.
2) Veggies first
‘Start with a few sticks of asparagus or chunks of broccoli with butter, before bringing out their main meal,’ says nutritionist Lowri Turner. This should keep his sweet tooth in check.
Younger babies tend to accept new textures and flavours more readily than slightly older ones, when a certain natural wariness kicks in.
3) Introduce as much variety as possible in the first weeks of feeding solids
By bringing as many different foods to the table (or your tot’s highchair tray) between starting weaning at six months and the age of nine months, you’ll maximise the chances of your baby happily eating them longer term. And we do mean lots – aim to introduce 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, nine months of age, then this predicts lower acceptance of vegetables and fussier eating later in childhood,’ says Professor Marion.
Babies and toddlers offten mimic those around them, it is a really important way for them to learn and grow. If your toddler sees you enjoying different foods, they will be more likely to try them too. They will be able to see that it isn't so scary after all. Make sure you don’t pass on the vegetables unless you want your little one to do the same.
4) Eat adventurously yourself
You can also harness the power of peer pressure. Mealtimes are important for all the family as a focus for communication and bonding. Aim to have everyone eating the same thing in the same sitting as your little one will try hard to eat similar things to those around them. You can invite other mums and their tots over for lunch - ‘Lay out a big picnic with lots of different healthy foods on a tablecloth on the floor and let kids get stuck in,’ says Lowri.
The idea of mixing vegetables and milk might turn your grown-up stomach, but this can be a very effective way of ensuring your baby gives them a go. Professor Marion explains: ‘At around six months, add some vegetable purée to breast or formula milk, to give just a taste of this new food. 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.’
5) Sneak veg into your baby’s milk (yes, really!)
You’ve fed your tot some carrot – or squash, or broccoli – and they are making that screwed up, ‘no way’ face that babies eating something they find unpleasant do so well. No doubt they’ll push it all back out of their mouth with their tongue. At this point, it’s easy to throw your hands in the air and assume they’ll never like this offending food, and stop serving it.
6) Be persistent
But small children who don’t like something initially might well go on to accept it, if you stick with it. ‘Most new vegetables take at least five to ten exposures to be accepted – possibly even more,’ says Professor Marion. ‘This is the case both with babies and older children, so keep at it!’
Over-drinking is one of the main causes of fussy eating. The tiny stomach of a toddler is easily filled up with fluid reducing their appetite for food. Once your baby is at weaning age you could limit milk to 500ml per day and/or dilute 100ml fruit juice with water over the course of the day.
You might assume you’re out of the woods and your baby’s settled into eating well, but be warned: many children become fussier as toddlers as a natural reluctance to eat new foods kicks in. 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 – would help keep them from danger.
8) Watch out for the first sign of reluctance
‘At around 24 months, infants become neophobic – fearful of new foods,’ explains Professor Marion. ‘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’ll move on from this fussy stage more quickly.
Young children seem to get overwhelmed by too much newness on their plate all at once. By combining new tastes and old together in a more grown-up version of the milk-and-veg trick above, sampling something becomes a less intimidating experience. Plus, you know that if he doesn’t so much as touch that strange new vegetable, he can still fill his tummy with the rest of the meal that’s served up to them.
9) Pair familiar and unfamiliar foods
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 his usual pasta. Or add a tiny bit of his favourite cheese sauce to a new vegetable to encourage them to try it.
Avoid spoon feeding an older baby or toddler. The idea is that if your toddler has control over their food and are able to pick up, feel the texture of the food and try the bits they like the look off, they will be more likely to experiment and eat a wide range of different things when they are older. You avoid washing up the blender, but be prepared – you'll probably end up with a lot of food on the floor.
10) Try baby/toddler led weaning
For older babies and toddlers, funny faces made out of pieces of cucumber, tomato and sandwich will be popular.
11) Make food fun!
‘Or have a crunching contest with raw veggies,’ says Lowri. ‘The loudest cruncher wins.’
When your toddler is old enough, get them involved in the cooking and preparation of food. Even if it just means stirring things occasionally, getting kids involved in the kitchens means they should be more engaged by and interested in the food they eat and cooking in the future.
12) Get kids involved
If you're lucky enough to live somewhere where you can grow some of your own vegetables then this is a great way to encourage children. They will be part of the process, have more of a understanding of where food comes from which should hopefully make them understand waste and encourage them to be excited about trying it once it is grown. Even a simple windowbox with herbs would help!
Too many of us override our child’s natural hunger signals by pressurising them to eat more than they want. ‘Pushing food away is an obvious sign they've had enough,’ says Melissa. ‘A good rule of thumb to getting the amounts right is to make sure each food group is served in a portion about the size of their fist.’ That’s a fist-sized food portion each of carbohydrate, protein and vegetables. As their hand grows, so should the amount of food they are offered.
13) Portion size
Mealtimes can so easily turn into a stressful battle of wills, but several research projects have demonstrated that pushing children too hard to taste something simply doesn’t work. In fact it 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.
14) Don’t push too hard to ‘just try it’
So easing off with the over-the-top persuasion is the wiser way to get them to gobble up. Staying cool and calm also works - pretend you don’t care if your child doesn’t eat their supper. If they realise what they eatreally matters to you, it can become a power struggle. So pretend it doesn’t and they should have no reason to hold back.
What should you feed a fussy eater?
If your child really is a picky eater, this is a tough one. Despite the difficulties you encounter, it is important to try and stick to a healthy diet for your toddler as best you can.
If you're trying baby led weaning, check out these brilliant finger foods to make mealtimes fun, or easy puree options to take the stress out of baby food prep. If it is nibbles you're after, there are plenty of delicious and easy picky-eater-approved snack options! If you're just starting out on your baby's weaning journey, check out the Start4Life weaning hub for tips and ideas to help you on your way and watch this video on how to get stuck in.
Once your little one is eating proper meals, try Annabel Karmel's recipes which are always full of healthy fruit and veg. Remember, food doesn't have to be complicated - some of their favourites are probably superfoods without you even realising. There are even certain foods which may help your little one stay focused and calm, possibly preventing those terrible tantrums - although, we can't promise anything!
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