Does your child turn her nose up at every meal you offer, sticking to her favourites of white bread and spaghetti? Refusing new foods is a common complaint about children, but the important thing is Don't give up.
One of the first interactions we have with our babies is feeding them. As parents we have an important and influential role to play while we grapple with behaviours that humans and most mammals possess, such as:
- An innate dislike for bitter and sour flavours
- An innate preference for sweet flavours
- A natural fear to try new or unfamiliar foods
- A natural interest for new foods
These are quite possibly a way of protecting us from toxins found in nature, which commonly have a bitter or sour taste; while encouraging us to consume food from energy sources which usually consist of a sweet taste. However, they can also lead to the development of a fussy eater. Thankfully, children also display an enormous ability to learn to like new foods, and this is where we as parents can adopt practices that can encourage food acceptance.
Fussiness is more likely to develop before the age of 5, but it can emerge at a later stage. It is characterised by children eating limited variety of foods with special restriction of vegetables, fruits, and fibre. We must remember that vegetables and fruits are great sources of vitamins, minerals, fibre and carbohydrates, and their intake can help children maintain a healthful weight by replacing energy derived from fatty foods. There is evidence that children considered to be fussy eaters could be at risk of slight nutritional deficits that would mean they may weigh less than non-fussy eaters; so you should check for signs that reflect your child is not gaining enough weight for length. But there is no medical evidence that fussy eating has any long-term, overall health effects. If you are concerned about your child's growth, a GP is the best person to talk to.
If your child is particularly fussy around chunky or lumpy foods, you may want to get a knife set to help you cut food into smaller, more manageable pieces. With the right knife for example, you can dice veg into small enough pieces that you can completely disguise them in a sauce, meaning your child is still getting all the nutritional benefit of the veg without even knowing it! After they've eaten it and if they liked it, tell them the veg that you used, and they may be more inclined to try larger chunks in the future. Just make sure to keep the knives away from them!
Timing is important. It has been shown that fruits and vegetables are more easily accepted at the beginning of weaning, compared to children between 2?4 years of age. A tendency to feed children in their first year sweet foods, rather than bitter, may reinforce their inborn preference for sweet flavours.
Exposure is also important. Studies have shown that many parents give up trying to introduce a new food after it has been rejected a few times. It has been revealed that 8?10, and as many as 15, attempts are required before infants will accept the food. It has also been shown that increasing the variety of foods can improve the acceptance of future new foods. The trick, from day one, is to offer different vegetables on a regular basis, or in different combinations ? thereby encouraging an overall acceptance of new and different foods. This also leads to learned safety, i.e., the child realises that new food can be eaten without any negative effect.
tips for all ages
- Give your children the same meal as the rest of the family. Don't provide them with special meals out of fear they won't eat, this will instead prevent the children from learning to accept variety.
- Children see, children do ? so, at an early age, encourage the importance of healthy foods by regularly eating them yourself.
- Make meal times an important and distinct part of the day, removed from the distractions of toys or TV, and instead, a social time for the family.
- Have a special dinner on the weekend. For example, a roast dinner every Sunday night can be a great time to introduce new foods, all in a relaxed, happy family atmosphere ? your child will probably not even notice that they have had new food put on their plate.
- As frustrating as it is, you must be patient and persevere with introducing new foods.
- Be creative in trying to make the food attractive; you know your children best and what works for some, won't work for all.
ages and stages Under-5s
- Don't focus on fussy eating as an issue, have a positive attitude towards it. This is the beginning of the long relationship that we all have with food and it should be made enjoyable.
- Re-naming food can be a way of making the food more enticing. Broccoli could be green trees, peas could be green balls, salmon could be pink chicken, and even water could be sky soda. To kids, making food more exciting is often the key.
- Don't give up! If your child refuses to eat certain foods, try again another day. You could also try preparing the same food in different ways, with different combinations and at different meals.
- Use a food processor/blender. Pureed and softer foods are often more easily accepted. Soups, for example, are a great way to combine all sorts of vegetables and other ingredients to deliver their 5+ a day.
- Let them eat foods with their hands, this way they can explore and become familiar with the food before eating it.
5- to 8-years
- Have family dinners where all the members of the family sit together to eat. Young children learn to eat by example, and the family setting is perfect for them to ?normalise' what they are eating.
- Ask the children to help in the kitchen while preparing a meal. They can help by getting things out of the fridge, passing the ingredients and, with lots of care, mixing.
- Let children exert their independence by choosing how much to put on their plate. They are often the best judge of how much food they can eat.
- Think about the presentation. A big blob of mashed potato for example, can look unappetising, but if you make it into ?Mount Everest' it becomes more exciting.
- Freezing changes the texture, often for the better, of some foods. Frozen yoghurt and home-made ice-blocks are delicious; frozen bananas also taste entirely different. Frozen blueberries are great in a smoothie, and frozen peas put in a cup and eaten with the fingers are also very more-ish for kids who don't like cooked veg.
9- to 12-years
- Use recipes where you can incorporate vegetables by either mixing them into a tomato sauce, finely cut onto pizza or put into pasta bakes.
- Don't make unhealthy snacks available at home. With unhealthy food choices removed, kids will be more likely to consume fruits and vegetables as snacks.
- Enjoy meals with your kids without using pressure and restriction, and get them involved in all aspects of food preparation from gardening to meal planning, through to experimenting with recipes.
Tofu and lentil balls
This original recipe was a hit at home. Children love the concept of finger food and always enjoy a homemade dip ? it increases the fun factor of any meal and parents know very well how important that is for fussy eaters.
Vegetarian people will appreciate the use of tofu. Tofu has the health benefits of soy beans, which are among the few plant sources of complete protein and which can help lower LDL blood cholesterol, among other things. The Guacamole yoghurt dip can also be used to accompany sticks of raw vegetables.
1 small shallot
1 clove garlic
300g cooked lentils (tinned lentils in brine will do fine)
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
2 egg yolks
55g wholemeal flour
Guacamole yoghurt dip
1 teaspoon lemon juice
3 tablespoons Greek-style yoghurt
1 teaspoon avocado oil
salt and pepper
Peel and slice the shallot and garlic. Place in a food processor with the lentils, crumbed tofu and the olive oil. Process until well blended. Mix in the egg yolks and fold in the flour.
Using your fingers, shape spoonfuls of this mixture into small balls and place on the prepared tray until all the mixture has been used up. Fan bake in the oven for 30 minutes.
To make the guacamole yoghurt dip, pur?e the flesh of the avocado with a fork. Drizzle with lemon juice and add the yoghurt and avocado oil. Season with salt and pepper and mix until well combined. Serve with the tofu and lentil balls
By Christelle Le Ru
Cookbook author & mum of five