So you weaned your baby and it was great. Where did it all go wrong with your toddler’s eating?
I mentioned last week that toddlers can have a different relationship with food than babies do. From around the age of 1 toddlers can go from happily eating anything you put in front of them, to pushing away all but the tiniest bits of beige food, despite all your bribing, cajoling and pleading.
Mealtimes can quickly go from being fun (but messy), to being highly stressful, and we worry about whether our darling child is eating enough, getting enough nutrients and of course, “have I done something to cause this”?
Toddlers do manage their food intake.
You can be reassured that over the course of a day, they will eat as much as they need. We all have days where we are more or less hungry. Some children get what they need from grazing all day. Others may eat loads in the morning then not really want an evening meal. It’s really good to let your child choose how much they want to eat by serving themselves.
We don’t want them to feel that eating pleases Mummy and Daddy, or that eating horrible food leads to rewards (sweet food), or that mealtimes are bad, as all of these will lead to problems in the long term.
Unfortunately, excitement and stress are great appetite suppressors. A toddler needs to calm down to realise they are hungry. Trying to get an excited child to eat can get into a negative, stressful pattern. The more laid back the parent, the better.
How did you feed them as a baby before they weaned?
We are happy with the concept of baby-led feeding on demand. Babies have tiny tummies and need feeding all through the day/night. It’s a big switch to expect them to start eating 3 large meals a day once they have weaned and many children prefer not to eat a big meal all at once, which can be tricky at nursery, but more manageable at home.
Why do they have such a limited palate?
Many toddlers strongly dislike bitter or sour flavours such as in green vegetables, and are extremely sensitive to them. This is because toddlers have many more tastebuds than adults. They even have them in their cheeks, not just on their tongues. It has even been found that there is a genetic component to this and some people are much more sensitive to bitter flavours. If you or your partner were fussy eaters as children, I’m afraid you might have passed this on to your child.
Toddlers also have what is called neophobia, which is a fear of new foods. Babies are usually keen to put anything in their mouths, but around the age of 1 or 2, they start to develop fears of new food (even if they previously liked it!). They like what they know and know what they like. This may mean a phase of eating only a few things, typically beige food. This phase can last until the age of around 6 or 7. Common fears are around green vegetables, and protein.
This is normal, and from an evolutionary point of view, sensible. Poisonous plants tend to taste bitter, and things that are safe to eat tend to be sweet. Meat is also risky to eat if not cooked properly. Toddlers have moved out of the baby phase of being completely dependent on their mother for food in the form of milk, and so they now have the ability to eat whatever they want, which is why if you imagine a cave person toddler, wandering around, they don’t want to be eating any old plant or any bit of meat they find – they are going to survive better if they stick to the things they know are completely safe.
What can help?
So what can we do to prevent our children from growing into fussy eating adults, and keep mealtimes a nice experience for everyone?
The answer is simply exposure. Keep offering them the food they don’t like. Suggest they try a tiny piece. If they don’t like it, don’t make a fuss, let them eat the food they do like. If you can eat together as a family this is ideal, so they can see you eating the “scary” foods. With repeated exposure, they should eventually become more ready to try new things and even enjoy them.
Suggestions for happier mealtimes
Here are some things that may help. However, there is no quick fix for this. My son was a brilliant eater as a baby, went off virtually EVERYTHING healthy at the age of 1, and at 8 and a half, his diet is still limited mainly to carbs. I have found ways to hide veg in some meals, and he can now be persuaded to eat a small amount of sauce on his pasta. It’s a pain and I find it really frustrating, but his dad was exactly the same as a child and we try very hard not to pressure him to eat things he hates.
My daughter (aged 5) is a grazer. She does eat a wider variety of food than her brother, but it’s virtually impossible to get her to sit down and eat a meal without lots of faffing about. She would much rather pick at things all day long. Again, I know this won’t last forever and as with so much of parenting, keeping the long term goal in mind is key!
Here are some top tips:
- Respect their natural appetites and taste preferences
- Get them involved in preparing food and cooking (and growing foods if possible).
- Let them feed themselves where possible.
- Make food look fun.
- Make mealtimes social – relaxed, calm, all sitting together at the table. Eating with other children can be a winner too.
- Take snacks out with you so they don’t have to wait.
- Keep offering disliked foods but don’t force them to eat them.
- Buffet style is a winner, as are picnics.
- Don’t force them to sit for hours at the table, as they cannot sit still. Trying to get them to sit for longer than they are able to will only lead to problems.
- Be aware of your own upbringing around food, and what pushes your buttons, be it mess, wasting food, not eating your greens. It can be an extremely emotive issue if you have struggled with food yourself.