Toddler trials and tribulations and avoiding them at mealtimes

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My two year old is very wilful which I love. Why would I ever want her to be a compliant follower? I want her to be fierce and strong and kind too.

We have tantrums and frustrations regularly. Quite often over getting undressed, “I want to do it” she tells me through cries and stamping her feet. it’s tricky to try and get your elbow out of a sleeve isn’t it!

Parenting makes me want to be the best person I can. In the midst of these moments I try and draw on strength to keep the boundaries in place with kindness so I am doing so with an understanding heart. That way I hope teach my children how to be strong and kind too.

If the boundaries are allowed to be pushed we end up in a power struggle where no one wins, and I don’t want to go there.

But I’m not moaning, because most of the time, she’s just about perfect to me.

Food

This is the age (usually from around 18 months depending on the child) when fussy or picky eating can start. And this is what’s happening for me! So I am having to remind myself of the basic advice that I usually give to parents. It’s pretty simple.

Start as you mean to go on

As long as your little one has been able to play and explore food from weaning age, had a wide variety of different (unprocessed) healthy foods, not been given salty/sugary foods regularly, then fussy eating shouldn’t be a problem long term.

From what I have experienced, children who have only ever been spoon fed (no finger food) and especially readymade meals can tend to be fussy eaters. Imagine if all that you’ve eaten has always had similar taste and texture and you’re not used to touching food. You would be a fussy eater too.

Whether you wean traditionally with  a combination of finger food and purees/mashed food or go down babbled weaning route, either of these approaches will give your little one a good start.

If your child won’t eat veg at all, there is a great resource designed by Dr Lucy Cooke at UCL. The pack is called Tiny Tastes and costs £7.99 including p&p. It’s been evaluated and the results, showed this approach had positive impact on children’s eating habits. Findings were published in the peer reviewed journals including the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and Psychology Science. For extreme fussy eating you need to speak to your GP who can refer you to your local dietetics service.

New foods

Up until around 18 months babies are open to trying new foods. Research shows that giving a new food once in the first year can double a baby’s intake of that food when a parent offers it again at mealtime.*

When toddlers start to walk and become more mobile, some develop neophobia (a fear of new foods). Academics think that young children have evolved in this way to prevent them from eating toxic or poisonous substances that they might come across in their immediate environment. So any food that they do not recognise as ‘normal food’ is seen as a potential danger and is a means to protect them from being poisoned. It tends to peak at between 2 and 6 years old but older children can be neophobic , particularly if parents/carers limit the variety of foods they eat.**

So you have about a year from weaning to introduce as many different foods as possible. And as much as possible.

Food refusal

For some children refusing to eat food they’ve happily eaten before is a great way to get your attention. So don’t give too much, just tell them it would be great if they do eat it. And if they do give them lots of praise and if they don’t then take the plate away at the end of mealtime without saying anything. Vying for attention with a sibling can be another motivation.

Sometimes too,  it can be a way to exert their independence.

It’s all about taking the charge away from food (i.e. keep it neutral) so that it’s not something they can use to get a reaction out of you.

I do find this particularly hard, I pretty much cook from scratch all the time, so when food’s pushed away, I have to keep a poker face.

If your child refuses to eat their main meal then do offer them a pudding, as again this keeps things neutral. You just need to make it something that nutritious! So something that’s fruit based and/or dairy based. And not high in sugar, that’s right, not high in sugar!

Never withhold food as a punishment.

Also if they’re hungry just before bed and this is may be due to not eating enough at teatime, then make them something plan like bread and butter.

Refusing old favourites

Sometimes children will suddenly hate or dislike something they’ve happily eaten for ages. It’s possible their tastes have changed, but sometimes it can be a way to get attention/exert independence. So the best thing to do is still offer the food, a little on their plate (not touching other foods if need be!) and praise them if they eat it or take it away at the end of the meal without comment if they don’t.

Try it

If they tell you they don’t like something or they won’t eat it. Just suggest they try it and that they don’t have to eat it, just trying is enough.

Peers

Research shows that when children eat with their peers their more likely to try previously refused foods. Lots of parents will find children happily eat foods at nursery that they refuse at home, part of the reason for this can be because their being influenced by other children. So if you know any children who eat really well get them round for tea!

Childcare

A good barometer is what your child eats with other people. If your childminder or nursery tells you that they eat well, then there may be a power play going on at home. So look for ways to address it.

Boundaries

So try not to change the foods you’re giving them,  don’t offer more appealing (salty/sugary) foods because you know they’ll eat them happily. This way they’ll just learn that if they refuse the healthy stuff they’ll be offered the treat stuff.

It can be so tricky – last week the toddler had molars coming through too which added another reason not to eat.

Writing this has helped remind me of what I need to do, if you’ve got any other ideas of things that help you please comment – its always good to hear about other people’s experiences and ideas!!

*Reference quoted in a section I contributed to Soil Association’s Nursery Food Report : Birch et al (1998). Development of eating behaviours among children and adolescents. Pediatrics, 101, 539-549. Quoted in Dovey TM et al. Food neophobia and ‘picky/fussy eating in children: A review. Appetite (2007) doi:10.1016/j.appet,2007,09.009.

**Reference again quoted in Soil Association’s Nursery Food Report : Rozin P, (1979) Preference and affect in food selection in JHA Kroeze (Ed). Preference, behaviour and chemoreception (pp 289-297) .

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Weaning post #4: When things don’t go to plan

Yesterday was not a good day. My 9 month old rejected her porridge…

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I had made it for her breakfast with blueberries*, she did not want know. It’s hard when you’ve lovingly made something for your child only for them to refuse it, but that’s the way it goes sometimes.

Refusing food can happen for all sorts of reasons:

  • Teething – imagine trying to eat with teeth coming through – ouch. Or if you need to gnaw on something and the only food you are given to eat is soft. Good gnawing foods include corn on the cob, bread crusts and cold raw whole carrots – washed and peeled and rice cakes. Cooling foods include yogurt, melon, the middle seed centre of the cucumber sliced into a stick (see photo below), cold cooked vegetables from the fridge and cool water. Don’t give them food from the freezer as this can burn their gums. I know it’s common sense but it has to be said: never leave your baby alone with food.
  • Overtiredness – if you’ve missed that window of opportunity. Try to not to have mealtimes in the hour before nap time/bedtime.
  • Being unwell – having a cold can affect sense of taste and smell and appetite can also be reduced when ill. At times like this go with baby’s needs and accept they don’t want to eat and may want to have more milk feeds than usual.
  • Distractions – if there are things on the table, baby may well want to play with them, loud music, television or the radio can take attention away from food. So clear the decks and if you want music on go for chilled or classical type that’s not too loud.
  • If it’s a food that has to be spoon fed then baby might want to feed themselves – and get frustrated if they can’t. Giving them a spoon to hold as well as finger foods along with pureed/chopped foods means they feel more in control, independent and engaged.

The middle bit of the cucumber

Or it may just be because, they don’t actually like the food. I know my daughter isn’t keen on porridge as I tried again at lunchtime, this time with mashed up banana. But no, she avoided the spoon with great dexterity and pointed pointedly at my soup (I should have had porridge too).

I knew that it wasn’t because she didn’t have independence or control as she had pieces of banana as a finger food (so that rules out teething too) and a spoon.

Giving her a spoon to hold can often result in food being flicked around, in hair and on clothes and elsewhere. But she is developing her control of the spoon – sometimes managing to get food into her own mouth or feeding me which she tried to do with the porridge. Actually, the porridge ended up just about everywhere, except her mouth.

The recommendation is that you have to try a food with your baby or older child about 14 times before they accept it. I think, with porridge I am on number 6 and I will keep trying as it’s healthy, filling, cheap and versatile. Next time I am making it for the rest of the family, the baby will get a little portion too.

So what did I do about the lunchtime porridge which got rejected for the second time in a day?

I boiled an egg (the yoke has to be cooked through for babies) and warmed some low sugar/low salt baked beans. Both of which she happily ate.

Once children are about 18 months, offering an alternative to a refused meal is not recommended. They are coming into the age where they reject food to get attention or exert  independence.

But in the first year, when you and they are learning  likes and dislikes then it’s fine to offer an alternative sometimes. As long as it’s  a comparable swap – i.e. swapping savoury for savoury (rather than sweet). Or if you don’t have a savoury alternative that’s quick and easy to make  give them fruit and/or yogurt for pudding.

For older children, if they are generally good eaters, and you make them something new which they try, eat some of and really don’t like, it’s ok to swap with a comparable food, or just let them leave the food they don’t like and eat the rest. But if they regularly refuse food then swapping is not recommended as they will learn if they refuse what they don’t want they will get what they do want.

If your child is regularly refusing food, give them a small amount of a new food or refused food alongside foods they are happy to eat. Don’t give them too much attention – as even negative attention is attention they thrive on. Keep neutral, tell them to try it, and if they don’t like it just to leave it on their plate. This is why it’s good to have puddings that are nutritious e.g. fruit-based and or dairy based. So that if they refuse the main meal, they still get a relatively healthy pudding.

There have been a couple of new dishes I’ve made in the last year which my 7 year old really hasn’t liked, so in those instances I have made a sandwich for her instead as I could tell she genuinely didn’t like it. I know this goes against what our parents did but I don’t want to stand over a child making them eat something they really don’t like.

Just try not to make a big fuss about it, don’t take it to heart that they don’t always like your cooking, and don’t let it stop you trying out new recipes with them.

*I buy frozen blueberries and boil in a little water for a few minutes – these are softer than fresh blueberries so are easier for babies to eat. I would puree them for younger babies though.

Weaning recipes #1: accidental Morroccan lamb and cous cous

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We’ve just had just a busy Saturday morning, in and out of the house getting ready for Ringwood Carnival, my eldest’s 7th birthday, a 40th birthday party in London, drama class, and of course baby stuff which is never ending and keeps you busy without you ever actually achieving very much.

I had sausages for my husband and daughter for a quick lunch before going out to the carnival. But nothing for my now nearly 9 month old. The sausages were organic. but as they are high in salt, aren’t a suitable food for babies.*

I do usually try and do the same meal for the whole family but with so much going on it wasn’t possible and I had to rustle something up quickly out of what I had in the fridge. If I had had a chance to buy the ingredients the Morroccan lamb would have  included with some chickpeas – to make the meat go further and  some more vegetables as well as some dried apricots or sultanas.

The dish was not a great success at Saturday lunchtime. Either because my daughter is teething, or the excitement in the house, not much was eaten. I tried again for tea, and she ate most of it happily.

The evidence suggests that you have to get babies/children to try foods about 15 times before they will accept it. Though I do think that if a child has a definite dislike of a food or flavour and they are good at trying new foods and like most, then its probably best not to push it. But of course it’s hard when you’ve spent time and energy making something only for it to be rejected.

New foods

Up until around 18 months babies are open to trying new foods. Research shows that giving a new food once in the first year can double a baby’s intake of that food when a parent offers it again at mealtime.**

When toddlers start to walk and become more mobile, some develop neophobia (a fear of new foods). Academics think that young children have evolved in this way to prevent them from eating toxic or poisonous substances that they might come across in their immediate environment. So any food that they do not recognise as ‘normal’ is seen as a potential danger and is a means to protect them from being poisoned. It tends to peak at between 2 and 6 years old but older children can be neophobic , particularly if parents/carers limit the variety of foods they eat.***

So 1 have about a year to introduce as many different foods as possible. And as much as possible I buy in season produce so that means, like my eldest this baby will learn which foods are in season.

To make about 5 portions you will need ****…

1 tablespoon olive oil

200g Organic lamb mince (I made lamb meatballs with the rest of the lamb mince)

1 celery stick

1/4 teaspoon ground cumin

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 small onion

half a green pepper (or any other pepper)

100g mushrooms

300g tinned tomatoes

100g cous cous

How to…

Dice all the vegetables into small enough pieces for a 9 month old baby to manage. This meal is suitable for babies from 7 months. You can thin it for younger babies with your baby’s usual milk (breast or formula milk) and puree.

Put the cous cous in a bowl and add 150ml boiling water, stir and leave for 15 minutes.

Heat the oil in a small saucepan, add the onion and fry until translucent. Add the spices and stir then add the lamb mince, and cook til brown. Then add the rest of the vegetables for a few minutes, until softened. Then add the tinned tomatoes. stir and simmer for 10 minutes, and thin a little water or baby’s usual milk, then serve with about 40g cous cous.

I served this meal with some cooked carrots and green beans.

My eldest happily ate it the next day too.

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Storage

Cool rapidly and refrigerate in an airtight container. Will keep in the fridge for a couple of days or frozen for 2 months.