As a Nutritionist, my biggest fear was having children that are fussy eaters! Seriously, my personal favourite food is broccoli, so what if my kid doesn’t like greens??! My world would end haha. So I’ve done a lot of reading on preventing fussy eating and trialing different tricks and approaches, and I’m pretty proud to say that now, on most days, my 22 month old toddler will gobble anything up that’s in front of her.
Every baby goes through phases of fussy eating, whether they are unwell, not in the mood, or just want to test their boundaries. And that is perfectly normal, and usually will pass! However I do think that in many cases, long term fussy eating can be prevented, and it might be just a tweak of routine, food preparation or family habits.
The problem with convenience.
Store bought options such as ready-made jars, squeezy tubes and grab-and-go snacks are definitely a necessity sometimes and there is no judgement on my behalf if this is what you’ve been feeding your bub. Although they are advertised as natural and sometimes organic, they are not real food and are not a good way to building a foundation for good eating habits! No wonder so many toddlers these days turn into fussy eaters. The problems with these ‘meals’ are the following
- They are ultra pasteurized, a process which creates shelf life but virtually kills all nutrients contained in the original ingredients.
- They are all too sweet. Even savoury varieties usually contain lots of fruit or fruit concentrates so that babies love them. However in my opinion, a beef stew simply doesn’t need apple or apricot concentrate in it. What’s wrong with just beef and veggies? This sweetness also means that babies are more likely to reject normal, natural, homecooked wholefoods which obviously aren’t that sweet.
- The super smooth texture does not support the development of adequate swallowing and chewing, which are important to develop the muscles needed for speech. It also creates a preference for smooth foods (such as yoghurt and apple sauce), and fussiness over texture such as quinoa, mince, veggies etc.
- You can’t actually see any real food. We all know how important vision is for appetite, as adults definitely eat with their eyes first. So if the bottle content goes straight from squeezey into mouth, the bubs never see the important greens and oranges that make up whole foods. Even if the food is seen (eg from a jar with a spoon), the colour is always bland and often beige (yucks). Again nothing like nature. No wonder when you try to approach him with a bright green, furry broccoli floret he will turn his head away or think it’s a toy!
So my tip is, have a squeezy tube on hand as a backup, when travelling on a plane, or in the nappy bag for emergencies. However, always cook at home if possible, or if you don’t have time (which is completely understandable too!), then research the new up and coming baby food brands that are based on wholefoods, homecooking and real meals (such as Bubba & Bean, duh 😉 ).
Tips to prevent creating fussy eaters from the start
Start them young. Young babies do not know the difference between colours and foods, however they clue on very quickly. Their tastebuds quickly adapt to what you feed them, and their eyes take in everything that’s on the plate. So if from an early age you offer lots of bland, white or beige foods and sweet treats, then those are the things they will demand when they are older. If however you offer a variety of colours from the beginning, green and orange and red, lots of veggies, different textures and flavours, then these things will simply be considered normal and be more readily accepted as they grow older.
The younger, the better. By the time toddlers are 2 years old (or even younger), they become pretty savvy… and demanding. They can shout ‘NO’, throw tantrums, and make their opinions pretty clear. So the sooner you begin giving healthy options and colourful, natural foods, the more success you will have. (However if you are reading this and your kid is already older than 2, don’t worry – the other tips are also helpful to slowly get you in the right direction, just be patient and consistent! Hang in there! 🙂 )
Live by example and eat with them. We all know this, yet many of us don’t do it. Ever notice how babies always want the other child’s water bottle, or point at the snack the other kids are eating? Same goes for meal times. If you sit down and eat with them, and your plate is fully of yummy veggies, your baby will want to grab those things and eat what mummy/daddy is eating. And if like most mummas you are used to scoffing a peanut butter sandwich over the sink while you baby has her 20 minute nap (uh!), then eating with her is actually a really great way to ensure YOU are getting a better meal also.
And this works really well for teaching to use cutlery as well!
Try different textures. Back to broccoli. For a while I thought my daughter didn’t like it, however I didn’t give up! I soon realized that it actually wasn’t the flavour, but the fuzzy texture of the florets! As soon as her tongue touched it, she would pull a face! So now I give her mainly the stalks of broccoli, well steamed. Or I cut the florets super small and cook until soft in a Bolognese, or roughly mash into mashed potatoes. Works a treat!
In fact I find a ‘mashy’ base works really well in general. Dry foods like rice, quinoa, beans or too dry mince often don’t go down that well, but when mixed with a smooth base the little lumps are often not a problem. Plus, mashy bases offer a good opportunity to ‘sneak’ in even more veg. For example, mashed white potato with cauliflower and carrot; potato with broccoli and peas; sweet potato and pumpkin etc.
Encourage independence. This will be hard for many mums, but just embrace the mess. Allow your child to experiment and explore. Babies and toddlers often just want to do it themselves, weather baby led weaning or self spoon feeding (or try a fork for a better success rate!). And I also find that if I walk away and give my daughter some space, she often eats much more too compared to when I hover over her and watch every bite. I do however draw the line at ‘playing’ with food: throwing, transferring from plate to table… No thanks! That often is a sign that she is full!
Routine and timing. I think every mum goes through a phase of offering lots of snacks, as munching away is a great activity that keeps bubs happy and, blissfully, quiet. However when mealtimes come around, little bubs are not hungry as they have already filled up on snacks. I found that once I reduced snacks and one by one dropped daytime milk bottles (after 12 months old), bub’s appetite increased dramatically. If a bub is hungry, many babies will eat most things that get put in front of them! Having said that, baby’s tummies are small, and you need to figure out a good balance and routine that works for your baby. I think 2-3 hours between a snack and a meal is a good place to start. (Obviously please don’t push it too far! Different ages have different requirements, and babies that are over hungry will throw a tantrum! Best to ask your Maternal and Child Health Nurse for an age appropriate feeding schedule!).
Also play with the ‘density’ or ‘fillingness’ of snacks (that’s not even a word but hey). For example, if you think your bub is hungry but it’s an hour from a mealtime, maybe give her some fruit which isn’t as heavy and she’ll be hungry again soon. Or if it’s time for morning tea, and you then want a bigger gap before lunch, perhaps try a protein rich egg or nut butter wholegrain sandwich and some cheese.
Btw, a small observation I made (not sure if it’s true for everyone). If baby doesn’t like the food, he’ll spit it out. If he turns his head away, he’s not hungry. Maybe try again later J
Attention span. Toddlers simply do not have the attention span to sit at the table and eat a meal, they want to run around and play. I initially thought I would be strict with ‘meal time’ vs ‘play time’, however reading about the attention span made me realize it’s just too much to ask of my baby to sit quietly and eat her whole meal at the table. So giving her a small toy or a box with a lid kept her occupied and interested, and allowed me to shovel in many mouthfuls! Just be mindful to read the signs of fullness. You don’t want to overdo it and force more in than necessary!
As kids get older, I think it’s important to have more focussed meal times as a family, to allow conversation and bonding, however as toddlers I think we can be a little bit more flexible. I wouldn’t recommend TV though, as it can quickly become a bad habit that’s tough to break!
Try different courses. My daughter goes through a love-hate relationship with avocado, however I want her to eat lots of it as the high fat content is just soooo good for bubs. So a trick I find works really well is to, when she’s hungriest, offer avocado first. She will demolish the plate easily. Then after that I offer her a main meal (eg her favourite Bolognese), followed by maybe some yoghurt or fruit for desert. This fits in with the attention span thing too, as different courses simply keep her more interested.
Make veggies normal. If they are part of every meal, and if there are green and red and orange veggies and fruit on the plate, then these are normal and accepted. However if bub is used to beige foods (toast, egg, cheese, pasta, biscuits etc) then as soon as something green appears they will turn up their noses, no wonder they turn into fussy eaters. So I’m not a big fan of ‘hiding’ veggies, although I totally understand if this is necessary as well, there are lots of great tips and recipe books available for that.
Avoid sugar. We all know why. Just do it. Theoretically sugar is allowed from 12 months old. However, they do not know what they are missing out on! And candy, chocolate cake, ice cream and tomato ketchup (full of sugar!) are simply not necessary as part of their daily diet. I’m not saying to deprive them, so it’s ok to allow sweet treats occasionally and at birthday parties, however they should not be a routine part of the daily diet. Sugar causes mood swings, energy slumps, temper tantrums, hyperactivity, long term health issues etc. There is just no need for that!
Convenience is so tempting. But avoid it if you can. Store bought meals are made to be very yummy and sweet so that kids love them and demand more, thereby causing you to BUY more. It’s simply how businesses work. If you don’t have time to batch cook, there are some great, wholefood baby brands emerging, so go to your local, small green grocer and check for mum-made brands, and always READ THE INGREDIENTS.
And finally… your mindset.
I once read this advice and it rang very true to me (sorry I can’t remember where I initially read it!).
It’s your baby’s job to choose what he/she wants to eat. And it’s your job to offer healthy options.
What this means is, everyone has different moods, desires and cravings on different days, so it’s ok to let your baby choose. Don’t stress, it doesn’t straight away mean you have a fussy eater. One day your bub may love avocado, and the next not even touch it. And that’s totally ok. You don’t need to force your bub to eat everything on the plate, and as long as you offer a few, great and nourishing alternatives, he or she will choose what tickles their fancy. Keep trying, don’t stress, and just do the best you can. 🙂 For some great snack and fingerfood ideas, check out my other blog post here.
Thanks for reading. I would love to hear your experiences with feeding your bubs, please comment or drop me an email. For some great recipe ideas to get you started, please click here. And also please let me know any other topics you are interested to hear. And as always, share the love with other mum friends who might find this helpful.