Toddlers and food are often a very difficult combination. It often leads to mess, tears (from child and parent) and dry toast for dinner. As parents, we all envisage our children eating a rainbow of healthy foods. We have the best intentions and really try to make this a reality when we introduce those first foods. However, most mums I speak to have difficulties to get their child to eat the right foods, particularly in the toddler years.
Where do we go wrong? What changes in our children? How can we give them the nutrition they need? Is there an easier way?
Unfortunately, there are no hard and fast rules that will miraculously make your child love healthy foods. However, there are a few tips and tricks that I have used to help their nutritional intake, as well as educating them to start making the right decisions on their own. I am not a nutrition expert, nor are my children perfect eaters (Cristian is pretty close). I do, however, work really hard to give them the best possible foods and have had to put in some extra effort and tricks into Sofia’s eating.
So let’s break this down into ages and stages. The following are recommendations I followed from my Maternal and Child Health Nurse and Paediatrician. It is always recommended that you speak to your own professionals before beginning to introduce foods to your child, especially if there are any known allergies in your family.
Introducing solids (between 4 – 6 months)
For both of my children, it was recommended to me to begin solids at 4 months of age. I know this may vary for different children, so please check with your health care provider first.
Although the variety of foods introduced at this age isn’t very exciting, I tried to find a range of different vegetables to develop their palates. I decided that the first few foods I’d introduce would be vegetables rather than fruits. I felt this would stop them from only wanting sweet things. This was purely a choice I made and it didn’t necessarily make a big difference to Sofia’s eating. I would head down to my local fruit and vegetable shop and source a range of different vegetables, some that even I hadn’t tried before. I gave them parsnips, swede, turnips and beetroot along with the usual broccoli, carrots, sweet potato and pumpkin.
Cristian took to most foods pretty quickly. I think he was always just so hungry and therefore happy to eat whatever was on offer. Whereas Sofia was difficult from the get go. She only liked sweet potato and therefore I would add it to pretty much every meal. Sometimes you just have to do what works.
At this stage food is introduced really just to expose them to different textures and flavours, not necessarily for fullness. So use this time to explore flavours and combinations, mix fruits and vegetables, your child doesn’t know what should and shouldn’t be eaten together.
These are the guidelines I was given by my Maternal and Child Health Nurse:
- Milk is given before foods
- one meal a day
- puree fruit and vegetables (any except for highly acidic foods like oranges, strawberries – otherwise no exceptions
- introduce a new food every 2 – 3 days – this will allow your child’s stomach to become accustomed to the food and also allow you to become aware of any possible allergies or intolerances. Once a few are introduced you can start to make combinations.
- there is no correct amount of food – follow your child’s signs of want and fullness.
- drinking cooled boiled water from a free flow sippy cup
- same as 4 months but increase to 2 meals a day
Moving on to finger foods (6 months +)
This is a stage that can sometimes be scary for many parents as there is the risk of choking or allergies. If you have concerns, then it is always suggested to get professional support.
At this stage I always used a combination of purees, mashed foods and finger foods for meals. I found that both kids were very different in this stage of development. Cristian much preferred to be fed purees or mashed meals that were substantial. Finger foods seemed to be more for snacks of at the end of a meal. Sofia, on the other hand, preferred to pick at finger food for herself than be spoon fed.
To begin with I kept things pretty simple, like toast or soft boiled vegetables. When I felt Cristian and Sofia were confident with this I moved on to meat, pancakes, muffins etc. This is when I really started to get creative with my cooking. I don’t really enjoy cooking, but I did enjoy finding new ways to introduce foods. One Handed Cooks was my best friend at this stage. Their recipes are easy to follow, freezer friendly and generally got the tick of approval from both kids.
These are the guidelines I was given by my Maternal and Child Health Nurse:
- mash foods instead of puree – starting to get used to different textures
- introduce meat (all types are fine)
- begin to introduce finger foods – this will help children with their hand eye coordination as well and moving their gag reflex further back in order to be able to eat a wider variety of foods
- introduce Weetabix or porridge – this can now be with full cream milk or with expressed breastmilk or formula
- they can begin to drink tap water from a sippy cup
8 Months +
- 3 meals a day
- food can become more for substance
- no more purees – try to encourage eat more foods on their own.
- some children will be ready to have solids before milk feeds
Moving on to family meals (toddlers and beyond)
This is the stage that most mums find more difficult. It is a stage where children begin to understand they can say no and decide whether they like or don’t like certain foods. Although it can be rather difficult, it is an important stage to persist with setting healthy eating expectations in order to prepare children for adolescence.
My number one tip for this age group is to get them involved in food preparation. From growing their own produce to helping prepare ingredients and making a meal, children will be more likely to try new foods if they have been involved in preparing them.
Our kids are constantly hovering around the kitchen during meal times. We try to involve them in a way that is fun and safe. At 4 years of age, Cristian is now able to peel, chop and break an egg. He enjoys mixing and stirring as well. We make a big deal about the fact that he helped make the delicious food and therefore he is proud to eat it.
Sofia is still a little too young to help out in the kitchen, however, we do let her help ‘sprinkle’ the odd ingredient in or simply taste something we are chopping up. She is rather picky when it comes to food, so we consider it a big win if she takes a bite of a bean or carrot while we are prepping dinner.
Did you know it can take a child up to 10 tastes to like a particular food? I found this really interesting because we often just assume kids don’t like certain foods after their first taste, and therefore never give it to them again. Instead, you should be encouraging your child to just taste it every time you make it. Although Sofia won’t eat most of the things on her plate, I continue to put them there. Every so often a small piece of a new food will be eaten and who knows, she may like it. For example, I have been giving Sofia green beans since she was about eight months old but she has never eaten them. Only recently has she started to like them and will often eat them before other foods on her plate.
A good time to offer foods that they don’t usually love is when they are hungry. For example, if a child usually leaves their vegetable and only eats the meat, give them the vegetables first. Many times we have all eaten the vegetables first and then had the meat after. This means that a hungry child will probably have a few mouthfuls of the vegetables on offer simply out of hunger.
There is also nothing wrong with hidden goodness. I am a great believer of hiding vegetables in as many places as possible. I do not mean under the couch or behind a cushion, but whether it’s in a cheesy muffin or in your pasta sauce, it means your child is getting some extra vegetables and nutrition in their diet. Of course we all want our children to just eat the good stuff, but that is something that may come with time. I always think it is better to get the goodness into them along with trying to expose them to the individual food item.
Remember this rule: If you are excited, they’ll be excited. If you don’t eat it, neither will they! We always eat the same thing for meal times. This means that we are being role models for our children and therefore modelling healthy eating habits. Make sure you always praise them for trying new foods and for eating some healthy foods. We always talk about good foods and sometimes foods, this means that Cristian and Sofia will grow with an understanding of food choices and the benefits or consequences.
Useful Sites and References
One Handed Cooks
Maternal and Child Health Services
Food in the First Year
Why No Sweet Drinks
Healthy Eating for Toddlers
Healthy Eating for Kindergarten Children