Mother and Baby

How to avoid your baby becoming a fussy eater

How to avoid your baby becoming a fussy eater

MEET THE EXPERT: Professor Marion Hetherington, biopsychologist at the University of Leeds.

Kids, eh? They will only chow down on plain pasta or breadcrumbed nuggets and chips, right? And you’ll be lucky to get a tiny piece of veg on their fork, never mind 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 on. Here’s what to do…

Encourage more adventurous tastes

Picky eating is partly genetic. Some children are simply born fussier than others. Studies have shown that how sensitive we are to, for example, bitter flavours, is inherited. But that doesn’t mean parents should just accept picky eating. Encouraging a diverse palate can help to counter this tendency.

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.’

Introduce as much variety as possible in the first weeks of feeding 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 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.

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 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.’

Be persistent

You’ve fed your tot some carrot – or squash, or broccoli – and he’s making that screwed up, ‘no way’ face that babies eating something they find unpleasant do so well. No doubt he’ll push it all back out of his mouth with his tongue. At this point, it’s easy to throw your hands in the air and assume he’ll never like this offending food, and stop serving it. 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
10 exposures to be accepted – possibly even more,’ says Professor Marion. ‘This is the case both with babies and older children, so keep at it!’

Watch out for the first sign of reluctance

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. 

‘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, he’ll move on from this fussy stage more quickly.

Pair familiar and unfamiliar foods

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 him.

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 him to try it.

Don’t push him too hard to ‘just try it’

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. 

So easing off with the over-the-top persuasion is the wiser way to get them to gobble up.

>> MORE: Dr Pixie’s top tips for fussy eaters

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