Understand that eating is complex – it’s often not just about the food
As a psychologist, I know that there is a lot of research suggesting that, as adults, we find it stressful to feel that we are out of control – and the same thing applies to children, too. Young children have control of so little in their lives – so it’s natural that some children discover that what goes in and out of the mouths is one of the first things that they can control! – and they want to control it tightly.
Any way that you can ‘fake’ a feeling of control can help
One trick I love, when you’ve got a child who’s sitting staring at a pile of spinach on a plate, is to cut it up into two halves and say ‘OK it’s up to you, it’s your choice – which half do you want to eat?’ It’s amazing how often this works! And it’s because, I think, it gives them some feeling of control. They can’t choose whether they eat their spinach or not, but they can choose which half they eat – and sometimes, that is enough.
Let them choose the little details
There are lots of other little details that you can easily let your child have their way on, to keep them onside. For example, it can help to try foods that work with lots of different toppings – like porridge, or malt loaf, or oatcakes – and say that it’s up to them to choose the topping, as long as they eat the main food, too. This can be a great way of keeping them engaged – and giving them the feeling that they’re the ones in charge.
Understand that there can be other reasons, too
Sometimes, the way that children’s brains and bodies are developing can mean that they experience the world very differently to how we do. Understanding this can be tricky – but it can really help to understand your child’s behaviour. For example, there is research suggesting that the densities of taste buds in children’s mouths is different. Taste buds in children’s mouths are more concentrated, which can be a reason why they often prefer less strong-tasting foods. For other children, it’s the textures of foods that they can experience very differently – and much more strongly – than we do as adults.
Try to see what really motivates them
Children experience tastes differently – but taste is complicated! – and one thing that children often say is that they like eating grown-up foods, with the family, as it makes them feel more grown-up themselves. Sometimes, having a simplified version of adult foods can be a great way to do this. It encourages them to step beyond their ‘kiddy food’ comfort zone, but in a way that leaves them feeling in control, secure and confident.
Try, try, try again
One trick that works with my 15-month-old is astonishingly simple! At the start of the meal he often picks off the foods on the plate that he doesn’t like and puts them on the table next to him, so he can eat the rest of the food off his plate. But I find that simply smuggling them back onto the plate every time when he’s distracted doesn’t bother him – and often, by the end of the meal, when he’s still hungry, he’s forgotten and ends up eating his less favoured foods as well!
The ‘sneak attack’
To keep them fuller for longer it can be helpful to base meals foods like bread, rice, pasta and potatoes. But if your child is the type who always leaves their veg on the side – then you’re going to have to be clever about it! Some foods can help by including vegetables chopped up small – but mixed in with something tasty, starchy and filling.
Make sure meal times are stress-free
It can be scary to have a child who doesn’t like to eat – and stressful when your child starts asserting their independence from you at a young age. There is a lot of research suggesting that children are very sensitive to their parent’s moods, and everybody is more flexible their decision making when they’re calm. So even if you are worried, then making sure that mealtimes are happy, smiling and relaxed can help.
There are clear guidelines on the correct age to start weaning online – and it’s unwise to start weaning before children can sit and hold their head up, pick up food by themselves and swallow (1). But there is also evidence that starting children on new flavours early can make them more likely to try new foods. For example, kids were most likely to accept a new vegetable that they hadn’t tasted – pea purée – between four and six months of age (2). And there is also research suggesting that the greater the variety that children are exposed to early in life, the more likely they are to try new foods later on (3).
As parents we can often sense when our child is in an unusually open, flexible and calm mood. It can help to have handy foods in your kitchen cupboards that allow for quick, healthy meals, and can encourage them to try new flavours and textures – so that you can take advantage of these opportunities when they arise!
Dr Sam Wass is working with, MumsNet accredited, Tilda Kids Rice as part of a campaign to provide helpful tips and advice on introducing new flavours and textures into children’s diets. Tilda Kids is perfect for children who are weaned and happily eating solid food and helps to make mealtimes guilt-free, quick and easy.