Although we all know toddlers won’t starve themselves to death, it can be extremely worrying if you have a child who won’t eat, or who eats a very narrow range of foods.
Society’s (and the health profession’s) preoccupation with weight from day they’re born doesn’t help, and it can be even more anxiety-provoking when your child is clearly expending loads of energy, yet refusing to eat anything more than a few raisins.
Having a child who eats a wide range of foods not only makes your life easier, but more importantly, facilitates them growing up into adolescents and adults who are properly nourished by their diet. So here are some tips to keep your relaxed when it comes to introducing new foods to your toddler or young child.
Things to try
1. Don’t forget that neophobia (fear of new foods) is normal, so expect your child to resist trying a new food. In caveman times, neophobia prevented toddlers from eating poisonous berries when they started crawling around under their own steam, so it had an important function. Your child still needs you to show them new foods are safe and may well be naturally suspicious. Read more about neophobia here.
a) Food on Mummy or Daddy’s plate might therefore seem more interesting (or even safer) than food on their own plate. In the early days of weaning it’s fine for your little one to help herself to food from your plate. Don’t let it become a habit and only you will know when you feel your child has the cognition to be able to understand that is no longer acceptable.
2. Expect to offer your child a food 20 times (and have it refused) in the same format before you think you may have a problem with it. And even then, don’t give up. Re-offer it again after a break. A cucumber slice will be perceived as a different food to grated cucumber so treat them as different foods and offer them appropriately.
3. Introduce new foods when you don’t feel pressurised to get your child to eat it. You can do this in a variety of ways:
a) Introduce a food as part of a game, not at a mealtime. Introduce it in a fun way, and act as if you don’t even expect your child to eat the food. For example, play guessing games about what the food tastes/feels/smells like: “Is this green, like cucumber?” Make sure you give wrong and right answers so that you can laugh together and your child feels safe getting it wrong.
b) Use the meal your child eats best (i.e. the one where everyone feels happiest) to introduce something new. With many toddlers, this is breakfast time since their little stomachs are empty.
c) If new tastes are difficult, introduce new textures, as taste and texture go together.
d) Change one aspect of a food your child will eat (e.g. shape, temperature, way it’s served). Remember that even small changes can feel unsettling for children.
e) Don’t get disheartened if your child accepts a food one day and refuses it the next. Likes and dislikes change all the time under the age of 5.
When you introduce a new food, your aim should not be to get your child to eat it – this only adds pressure in an already potentially challenging situation for your child.
Aim to help your child have fun and gain interest – as we all know, babies and toddlers explore by putting things in their mouths, so something has caught their interest, it’ll probably end up in their mouths next!
Aim to get your child to feel confident enough to taste the new food, rather than eat it. Tell yourself that all they need to do is try it.
4. Use your child’s wish to be included. Eat together as a family if possible or invite other children over, and really enjoy your food in an obvious way. Give your child some of the new food but don’t pay an excessive amount of attention to them, in terms of whether they eat it. Let them work out that they want to join in, and let them do this at their own pace. This might not happen with just one sitting, particularly if your child isn’t confident, so give it some time and continually demonstrate how yummy it is, and what they’re missing socially (i.e. everyone enjoying the experience of eating the new food together).
5. Introduce the new food when you know your child is hungry and give them a little less of the food you know they’ll eat, so they’re likely to still be hungry and have the new food left on their plate/high chair table.
6. Use vitamin drops, which are now recommended by Health Visitors for all children from 6 months of age. Then at least you will know your child is getting the vitamins they need.
What not to do
Do not try to feed your child the new food or control the process – allow them to self-feed and accept the new thing into their world at their own pace. It’s easier to do this if you don’t feel anxious.
Do not focus on your child if they try something – this may well make them feel self-conscious and prompt withdrawal, particularly if they have historically refused the food.
Do not disguise foods with other foods – hiding vegetables in sauces is often recommended but we strongly advise against this, as this is not teaching your child anything. You’re not prompting interest in food, or confidence in trying new things. Furthermore, you’re not even winning the battle in getting your child to eat new food, you’re just putting it off, and meanwhile, you’re reinforcing that they only have to eat the same sauce that they always eat.
Do not bargain – again, this is sometimes recommended, but we strongly advise against it. In bargaining, you’re allowing your child to see that you’re really invested in them complying, which can set up power battles you don’t want. You are also setting up some foods as ‘good’ and others as ‘bad’. Food is just food – ice cream shouldn’t be a reward or a treat you get if you eat broccoli.
So use our tips, stay calm and make it your New Year’s resolution to help your child have lots of new yummy discoveries next year!
Read more about introducing solids, preventing and managing fussy eating habits in our latest evidence-based book Worry-free Weaning.
Dr Anna Walton is a chartered counselling psychologist and Felicity Bertin is a registered paediatric osteopath. They work together supporting families with children who have fussy eating difficulties.