It is a known fact that babies have a natural desire for sweet and salty foods and often initially refuse the sour or bitter flavours that some vegetables have. They are ready to adapt to new things though and taking advantage of this has multiple benefits for their future:
- Instead of a desire for unhealthy foods, it creates balanced eating behaviour
- It also leads to the development of a more mature sense of taste.
The way to ensure a long-term appreciation for flavours lies in:
- Variety – try different foods, flavour combinations and ways of eating (e.g. on a spoon or as finger food)
- Patience – children need the chance to try something 10 to 16 times to see if they really like it
- Role model – because babies watch their adult caregivers very carefully and imitate them
Remember that the groundwork for future eating habits is laid very early in childhood. Because we don’t eat what we like – far more we like what we eat.
The joy of eating
Granted, sometimes the spinach ends up on the wall but that’s just part of the fun. In general though, a balanced diet will go hand in hand with enjoying food. Here are a few tips & tricks for ensuring a good mood at the family table:
- Nutrients, calories and vitamins don’t interest babies at all and they don’t matter to talkative children either. Eating is mostly about fun.
- Eating is an enjoyable family ritual. Talking to baby, maintaining eye contact and encouragement to try new things makes everyone at the table happier and also helps with learning.
- Eating alone is boring and could also lead to children stuffing themselves mindlessly while doing something else. This is how the adult “couch potato” is programmed.
- Remember that less is more. Better to serve small, child-sized portions that help refine the feeling for hunger and fullness. You can always go back and get them some more.
- You don’t need to worry about how much they’re eating: a healthy child (unlike many adults) has a fully functioning hunger-fullness mechanism. They will eat as much as they need and know when they have had enough – even if this appears too little for a couple of days. For this reason, babies should never be over-encouraged or forced to eat more than they want.
- A sensible diet should be natural and enjoyable – not made up of things they have to eat and mustn’t eat. It is completely okay to not like a meal, or not to completely empty their plate some days. A good basic rule is that the adults decide what there is to eat and the children decide how much they will eat.
- The “pizza tactic”: As banning certain foods only makes them more attractive, childrens’ favourites, like pizza or chips, shouldn’t be completely banned from the menu plan either. Instead, it’s better to combine these with healthy foods, like serving pizza with vegetables or a hamburger with salad and milk to drink.
- Food is neither punishment nor reward. Additionally, some traditional patterns of upbringing often end up in the wrong nutritional direction: Special treats for good behaviour, for example, only teach unhealthy eating preferences. The well-known “Two more mouthfuls and you can have a pudding” or “If you don’t eat this, you can’t…” do not promote healthy development but possibly obesity in the future.
- Eating three times a day with the family is a routine that babies can easily handle by their first birthday. That said, children do generally have lower energy reserves than adults, so small, healthy and attractive snacks in between meals, such as a variety of fruit and milk-based products, can and should be allowed.
- Children’s moods while eating cause many a parent to roll their eyes. Take it in your stride! Creativity is a part of this and trying things out is a good thing. A little playing around with the tastes, smells and shapes of food rouses a curiosity for variety, and the nutritional plan doesn’t have to be followed to the letter every day. The main thing is balance over a longer period – rule of thumb: look at what they eat over the course of a week.
- When it comes to children handling their food, most parents are completely unsure: Allow it? Forbid it? Developmental experts consider this type of play to be highly valuable, as it trains motor skills and the senses. There is a compromise: Allow them to spend a short amount of time enjoying the feel and consistency. It’s even something you can do together, although preferably away from the dinner table where making a mess won’t be a problem – but at the same time make it clear that eating at the table has its own, clean rules.
Food is a family affair
Babies watch their adult caregivers very carefully and imitate what they see. It is logical then that the role model for a child’s eating behaviour is crucial.
- When grown-ups enjoy eating healthily in reasonable portions then children are also more willing to do so.
- Detecting subtle flavours, perceiving different consistencies, welcoming the variety of colours and shapes on the plate. In other words, celebrating every bite, every spoonful, and every gulp as a feast for the senses. Parents who follow this example not only get more from their food but they also promote the health and happiness of their children.
- And of course, the pace and eating habits of the adults will also be copied exactly.
- Social psychology also teaches that children in the company of others are braver and more adventurous than when they are alone. Trying new foods and flavours works best when everyone sits together at the table.
Food for special requirements
Food allergies have become more common worldwide in recent years and children are particularly frequently affected. In small children, symptoms usually appear on the skin or in the gastrointestinal tract, while adolescent symptoms are typically allergic sneezing or intolerance-related conjunctivitis.
Another problem is that, over time, cross allergies arise. This can be very unpleasant, as the interaction between two allergies magnifies the symptoms. This is frequently the case with pollen and food items in particular. For instance, the similarity between the proteins in food and those in pollen may mean that children not only suffer from hay fever in spring, they may also suddenly start to have an allergic reaction to certain foods.
In any case, you should never try to treat allergies in children yourself, and should always seek proper medical advice.
Another special issue is a vegetarian or vegan diet:
- A meat-free diet is possible for babies in principle, but the high iron requirements which meat easily meets should definitely be compensated for.
- A strict vegan style with infants and young children is possible but needs very careful planning and should only be done with input by a paediatrician as it may be harmful to your child. Many children will not get enough energy with these foods, and certain animal-based nutrients (i.e. vitamin D) that are needed for healthy growth will be missing. This form of diet can lead to severe vitamin B deficiencies and even poses the threat of irreversible brain damage.
- When avoiding milk and dairy products, calcium intake is extremely low. Calcium is essential to support growth and bone development.
- Milk, milk products and meat are also the main sources of vitamin B2 and vitamin B12. Purely plant-based nutrition represents a serious risk since a B12 deficiency in infants greatly impairs the development of the brain and nervous system functions.
You can get detailed information about how to bring up children on a vegetarian or vegan diet by following the link to the NHS UK website which is regularly updated based on the latest research.
How kids would cook
There is a good basic family rule for choosing the food and meals: the adults decide what there is to eat and the children decide how much they will eat. It doesn’t hurt, however, to consider what will be well-liked and fun to eat when shopping and preparing food.
Gourmet tricks for the vegetable grump:
- Mashed vegetables or purée is boring. As soon as children can bite and chew, they would much rather eat something that they can bite into and crunch.
- Being allowed to eat with their hands is more fun. So offer vegetable sticks (carrots, cucumber, etc. cut into sticks) with a yoghurt dip instead of salad.
- Fruit is usually preferred to vegetables. The solution: both together. For example, green salad with cut grapes or apple slices with grated carrot.
Colourful details for healthy enjoyment:
- Children respond to the appearance of food much more than adults do so serving creative, colourful dishes really pays off. This trick allows you convince them to try foods they are less fond of – for example vegetables together with sausage or cheese on a skewer.
- Appearance matters: if that healthy snack bread is colourfully garnished with radishes, tomato, cucumber or carrot sticks, it’ll easily beat a sausage. Rice is nice when mixed with peas or corn. And herbs make just about everything more attractive.
- Bite-sized fruit is much more likely to find its way into your child’s mouth than large pieces that first have to be peeled, bitten or divided.
- Children are naturally curious and inquisitive. If you let them help with the cooking, it teaches them the pleasure of diversity and gives them an awareness of nutrition. However, this trick is not for parents who are in a hurry. Although being together in the kitchen is more fun, it definitely takes longer.
- The possibility of helping is naturally dependent on age, but even little ones can get a lot of entertainment from cooking. For example, mixing the muesli or stirring the soup, and maybe later helping with washing the salad or vegetables.
- A big hit when it comes to food: going shopping and being allowed to help choose. When given the opportunity, most (older) children will already be able understand the difference between a smart choice and a – usually unwise– impulse purchase.
We hope this article has given you some ideas but if you have any unanswered questions related to this topic then please consult your healthcare practitioner.
You can also find more information online in our brochures “Discover the World of Baby’s First Food and Drinks” and “MAM Recipe Collection” and for more details about our feeding products please visit the MAM Baby website.
This article has kindly been provided by MAM Cyprus. For any queries please contact them through their Facebook page.