Children often go through phases of refusing to eat certain foods, or at times refusing to eat anything at all. Understandably this can be a worrying and stressful time for parents. It is important to recognise that fussy eating is very common, particularly when children are around 2-5 years. This is often a child’s way of showing independence and expressing very definite likes and dislikes, having realised that mealtimes are one aspect of their day that they can have an element of control over. Whilst most children will naturally grow out of this phase, others will benefit from a little help and assistance to establish healthy eating patterns.
We recognise that the food preferences your child develops now in their early years will reflect the food choices they make later in life into adulthood. With this in mind we have put together some top tips to support your child in becoming a healthy and happy eater.
Here are our top 5 suggestions for making meal times manageable:
1. Introduce a new food slowly
If your child is unsure about trying new foods, try to make the food familiar first. Children need to experience a food with all senses, so seeing it, smelling it and touching it may all be needed before your child is willing to have a bite or even a lick! Having a small piece of a new food on your child’s plate during a meal will enable them to have these sensory experiences and familiarise themselves with the new food. Patience is key as it may take several times of presenting the food before your child is willing to commit to tasting a piece.
It can take 15-20 exposures before a child accepts a new taste.
At Nursery children are able to experience new foods gradually. When new dishes are added to our menu we discuss the new food and the ingredients that have been used. The children are encouraged from our youngest rooms to self-serve, allowing them to choose the amount of food they would like to have on their plate. Children are praised and encouraged to smell, touch or lick a piece of new food.
Top Tip: Be a role model. Research suggests that 2-3 year old’s food preferences are significantly related to foods that immediate family members like and dislike. The more excitment and enjoyment you express about the range of healthy foods, the more likely your child will want to eat them.
2. Involve your child in the process.
Allowing you child to really understand the process of what goes into a dish and seeing these different ingredients can help familiarise your child with a wider range of food.
Children love to help with cooking and involving them in the preparation of making dinner together or cutting some fruit for a snack give valuable opportunities for exploring the foods with all their senses. This can be extended even further by taking your child to the supermarket to choose a new food to try, or perhaps buy ingredients for a new recipe.
At nursery the children are given many opportunities to be involved in food preparation. Regular cooking sessions open up discussions about different foods, what ingredients are required and provide a hands-on experience in preparing these. Being able to see the individual ingredients can help with their understanding of what it is they are actually eating. Older children are encouraged to choose recipes and get to act our cooking experiences in the role play area where cooking utensils and recipe books are provided.
Food tasting sessions allow children the chance to try a range of different foods and really explore what they look, feel, smell and taste like. Children are encouraged to share their views using thumbs up/down or smiley/unhappy faces to vote for favourite foods or provide feedback on what they thought of a new food. In the nursery garden we encourage the children to become involved in growing their own produce, with vegetable patches and herb gardens providing the opportunity for children to deepen their understanding of where food comes from.
Top Tip: Why not have a go at planting some vegetables at home? It can be far more exciting to try a piece of lettuce that your child has planted, watered and watched grow than if it comes out of a bag from the shop! Fruit and vegetables can be grown in very small containers, strawberries can be grown in a hanging basket and herbs can be grown in pots along a windowsill, perfect even if you don’t have access to a garden.
3. Praise even the tiniest achievement.
Even if your child has just tasted a tiny amount of food, or smelt a piece of broccoli for the first time, it is so important to encourage them by praising this effort. Use positive praise and rewards such as a sticker for a chart, rather than using bribes such as ‘eat your vegetables and then you can have dessert’.
At nursery children at rewarded for all efforts in trying new food. Stickers are given for both trying something new, even if only a tiny bit, as well as for children who eat a whole piece.
Healthy desserts are always offered even if children haven’t finished their whole meal, allowing the children to feel supported through the whole process of familiarisation with food.
Top Tip: If your child is a the stage where they are willing to try a food use a visual prompt for how many mouthfuls or bites you would like them to try. This could be as simple as three cards representing the three bites or mouthfuls that your child can turn over with each go.
4. Keep mealtimes calm, happy and relaxed.
If you are more relaxed around mealtimes your child will be too. Mealtimes can be a really special and fun family time and an opportunity to get together and talk about your day and other interesting topics of conversation. Keeping the tone relaxed and the emphasis away from the food itself can help take some of the pressure off of your child who may be feeling anxious about the food that will be presented to them.
If you are more relaxed around mealtimes, your child will be too.
Sitting together at a table and modelling a healthy attitude towards eating and trying a wide range of foods can have a big impact on how your child will perceive eating and meal times in general. It is well known that children thrive on routine, so where possible try to schedule 3 meals a day with small snack in-between.
At nursery, meal times are relaxed occasions and a chance for the children and team to sit and talk together. ‘Snack and chat’ boards, with a different picture to provide a talking point are used. This not only promotes children’s communication and language but enables them to focus on topics of conversation rather than just their food. Children are also encouraged to help get tables ready for meal times, passing out the appropriate numbers or plates, cups, etc.
Top Tip: Why not give your child the responsibility of setting the table for family meals? Allowing your child some choices such as where they will sit or what colour plate or cup they would like to put out can help make the meal time more fun.
5. Make healthy foods fun and positive
The way we talk about different foods can really affect your child’s view of them. Often we talk more positively about less healthy ‘treat foods’ than fruits and vegetables. Using words such as ‘yummy’ and ‘delicious’ when discussing a new fruit can make it seem a more appealing option!
At nursery, time is spent during meal times and cooking activities discussing the foods the children are eating, and coming up with colourful descriptions for their smell and taste. Trying a healthy snack such as a ‘date and apricot slice’ can sound very unfamiliar to a child, but when we talk about it as a ‘yummy cake with delicious sweet apricots’ it can help encourage the children to have a go.
Top Tip: Why not come up with fun descriptions for different foods such as ‘mini trees’ for broccoli or ‘princess peas’. You could even have a go at making some fun food creations with your child such as a funny face made from a cracker and vegetables or placing chopped fruit to look like their favourite animal.
Finally, it is important to remember that your child’s tastes, palate, and experiences of food are constantly shifting and evolving. With nursery and home working together, plus a sprinkling of perseverance, we are confident mealtimes can become an enjoyable experience, with your child eating the right balance of foods to grow and learn.