One of the biggest challenges many parents face is having a picky eater in the family. Many children become fussy with food around the age of 18-24 months, often forming the start of a long term battle for many parents.
The Government recommends that all children eat 5 portions of fruit and vegetables a day, but research suggests that only 1 in 5 children achieve this – with many pre-schoolers often having days where they eat no fruit or vegetables at all. In contrast, the average child consumes more than three times the maximum amount of processed sugar recommended.
Eating a healthy, balanced diet is important for everyone, but children particularly require a range of nutrients for healthy growth and development. A nutritious diet can stabilise energy, sharpen the mind and improve mood – allowing children to maximise their potential both at home and at nursery or school.
So how can you help encourage your child to eat a nutritious and varied diet and develop a positive relationship with food?
Lead by example
The way parents talk about food and the types of foods they choose to eat are the most important influencers when it comes to a child’s eating habits. Children learn by example
and love to copy, so it’s crucial to make a conscious effort to practice what you preach.
- Try to eat together as much as possible. Research suggests that family mealtimes have a big impact on food choices later in life, and encourages consumption of fruit, vegetables and dairy products.
- When eating around your child, be sure to eat across all food groups – including a good mix of fruit, vegetables, whole grains, dairy products, lean meats, fish, beans and pulses. If you make poor choices, your child will be encouraged to do the same.
- Don’t give any attention to food refusal – this can simply encourage it. Instead, focus on people around the table who are eating well and discuss aspects of the meal that were particularly enjoyed. It may take time, but your child will eventually realise that they will get more attention from eating well than they do from being fussy.
Parents have an important role to play in increasing a child’s familiarity with fruits and vegetables – not only at mealtimes, but in a variety of settings. The aim is to make these a familiar part of everyday life and not just a dreaded moment at the table.
- Point out and talk about healthy foods as often as possible. Read books that contain bright images of fruits and vegetables and use real fruits and vegetables in games and activities. Allow your child to help pick out healthy foods and encourage physical contact with them.
- Children love to eat foods they have grown themselves, so try growing your own. You don’t need an allotment or any expertise – many foods can be grown in a pot on your windowsill.
Keep at it
Studies show that children are born with an innate fondness for sweet foods and less of a preference for bitter or sour foods. To help override this response, it’s important for parents to repeatedly expose children to flavours that they are naturally wary of, rather than simply feeding them the foods they like to eat. If your child rejects kale and broccoli and is never offered it again, they simply won’t EVER learn to like it.
- Offer small portions, and then encourage children to go for seconds if they are still hungry. This will seem less overwhelming than large, adult-sized portions.
- To mix things up, try offering fruits and vegetables in these different states – e.g. raw, boiled, steamed, oven-cooked. You might find that while your child doesn’t like boiled carrots, they will eat them raw.
- It takes approximately 11 times for a child to try a new food. To make the process easier, try to offer the same food in different ways. For example, raw carrot as sticks (great for dipping) but also grated or in a smoothie. Keep track of when and how a food is offered with a star chart – you can offer a star for every new vegetable eaten or when your child tastes a food they have previously rejected.
Avoid making separate meals
Offering up a selection of entirely alternative meals at meal times teaches children that they can control the food they eat, which they will soon learn to exploit.
- Only ever offer a choice between two healthy options at meal times. This allows an element of choice and independence but ensures you’re still in control (and leads to less waste).
- If a meal is still refused, it’s best to clear it away after 20 minutes or so (or after you’ve finished your meal) and put it in the fridge to try again later.
- Avoid forcing or coaxing your child into eating, as this can further establish a negative relationship with food. Whilst many parents are afraid of their child going hungry, missing meals ultimately makes them hungrier for the next meal and more likely to eat it. Whatever you do, avoid allowing mealtimes to become a battle.
- Offer healthy snacks between meals so that your child won’t ever have to go too long without some fuel. However, avoid replacing meals or snacks with milk. If children are filling up on milk they are not going to be hungry for meals and solid foods, which is what should make up the majority of their calories by the age of one.
© Sarah West Nutrition