Calling ALL parents with fussy-eating toddlers. Most of us have been there – once upon a time your little ones might have been the ‘perfect eater’ – and if they still are, you can close this page now, as it means we can no longer be friends… 😉
When weaning our babies around the 6-month mark, the amount of time, effort, energy (and sometimes money) spent can be obscene. We often put our heart and souls in to the encouragement (or enforcement) of a healthy and balanced diet from a young age, to get our kiddies liking (or at least used to) vegetables and other nutritional foods. We feel so proud of our achievements when they happily scoff large clumps of broccoli, eat scrambled egg, get excited for vegetable and lentil stews, enjoy the texture of meat and fish and could eat avocado all day long if they could. And if your kid is happily eating celery sticks and spoons of dry quinoa, again – we can no longer be friends!
This isn’t always the case as they get older. As they become exposed to other foods, or as naturally implanted in to their DNA, the fussy eating phase, for so many of us, is somewhat inevitable as they approach toddler years.
Suddenly, often between the age of 1 and 2, out of no where, that piece of broccoli is repeatedly thrown on the floor, they’re refusing the blueberries that you’ve spent a small fortune on, the homemade fish cakes you’ve lovingly batch made are now refused. As a parent it can actually feel frustrating and a sense of failure – well it did for me anyway.
Cue Lucy of TeenyWeanies, who runs workshops, courses and 1:1 appointments in person or via video call – she preps you for the weaning process – i.e. for new mums looking for support, advice and preparation for their weaning journeys, as well as the very popular fussy eating workshops. Lucy is also a paediatric dietitian working with the NHS.
Lucy has answered a number of questions for me for this blog post, all aimed towards fussy eating toddlers (as I am currently experience a slightly fussy 2 year old). She gives tips on a number of matters and clears up a few points which can often cause a debate as well as tips and tricks to help encourage their eating habits, taste buds and variety in to their diets.
In her own weaning experience, she found lots of information conflicting and came across many parents who were confused about introducing solid food – when to start, what foods to give, and thus Lucy is on a mission to help parents feel informed and receive up to date, unbiased, and evidence based information through her work with TeenyWeanies…
1) My LO was such a good eater in the beginning, voluntarily eating vegetables but now is refusing picking up a piece of carrot of broccoli like he used to. Why is this and how can I combat it?
Fussy eating is a very normal part of development for many children, but that doesn’t make it any less stressful or frustrating for parents! During the weaning stage and early toddlerhood, children tend to readily accept new foods, textures, colours etc. But when children get to around 15-18 months many of them start becoming more fussy for several reasons:
Many will enter a phase called ‘food neophobia’ which is a reflex left over from our hunter gathering past which kept children safe by stopping them from eating anything new that they came across, such as poisonous berries that might have killed them. Our environment has evolved dramatically but we have not quite caught up yet! So many children will simply stop eating new foods because their brain is telling them it is unsafe to do so!
Secondly it is often about control. Young children have very little control over their daily lives, so food (and getting dressed!) often become a time for them to take control of the situation. Toddlers quickly realise that by refusing to eat they are in control of the mealtime so unfortunately the more you try to get them to eat certain foods the less likely they are to do so.
When I work with families to decrease fussy eating, we think about why that child is fussy and work around these issues to increase the variety in the diet.
2) Why do toddlers venture in to a beige only phase – my son loves toast, pasta, rice and potato but unless I hide vegetables it’s hard to get anything other than beige in his diet?
Many toddlers start veering towards beige foods because they find them safe; they tend not to have strong flavours and often children show a preference for crunchy foods. I feel it’s important to say that there’s nothing wrong with beige foods and most of them have some nutrients in so don’t get too stressed if your child goes through this phase. Just keep on offering other foods alongside these foods (keeping them separated on the plate if your child finds it stressful if they are touching) and don’t pressure them to eat anything they really don’t want to.
3) Meat. Is it a texture thing? Some toddlers refuse meat or pick it out of their mouths. How do we combat this and/or how else can we get protein in to their diets.
Meat can be tricky for children to eat and some don’t like the texture. It doesn’t have to be a major problem though as meat is relatively easy to replace in a child’s diet. The protein can be replaced with fish, eggs, nut butters, lentils, beans, chickpeas etc.
Iron is an important part of the diet and many of us get it predominantly from meat but again this can easily be replaced by eating fortified cereals (such as ready brek), eggs, dark green leafy vegetables, wholegrains, dried fruit and pulses. If your child doesn’t eat meat you should offer a food containing vitamin C with meals to help absorb the iron in the meal an non meat sources of iron are harder for us to absorb.
4) Should I stop giving desserts during this fussy phase? Desserts are often yoghurt and/or a sweet-ish fruit such as pear. But a healthy dessert has it’s benefits, doesn’t it?
Desserts absolutely have their place in a child’s diet, particularly a child that doesn’t eat a good variety of foods. If you use desserts such as fruit, yoghurt and rice pudding they are all nutritious and should be seen as an extra opportunity to get important nutrients such as calcium in.
People often withhold dessert as a punishment or use it as a bribe (for example: if you eat your broccoli you can have some ice cream). We should really avoid this kind of behaviour because doing so essentially demonises the main meal and puts the dessert up on a pedestal. There’s lots of research to show that this is effective in the short term, but long term it makes the child eat less of their meal which is the opposite of what we want.
5) Milk. Is this still important in a 2-year old’s diet and is it time to wean off giving a bottle at bed time?
This is a good question! Milk is an important part of a growing child’s diet and provides many nutrients such as fat, protein, calcium and fat soluble vitamins. However, many children are drinking WAY too much of it which can have an impact on how much food is eaten at mealtimes. If we look at how much milk a 1-3 year old needs to drink to meet their calcium requirements for the day it is 300mls (or the equivalents in dairy would be 100mls milk plus 15g cheese plus 80g of yoghurt which isn’t much at all really).
The bottle – that’s a tough one! Yes, ideally by 2 years children should have stopped drinking out of bottles. The recommendation is that babies from a year onwards should transition over to a cup to drink milk to protect their teeth. This is because drinking from a bottle sucks milk up to the roof of the mouth and therefore coats all of the teeth in milk and can contribute to tooth decay. This is especially important if children are still going to sleep with a bottle and are therefore not brushing their teeth. However, as a mother myself I wholeheartedly understand how difficult this can be!
6) How do you make vegetables fun or appealing? Or is it the case of blending veg in sauces etc so it’s hidden, or giving it every day until they accept it’s daily serving?
Some people like to make smiley faces or pictures with their food to make it appealing which can work really well. Personally for me I’ve never been that good at it, I’m definitely not a Pinterest mum!! I don’t have the time or the inclination. More importantly its just about giving them at all meals so your child just becomes used to having them there and will start to eat them over time provided they are not pressured to do so.
8) Should we be offering an alternative meal if our children don’t eat what is on offer?
In a word: no! If we offer an alternative option there is very little chance that the meal on offer will be eaten because your child knows that something else will be given if they refuse. Particularly because the alternative is often something quick, easy and appealing to the child (sandwich, jam on toast etc). As parents is easy to panic that our children are going to be hungry, which of course isn’t ideal, but it is also not a terrible situation if it isn’t happening regularly. The way to work around this is to always have one of your child’s ‘safe’ foods on offer, that way you both feel relaxed and happy. You because you know at least something will be eaten and your child won’t be hungry and your child because they will feel less intimidated by a plate of food that includes one of their familiar foods.
9) What is/are your fail-proof dishes when you’re in a hurry and you need to serve a quick meal?
Quick meals for us would be things like omelette, jacket potatoes, avocado on toast, scrambled eggs, avocado & toast, pasta with a can of chopped tomatoes, tuna & cheese. I do try to make sure I have leftovers in the freezer too so that I can grab a tub out and defrost it! Parents definitely should not feel guilty using quick bung in dinners as we definitely don’t have time to be cooking from scratch everyday. I don’t anyway!!
10) Are there any things we should be doing to help as a preventative?
Although much of fussy eating is biologically programmed to happen, there are definitely things we can be doing to help prevent fussy eating. My 3 top tips to prevent fussy eating (there are plenty of others too!) would be:
· Sitting and eating as a family is a biggie! So few families sit and eat together these days, but we know that children that eat with even just one parent eat more fruits and vegetables.
· Exposure is also really important. During the weaning process and beyond it’s important to make sure that children are offered a really good variety of foods from all the main food groups as often as possible. If they are used to being offered lots of different foods, if they become neophobic it will have way less impact on you as a parent because there will be far fewer foods that they aren’t already used to.
· Start as you mean to go on. Unfortunately, I meet a lot of families who are struggling to get their child to eat the same food as the rest of the family and this is often because the baby has been given totally different food for the first few months, then turns 1 and the family think it’s time to switch to normal food but it becomes a real struggle as the baby often finds the transition across extremely difficult. There is a real misconception in our society that babies need to eat ‘special food’ and that they wouldn’t eat normal family food but this isn’t the case at all. Whatever you wean with is what your child will expect to eat as they get bigger so do your research, look at cookbooks, attend a weaning course if you have a baby and you’ll make your life a WHOLE lot easier!
Thank you so much Lucy for giving me such honest, in depth and really helpful advice. I hope you find it helpful too.
Lucy runs fussy eating workshops and can also provide 1:1 consultations in person or via Skype/Facetime. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, follow TeenyWeanies on Facebook here and Instagram here where she shares lots of tips and insight.
Thanks for reading.