The following tips will teach you how to instill healthy food habits from the start and avoid the dreaded picky eater! Healthy eating habits start from the very beginning, so this article is a great read for parents of babies as young as 6 months. And don’t despair if you see your little one going down the picky road, it’s never too late to start.
Let them Touch their Food From Day One.
Allowing your baby to choose what foods he eats provides him a sense of control. Give your baby the opportunity to develop a healthy relationship with his food from the very beginning. Look at following sequence from your baby’s perspective, it involves a choice on each level: should I pick up the carrot… will I bring it to my mouth, taste it, and finally, do I want to eat it or not? On top of this, he is deciding if he likes the texture, will assess the hardness/softness and will then know what to expect when it’s in his mouth which is a very important safety measure to avoid choking. (This is an integral part of baby-led weaning, which all moms should know about!)
Letting your young child “play” with their food won’t ruin their manners, they’re too young. And it’s not really play in the sense we may typically think, anyhow. It’s allowing them to learn and know about their food. What do you do when a bite of food is offered to you that you’ve never had, let alone heard of? You likely smell it, examine it from all angles and try to make sense of it before deciding to accept or decline. The least you can do is to give your child the same courtesy.
Never. Force. Feed. Anything.
As a baby just learning to eat, force feeding, aka spoon-feeding when baby is attempting to turn head away, causes a three-fold issue right away: 1) baby misses the opportunity to investigate the food, 2) you are overriding baby’s gag-reflex and putting them for a higher risk of choking in the future and 3) baby has lost control and trust is gone. And, force feeding an older toddler just won’t happen and will cause major strife and tension at the dinner table.
We all have a very intimate relationship with the food we chose to prepare and eat on a daily basis. We trust that it tastes good, it’s good for us (hopefully), is safe to eat and will nourish our bodies. We also have an even larger emotional attachment to food. This may sound harsh, but don’t ruin your child’s relationship with food, let her be in charge, after all it’s not your place. Being forced to eat something you don’t want to will most certainly instill in your brain negative emotions about that particular food and will likely result in a lifetime of avoidance if the memory was extreme.
This doesn’t mean mom and dad should have no role. Children should always be asked and expected to try at least one bite of everything. How to work this out with your child is individual; it may need to be discussed away from the table when things are calm. If your babes are at the stage where defiance is ruling, don’t push it. Deal with the defiance in other areas of life, but don’t force them to eat.
Bottom line: let your dinner table become a place of peace, love and acceptance, not war.
Provide a Variety of Nutritious Foods then Let Baby Choose What and How Much of it to Eat.
For some reason, this adage has stuck with me since the moment I learned about it in my introductory nutrition classes. It just makes sense. Mom or dad, your role is to prepare a healthy meal. Attempt to provide a protein, fruit, vegetable and whole grain at most lunch and dinners. At breakfast, always incorporate a fruit.
You provide healthy choices, they choose what and how much to eat.
How is the Best Way to Serve Meals?
Serve a few bites of each meal item to baby all together (don’t think you need to hold back the fruit till the end of the meal). Your baby is now empowered with control and is able to decide for himself what he wants to eat first. He may choose to eat all of one item or do a tasting. My little girl needs to “get in the mood”, she usually spits out her first few bites, and then she’s off to the races. Let your baby try everything before re-loading his tray/plate. Once he has tried or finished most everything, go ahead and give him more of all components. You will be surprised to see how he likes some things one day, then spits it out the next.
Everyone at the Table Eats the Same Thing. And Everyone Sits at the Table.
Eating dinner together with your family at the same table is one of the most important things you can do for your children.
According to a study done by Hammons & Fiese, “Your child may be 35% less likely to engage in disordered eating, 24% more likely to eat healthier foods and 12% less likely to be overweight.” (3) Taking the time out of your day to spend with each other teaches respect, instills stability and places an importance on family. Just do it.
Be considerate of your family’s preferences when preparing meals. Talk about dinner before hand and discuss with everyone what should be on the menu. If you let them be a part of the decision making (and cooking if at all possible) acceptance of the meal will be higher.
Set Fairly Rigid Meal and Snack Times.
Children thrive on predictability, heck we all do. When we are unsure of things in life, our stress level rises. One of the most important things you can do for your child is to provide a stable and predictable environment. This means meals and sleep times around the same times each day. Of course some days may need to be altered due to circumstance, but for the most part aim to feed your baby breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks within the half hour of your regular time.
Never Use Food as a Reward or Take Away Food as a Form of Punishment.
This is similar to the above in that we are trying to avoid the creation of any negative emotions toward food. Most meals should be healthy and nourishing to your body and soul, so don’t deprive your child of this essential part of daily life because he has decided to throw the remote control at his brother.
In the same way, we also should strive to avoid creating an association between food and positive emotions that are unassociated with hunger. What does that mean? Avoid giving food for achievements or using food to improve mood. This will only result in eating when she’s not hungry to fulfill another need.
Avoid giving food for achievements or using food to make her feel better.
Children who have aggressively adopted these habits go on to really struggle with their weight as an adult because they rely on the chemicals sent through the brain to achieve satisfaction and good feelings due to eating. The last thing you want your child to learn is to satisfy his emotional needs with food. Instead of offering to go to ice cream or allowing extra dessert, allow your older child to pick what is on the menu for dinner or a special restaurant. For the younger ones, if your baby is acting out, avoid giving food to improve her mood. Instead, comfort her with hugs, a change of scenery… anything but food. And if she is upset because she’s hungry, feed her a meal or a healthy snack.
If they Refuse, Try Again Later. And Again. And Again. Eventually, they’ll Come Around.
Let’s say, your baby develops a love for tangerines overnight. She eats them daily for almost a week, then all of a sudden, as quickly as the love came on, it’s gone, like teenage infatuation. When you offer her that tangerine again, she’ll spit those bites out as soon as they hit her mouth. This is completely normal. Just because she continues to spit them out doesn’t mean she now dislikes tangerines. She’ll come back around.
It’s uncertain, but babies may have an innate drive that lets them know what kind of foods their body needs at that time. Did her system just need a load of vitamin C and that is why she couldn’t get enough citrus? Science has not yet been able to answer that question. After all, pregnant women who are low in zinc or iron do crave dirt (rich in minerals), a condition called pica. However, as a side note, they have been able to rule out that theory in adults. Adult “cravings” are largely associated with hormones and the brain’s chemicals, not due to nutrient needs. But you never know, one day we may find out that children’s odd food choices really do serve their body a larger purpose. So with that said, offer her the tangerines in a couple weeks and see if she likes them again.
Children, and adults for that matter, have a natural aversion to new tastes called neophobia, so it’s no wonder a new flavor may be a turn-off for your child. Babies who are formula fed, or those with mommas who were a little lackluster in the diversity of their cuisine during pregnancy, will have an even tougher time with accepting new flavors. But good thing, a new flavor is only new so many times. Soon, if mom and dad continue to offer, it will become a typical flavor and hopefully a favorite.
Interesting Facts About Taste
- Taste buds are functioning during gestation at around 15 weeks. (2)
- Babies begin to acclimate to your culture’s tastes via amniotic fluid which takes on strong food flavors and spices. (1)
- Breastfed babies are able to enjoy the varying flavors of momma’s milk. Multiple studies have shown babies tend to suckle longer when breastmilk is flavored with vanilla or garlic. (1)
- Studies also show that flavors introduced in utero and during breasfeeding were more easily accepted once the baby was eating. (One more reason why breastfeeding is preferred vs. the same bland formula taste.) (1)
THE INFORMATION PROVIDED DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. All content information is intended to be for general informational purposes only. Please see your doctor with regard to information attained from the above article if you are concerned with the health of your child. The content above is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. NEVER NEGLECT YOUR DOCTOR’S PROFESSIONAL MEDICAL ADVICE BECAUSE OF SOMETHING YOU HAVE READ.
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