How do I get my toddler or baby to eat?

by Lauren Abbott

Slaving over a meal only for your toddlers to throw it back – sometimes literally – can be disheartening and frustrating.

As parents we want our children to have a broad food repertoire and be more adventurous with what they eat.

Not least because it’d make meal times less stressful - not to mention giving you more favourable restaurant critics!

Some of it should be going in your mouth!
Some of it should be going in your mouth!

Clinical psychologist Dr Gillian Harris is an expert in food refusal in children.

She says youngsters gravitate towards meals like chicken nuggets and chips because the meal tends to look the same every time, with a manageable texture.

And that if children are going to be more adventurous, parents need to start by setting a good example.

If a child refuses a particular food, it is estimated that more than two thirds of parents would only sometimes try to introduce it again.

Nearly half would only encourage a child to try a new food three to five times, and a third would just try once or twice before giving up.

Dr Harris, who helps run a Food Refusal Service, said: "Clinical research has shown that it can take up to 10 tastes for a new food to be accepted by a child. I would recommend persevering with one or two foods at a time and remember that the second taste of a new food may be the hardest of all, as your child will have formed an opinion that they don't like the food."

Stubborn toddlers can be a source of frustration
Stubborn toddlers can be a source of frustration

But she warns: "If you threaten a child, stand in front of them and shout, or make them sit there until they eat their food, you'll just make it worse."

The best way to get children to be adventurous, Dr Harris advises, is by getting them used to the sight and texture of different foods as early as possible.

Parents should give children what they want them to eat and eat alongside them.

She said: "You've got to eat with the child - they should be watching you eat. And if you want them to try something they don't normally try, don't put a large plateful in front of them but let them take it off your plate, let them taste it.

"You've got to keep going with it - just half a teaspoon at a time and the child will get used to it."

Tips to break habit eating

  • This will be a long-term project - habits can be hard to break
  • It can take around 10 tastes for a child to accept a new food, so don't give up on the first refusal
  • Children will only eat new foods if they see the foods and see others eating them.
  • When eating out, let your child have some safe foods they like, and let them pick out small amounts of some new foods to try
  • Offer new foods in small portions on a separate plate.

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