If there is one universal topic that brings parents anguish and frustration, then it has to be hands down our toddler’s eating behaviours. At some point in our child’s development, there is bound to be a period of fussiness… and this is to be expected. So how we handle these times is what matters most?
It is common for up to half of all toddlers to refuse to eat a new food at least half of the time, so try not to use this as a roadblock. You may need to offer an individual food up to 10-20 times or more before your baby will choose to eat it. However, around half of parents only persist two or three times before giving up on that food altogether.
Sometimes though things can be a little more complicated than that.
It is helpful to think like a child’s mind and put yourself in their shoes. Children are picky eaters for two main reasons.
- They prefer sweet over bitter tastes and are afraid to try new foods. This is simply a prehistoric defence mechanism to protect them from eating things that are poisonous (bitter). Sweet foods, like fruits, on the other hand, are energy-rich foods and it makes sense for children to be naturally attracted to the taste of foods that will give them the most energy.
- Neophobia usually kicks in when children reach about 2 years of age and this avoidance of unfamiliar foods can actually keep them safe. Toddlers can also be a bit overwhelmed by too many tastes offered together and gain over-sensitivity to any various herbs and spices in one dish.
Researchers at Bristol University in England discovered that delaying your baby’s introduction to lumpier foods may contribute to your toddler’s fussy eating habits. So, ensuring your baby has a wide variety of lumpy or chewy foods between the ages of six and nine months will help broaden their food awareness and lessen the prospect of fussy eating later on.
Another issue to consider is that children mirror and learn behaviours from their parents. Studies indicate that while up to 50 per cent of toddlers are fussy eaters, around 25 per cent of them have parents who admit to being fussy eaters also. This is why it is super important to be mindful of your words, actions, preferences and biases towards foods while you are in your child’s company. Your toddlers’ tastes may be completely different to yours and you could be unknowingly limiting their nutritional food bank.
The most common time picky eating occurs is during illness, teething, tiredness but if your child seems healthy and energetic the majority of the time, then they are eating enough. One important key takeaway we, as parents need to remember, is that your child will never voluntarily starve themselves. Children have the purest form of appetite control (we lose this ability as we age) and are particularly good at judging their hunger and fullness signals… as long as there are no other foods on offer that could persuade them otherwise.
Bribing using desserts, lollies or even offering foods your toddler feels ‘safe’ with as back-ups such as pasta, cheese and bread only makes them think that those items are better than the meal you offer, making refusal more likely.
Picky eating usually becomes a serious problem around ages 7-8. This is when parents realise that it is more than a ‘stage’. There can be underlying issues such as heightened taste/ smell receptors, fears, neophobia or digestive issues. Whatever the reason, it is important to explain to children of this age that unfamiliar foods aren’t bad for them, even if it seems that way. Exposure therapy helps to break down barriers – and this doesn’t necessarily mean it needs to be all about eating. Licking, kissing, just simply having it on the table and touching it with a conversation about the food is incredibly helpful in breaking down avoidant food habits.
Key tips to keep in mind to help a toddler accept a wide variety of foods if:
- Introduced new foods on a multiple-exposure basis (at least 10 is recommended)
- Avoid enticing with food rewards.
- Use verbal praise to help promote positive brain activity and experiences.
- Create a relaxed eating environment without pressure.
- Maintain positive role modelling in your choices and actions and respect your child’s tastes. Even if they dislike it keep serving it at mealtimes and over time, they may become more willing to try it again.