Most children display fussy eating habits at some stage of their development. This is normal; however there may be headaches if fussy eating escalates to World War III at meal times. There are simple strategies that can be adopted that address fussy eating and that will help your child to develop healthy eating patterns for the future.
Introduce solids at the right time
Research suggests that there is a crucial window of opportunity for introducing solids. Approximately six months of age is the recommended time. Good options include rice cereal because it is easy to swallow and they are generally fortified with iron, puréed vegetables and stewed fruits. Older infants, 7-9 months, can eat variations of family meals, for example, small portions of the vegetables from dinner can be mashed. As time goes on, food can become more textured. Puréed food can be roughly mashed, and then soft foods such as spirals of pasta and bananas can be introduced.
At this early stage, infants will need your help with eating. Be careful not to make this a battle, if they refuse a food, don’t force it. Toddlers may take time to get used to new flavours and textures, but don’t give up. It may take as many as ten tries for an infant to finally take to a new food. Try small portions of a variety of different foods. One serve is approximately one tablespoon. Once they start feeding themselves, the fun beings.
As fine motor skills start to develop after 6 months of age, infants will want to feed themselves. They may begin by simply holding their own small spoon while you feed them with another spoon. After a while they will push your spoon aside and want to feed themselves using their spoon and of course, their hands.
They should be able to cope with little portions of what you normally eat. Good options include cooked pasta pieces, steamed vegetable sticks, cut up fruit and small sandwich pieces. Small portions of dairy are also encouraged including full fat cheese and yoghurt.
Unless recommended by a healthcare professional, infants under the age of 12 months should not be given:
Sweet drinks such as soft drinks or fruit juice which can cause tooth decay in your infant’s developing teeth
Honey or raw eggs as these may contain harmful bacteria that may be harmful to your infant’s delicate digestive system
Hard foods such as nuts or raw carrots.
Avoid adding sugar or salt to foods. If using processed ingredients such as frozen or tinned foods, choose low salt options. Commercial baby foods are okay from time to time, but fresh food options allow them to experience a variety of tastes and textures without the added salt or sugar.
Important nutrients for early stages of life
There are a number of nutrients which are important for your child’s growth and development which should be included at their mealtime. Important nutrients and ideas on how to incorporate these nutrients into your child’s diet include:
Iron-fortified cereal with milk
Pureed meat for infants 6-7 months
Minced meat in sauces (eg. bolognaise) for infants over 9 months
Soft chicken or meat pieces
Cup of milk
Custard made with full cream milk
Cooked soft carrots
Mashed sweet potato
Cut up oranges
Cup of milk
Rice based cereals or crackers
Steamed green vegies (pureed)
Wholegrain cooked pasta
Vegemite on crackers for infants over 9 months
Be prepared to get messy
After a busy day of running around after your toddler, the last thing you may feel like doing is watching them throw their dinner (that you lovingly prepared) all over the floor!
We are yet to discover a sure-fire technique that minimises mess, however if one existed it would certainly take the fun out of meal-times for your child. The best way to deal with the mess is to expect it – and love it! Here are a few little tips that will hopefully take the edge off:
1. Place a plastic mat, sheet or towel under the highchair
The size of the sheet may depend on how far your child can throw! The mat can be quickly shaken off outside while your floors remain clean.
2. Let your child stay messy for the duration of the meal
Imagine if someone came and wiped your hands and mouth with a cold flannel each time you took a bite. Doing this may even contribute to fussy eating as some infant wipes leave perfumes and flavours on the hands that can interfere with taste perception.
Expect your child to take a long time to eat their meal. They have only been on the planet for a short time and still have a lot to learn. They may take a little while to explore what has been put in front of them. They may take even longer to coordinate their developing fine and gross motor skills to:
Pick up their spoon in their tiny hand
Get slippery morsels of food to balance on the spoon
Use their hand-eye coordination to bring the food somewhere in the vicinity of their mouth
Open their mouth in time to catch the food before it falls off
Start all over again when they accidentally hit their nose, cheek or ear!
Letting your child feed themselves is all part of their intellectual and physical development. It will also help them to listen to their own satiety and hunger cues, develop in autonomy and help to create their own positive relationship with food.
Eat with your child
Include your child in meals at all family meal times. They may be messy and they may be slow but they love and need the social interaction that is a part of meal times. Siblings and adults are also good distractions from likes and dislikes. If they see everyone else at the table enjoying their meal, they are likely to do the same thing and not get hung up on a new or weird looking food on their plate.
It may be tempting to feed your child at 5.00pm before their ‘bath – teeth – book – bed’ routine. You may not be used to eating dinner early or may prefer to enjoy your dinner after the hard work for the day is done, but imagine eating your meals all alone every night – and even worse – having someone watch you while you do it! This is what your child experiences when you don’t eat with them. It may be beneficial to get used to having dinners earlier or at least having part of your meal with your child and then enjoying a light supper later on once they have gone to bed.
Set a good example
Eating habits are usually passed on to children. As you have probably already noticed, your child watches everything you do and mimics your behaviours – good and bad! What, how and when you eat makes a significant impression on your child…
If you hate broccoli and leave it on the side of your plate, why should you expect your child to eat it?
If you complain about the same old food that your partner has prepared, why would your child do any different?
If you don’t eat regular meals yourself, how will your child ever learn that eating three meals a day is one of the easiest ways to maintain energy and a healthy weight?
Remember, your child is experiencing new textures and flavours that they are uncertain about. They will look to you for reassurance and reinforcement. By eating with your child and not drawing attention to your own likes and dislikes, your child will feel confident to try new foods and develop a healthy relationship with food.
Self feeding and appetite control
Children should be encouraged to feed themselves as soon as possible. Don’t force-feed your child, offer them choice – cleverly. Instead of asking, “What do you want for lunch?” try, “What shape would you like your sandwich cut?”