Many parents struggle with getting their young children to try new foods, eat enough vegetables and just generally have some healthy variety in their diet.
Fortunately, there are some answers to your fussy toddler woes. Many parents are unknowingly making simple, common mistakes that once corrected can change the food life of your toddler dramatically.
1. Never give up
Research has shown that repeatedly offering and exposing your child to the rejected food will do wonders in getting them to accept the new food in the future.
If you offer a food and it gets rejected, don’t worry, just try again the next day. It can take up to 10 exposures before a child will accept a new food, so be persistent, it will happen eventually!
2. You are not an a la carte restaurant
When offering your child a meal, if they wont eat it, don’t stress. Do your best to encourage them to at least taste it (reward with sticker charts, special songs etc) and then tell them that meal time is over. Don’t offer them anything else to eat. You’re not a restaurant where they can send the meal back and get something else, you’re a busy parent who only needs to cook one meal for the whole family.
A great rule to follow is: the parent decides what and when the child eats and the child decides how much they eat. You are the parent, you decide what’s on the menu and they either eat it or they don’t.
3. Offer a variety of foods as early as possible
The more food variety children experience at a younger age the less neophobic (scared of trying new foods) they will become. Don’t assume they won’t like a food and then not give it to them. Give it a try, more often then not they’ll actually like it and if you follow rule number 1 then you know they’ll like it eventually!
By the time your child is 12-18 months they should have at least tasted most fruits and vegetables, a number of the family’s main meals, cheese, yoghurt, meats, chicken, legumes, bread, rice, pasta, a few mild spices, herbs etc
4. Keep it familiar
Don’t offer a new food in a new environment. Research shows that combining a new food with a new environment increases the child’s reluctance to try and accept it. As much as you can, keep meal times consistently at home.
5. Keep it stress free
Kids have the ability to associate food with certain situations, whether they be good or bad. If meal times are stressful and you are cranky or distracted, you’ll create an atmosphere where your kids don’t feel confident enough to give the new food a try. Stay happy, focused and enjoy the ride!
6. Turn off the TV
When offering new foods and for meal times in general, turn off your TV, stereo, mobile phone and any other electronic devices. Too many distractions, noise and stimulation can make meal times more stressful than they need to be. Distracted kids wont eat well.
7. Become a cheerleader
Encourage, encourage, encourage! Tell your kids how proud you are of them for eating like a champion! The more positive associations kids have with meal times the more comfortable they will feel in trying and accepting new foods. Don’t reward with ‘junk food’, reward with words of affirmation!
Other great rewards are singing special songs (we made one up called the “trying new foods song” – so original I know), stickers and sticker charts.
8. Model healthy eating
Research shows that a child must see their parent, especially their mother, eat and enjoy the food that you are trying to get them to eat. It’s about modelling good eating habits in general, as much as possible. Ultimately, kids are going to learn the majority of their eating habits from their parents
If you need help with improving your own eating habits I offer one-on-one consultations that can help you lose weight and improve your general health.
9. Harness positive peer pressure
Research has shown that a child is more likely to try and accept a previously rejected food if they are eating with other children who are enjoying that particular food. Join forces with your friends and neighbours and encourage your children to try new foods with the power of their peers.
10. Resist the temptation to use food bribes
“Eat all your pumpkin up and mummy will give you some ice cream afterwards”. Although this technique may work to get them to eat a particular food it actually makes them dislike the food they have to eat and like the reward food even more than they did in the first place. This will make it even harder for you to get them to eat the main meal in the future. Reward your kids in other ways, stickers, stamps, star charts or a special story.
I sing my special song when my kids try new foods, it’s fun and interactive and it builds positive association with the food because meal times are enjoyable.
11. Always at the table
Kids thrive on routine and consistency. Your children will respond better at meal times if they are up, in their highchair, at the dinner table with the rest of the family for most of their meal times as you can. Toddlers and even children should always be sitting down during meal times. It’s never recommended to let your child wander around while eating.
Sometimes it can be difficult to figure out how this will work for your toddler and your life. Michelle Bulman is our Paediatric Dietitian expert, who can help you break it down to a practical strategy for your child.