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Fussy eating – a practical and positive approach to helping little ones become good eaters

Research suggests that the UK’s toddlers are the fussiest in Europe, with 26% refusing meals at least once a day, compared to 15% in both France and Germany.  This is an all too familiar statistic for many parents who’ve lovingly created a meal for their little one, only to see it flung across the room or refused with an emphatic “NO!”  Many have speculated about why this may be but here I will attempt to summarise the evidence and give hope to those parents of fussy babies and toddlers.


Start as you mean to go on


By this I mean give your little one the diet you want him or her to eat as an adult when you are first weaning them.  At this age, tiny taste buds are receptive to new flavours and every taste is an exciting new discovery.  Here’s how to make the most of this time of exploration:

  • Eating is a multi-sensory experience – we eat with our eyes, noses and mouths as well as appreciating the texture of foods to the touch and when they crunch or squish when we chew.  This is even more important for babies who are learning about the world of food.  The more they can see food as we eat it – bright green broccoli, yellow mushy banana – the more likely they are to eat those foods when they make it onto their plate.  Blending everything together disguises tastes, textures and colours.
  • If you’ve never eaten anything before and the first food you eat is pureed spaghetti bolognese, how will you know the difference between the taste, colour, smell and texture of beef compared with tomato or pasta?
  • Starting with sweet foods like fruit blends will evoke happy coos from your little one but in the first couple of weeks of weaning, might also reinforce the sweet tooth that babies are born with.  Try saving fruits for later on in weaning, as you can see below.


Veg first


For the first 2 weeks of weaning, offer only non-sweet veg purees one by one – think broccoli, peas, green beans, cauliflower.  These bitter, strong tastes may evoke surprised expressions the first time they’re offered but, as babies are very receptive to new flavours, they will quickly accept new foods, often in a little as 3-4 tries or even less.  Contrast this with waiting until little ones are toddlers to introduce veg and you may have to offer them up to 10 times before they’re accepted!


After these first 2 weeks, you can start to introduce sweeter veg like sweet potato, squash and fruits.  Always offer new foods on their own and not mixed with other ingredients so your little one can get used to the taste, colour and texture (and you can also check for any reactions).  You can then start to offer blends of foods and introduce more complex tastes like pulses, meat, fish and dairy.


It’s never too late!


Even if you’re past that first weaning stage, there’s plenty you can do to help your little one become a happy and adventurous eater:


  • Set a good example – try to eat with your little ones and show them that you’re REALLY enjoying your veg and any other foods that are often met with a shake of the head.
  • If there’s a particularly hated food or a new food that’s being refused, put a small amount on the plate at each meal and ask your little one to try a tiny bit.  They don’t have to eat it all but do encourage them to try.  Studies show that you may have to offer new or disliked foods around 10 times before they’re accepted.  It may seem wasteful but you don’t have to offer a lot and if you’re eating it yourself too then there’s less waste.
  • Eat the same foods as your little one – try to avoid resorting to safe meals for toddlers like fish fingers and chicken nuggets and offer your toddler what you eat – it makes it so much easier to get them to eat what you do (assuming that’s not fish fingers!)
  • Offer lots of variety – the more varied the diet, the more likely little ones are to be good little eaters when they grow up.  Try eating a rainbow of fruit and veg colours each week and stick up a rainbow chart to colour in to show the different foods eaten each week.


You can have your pudding if you eat up all your veggies


Have you ever said this?  Be honest!


It might get little ones to eat their greens but it sets up a hierarchy of foods so that veg = bad and sweet treats = good.  This has been shown to devalue vegetables and in later life lead to comfort eating where sweet treats are seen as rewards not just for good eating behaviour but also to relieve emotional distress.


Offer stickers or simple praise for good eating behaviour.  It is just as effective.


Final thoughts


Mealtimes should be fun, not battle grounds.  Food is something to be savoured and enjoyed socially, as a family or with friends.  It’s not about being a diet nazi or having lots of rules, it’s about positive behaviour and encouraging little ones to try new things.  They’ll soon get the hang of it and be the mini gourmets you’d hoped for!

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