Some advice on how you can get the lil ones to start enjoying a variety of foods and take the struggle out of meal time!
We have all been there! Almost everyone of us at some point thought: ‘there is something wrong with my child… I just can’t get him/her to eat!…. S/he refuses all foods!…. My child is going to starve!….” – An absolute NIGHTMARE!!
All child caregivers wish for a world where children would just eat the food they are served. We wish for a world in which there are no battles over food and eating. Well GOOD NEWS: There is nothing wrong with your child & that world could exist! However; just like with everything else, it takes a little bit of work and understanding to get there.
Here are some tips that can help you get there:
Understand your Child and the Feeding Process
Babies are brand new! Everything they go through and experience is new to them, and so they are naturally overwhelmed with everything. Once they are born it is instinct that facilitates their feeding process. They are born with a suction reaction to anything that comes close to their mouths and therefore do. Through that process, they get rewarded with a warm liquid and all they have to do is swallow. Even then, some children take time to get used to this process and start feeding regularly.
As they grow older, babies become accustomed to feed to satisfy hunger. Yet for the longest time that meant Milk | Liquid coming from a clean no-spill bottle. All of a sudden they have to change that basic piece of knowledge into: food means something with texture, different flavour, and a little bit of mess! Some babies will find this whole thing exciting at first and are happy with the new flavours. Others are not that thrilled! These initial reactions say nothing about your child’s feeding type! They do not mean anything beyond a reaction to something very new! Think of it this way: if you try a totally new texture yourself; you can love it or hate it! I know many adults who do not eat certain foods because they despise the texture (like snails & oysters for instance). Some adults hate it from the first time, others, will try again and they might learn to like it, but there is also those who will not even try!! The idea of it makes them uneasy! Well if we – rational adults get to react that way – then it is absolutely normal for children to have the same reaction! This is normal human behaviour.
With time babies get used to the idea that this is food, and might go on as happy eaters until becoming tots. For some babies it is not that easy! They reject the new texture, flavour and feeding process: They reject the idea; and from early on, feeding becomes hard and often a battle. Mostly always ending in disappointment and some sort of anxiety that the child will starve. Consequently and mostly ending with a bottle of warm milk! The baby is fed, the battle is over – at least for now – and everyone is calm again.
What really happened in this scenario though is:Feeding time was not fun!Feeding time resulted in tension! Both, the adult and the Baby became miserable! Eventually the baby got what s/he wanted simply by shedding tears and becoming miserable! The baby understood that if s/he cries, fusses, and refuses food s/he will get the milk (get what they want)….. Make a mental note: This is exactly the point where a fussy eater was born.
To avoid all this
The best way to introduce food to children is by understanding and accepting the fact that because this is a new learning experience, your child does not necessarily have to like it! Your job at this point is to introduce the food (age appropriate baby food) and don’t expect your baby to have a plate full! Simply give your baby a tiny taste. See how s/he feels. React and show excitement… babies understand smiles, look at your baby and smile. Don’t force food into your baby’s mouth, gently place that tiny spoon close to his/her mouth. Allow them to smell it, taste and even touch it (they can wash later, water is not gonna run out!). Allow them to play with the food, and even taste it yourself and just simply have fun throughout. Keep doing this as long as it takes. Your baby is still taking the milk so is being fed and not starved. This will make your baby feel like food is fun, food is happy, food is yummy and food is good. This way you have set the pace for a happy eater.
2. Toddlers – When a happy eater turns fussy
Just because your baby accepted the new feeding process does not mean that trouble won’t hit! Two things worth knowing here: Just because a child accepted some foods, does not mean s/he will like all foods on offer. And just because your baby is a happy eater now, does not necessarily mean they will go on like this forever! Children are bound to become fussy eaters at some point as toddlers. Some grow out of it, and others carry it through their whole life!
Why does it happen?
Because everyday is a learning experience. New foods, new textures are still new. Just because we get used to some, does not necessarily mean that we know it all. Children are still trying, learning, accepting and rejecting. They are simply doing the very things that make up one’s personality. When your baby becomes a toddler, s/he is trying to separate from you and find their own selves. Part of that process is in going against you at times and affirming that they too can say “no”. That they can accept, reject and choose! Feeding is just one of those places where they get to practice that. So just like they would/n’t play with this toy; they would/n’t eat that food! Don’t turn this into a power struggle! There is no winner in a power struggle with a tot! Only misery can come out of it.
To avoid all this
A very good way to handle this situation is to provide opportunities: that is by offering a variety of foods to your children and giving them the freedom to choose. Don’t fuss over not eating the broccoli! The minute you fuss, you send the message that this is an area of struggle, a battle of wills and a place where your child can provoke you. Offer the food and have lunch together. Tell your children to try this and that food, and leave it at that. If they don’t now, they soon will!
Fussy tots are very common. In fact I am not sure that there is a child that was not fussy at some point.
It is a phase in children’s growth, and usually ends as suddenly as it’s begun if handled right.
TIPS For Mums of Toddlers
- Studies show that most toddlers pick healthy food when given a choice; they usually pick the foods that their bodies need. It is worth mentioning here, that unless your child has been medically diagnosed with an eating or digestion disorder; no child will starve! Children eat what’s on offer when hungry. Also worth noting, snacking, and a taste of this and that before a meal is enough to fill your child and ruin his/her appetite.
- Most fussy eaters are not fussy about the food itself as much as they are fussy about the textures and cleanliness! Yes, new textures feel weird for children and therefore rejected without understanding why. Also because we tend to create extra fuss about cleanliness, most children are not willing to touch new textures or get their hands messy. Translated into food: these kids usually stick to a specific no-mess type of food (example: potatoes), and avoid wet foods like oranges for instance!
- Allow kids to play and create a mess at least once in awhile, let them do some pretend cooking and talk to them about what they are preparing. Suggest they include, in their cooking, the foods you would like them to try. they will, after all it’s all pretend! But this allows them to safely explore without the pressure of actually trying. With time they are bound to try!
- I usually tell mine when they refuse to try something new: “it’s OK but you’re missing out!”. They usually at least try after that. If they don’t like it I tell them “OK you can try again in a couple of days maybe you would have grown more and your mouth will like it then”. This usually makes them eager to become “big” and so it becomes about proving to me that they are “big” now! Keep it open ended, simple, easy and encouraging. kids like to copy adults, so always throw expressions like grown up food, grown ups like it…etc.
- Involving kids in the food preparation process usually encourages them to eat more varieties. I usually take the children with me grocery shopping. I tell them that each one of us can pick a type of vegetable – or more – for what we would like to have for dinner this week. I also tell them there is a rule: each one of us will have to try each other’s vegetable choices. They get so excited as they get to pick the vegetables, stand in line and weigh them! When we get home, we clean the vegetables together, prepare them together and they get to help me in most of the process. By that time they are already looking forward and excited about having the food! They have made friends with their food..
3. Walk a Mile in Your Child’s Shoes
Like adults, children will like and dislike certain foods. And while it is of course better and healthier to get children to eat as many food varieties as possible, they do have their whole life to do that! They do not have to do it all today. You need to talk to them about food, about health benefits, and about looking at food and eating as a joyful experience. But never take the approach of forcing onto them. Look at it this way: say you don’t like oysters, and I ask you to try it: “it’s delicious!”. You refuse. Then I say: “but it’s really good!”. You still refuse to even try. Maybe to me it doesn’t make sense, but to you it does. What if now I say with an angry tone: “You ARE having that oyster!” and insist, and make a fuss about it… would you try it? Maybe you would – just to shut me up – but would you even consider the experience, flavour behind it or would you be too upset to notice? The same applies to children.
We have to present our children with opportunities, but we should always give them the option of choice. Just bear in mind if we only offer them chicken nuggets, they will only eat chicken nuggets. Very soon, they will not eat anything else! As such all we need to do is offer varieties, create opportunities, warm them into trying and keep the option open. And most importantly remember they will not get married eating only bananas! Eventually they will grow out of it and the less fuss the faster the growth and the less the resistance.
4. The eye eats well before the mouth!
If the food does not look good, they are most likely to avoid it. Put extra effort to make the food look inviting, delicious and even exciting. Children respond well to colour & shapes. Use varieties of food with different colours. Cut out shapes, and even make them look like stuff they like: a bus sandwich with cucumber wheels; a steak slice with potato wedges for wings make it look like an airplane.
To make my point, just look at how colours attract children! And we wonder why they like sweets? Besides the sweet taste, sweets are normally colourful, come in nice packages, and look fabulous! If the table included savoury foods that were half as colourful, looked interesting, then the children would have loved to try them too, if not for the food itself, then to see what an airplane tastes like!
- Don’t offer kids food that you yourself think repulsive
(although there is no such thing) but the point is: offer them good tasting food, good looking food and introduce new foods gradually. If you taste the chips and they are stale, old or greasy, making you think they are nasty. They are most likely to feel the same way!
- Lead by example and eat various foods
When trying something new, don’t say OH, This is bad! in front of them. Chew it and swallow it. It is OK for a food type not to be our favourite, but that does not make it a no-way to eat kind of food.
- Keep your expectations realistic
Don’t expect an adventurous eater from day 1 and don’t expect approval all the time. At the end of the day, these little ones are just mini us. And we all know that not all food works for everyone. People tend to be very particular about their food, food preference and acceptable varieties.
We all have favourite foods, and foods less preferred. The point behind food is the joyful experience. It is nurturing, nutritious, and most importantly social. Make sure you don’t turn it into a battle and an awful experience! Very few are those who will eat only chicken nuggets all their life! See the bigger picture and provide your children with fun opportunities to try new stuff. If they don’t like it now, they will later. They just have to be happy to try and stay balanced at this point!
- Check out my Parent’s guide to Healthy Eating for Kids on this link.
- Check out my No Body Is Perfect booklet (On Body Shape & Eating Disorders among Teens) on this link
What about you, do you have special tricks that work with your fussy eaters? Any fool proof method that can help all those struggling mothers out there? I would love to hear your thoughts, and I am sure other mothers out there would appreciate the advise.