Image: Louis Alexander and Alexandria Ward
Babies and toddlers can be finicky, fickle and xenophobic when it comes to eating. But parents want to help their babies and young children love food and be open to many different flavours and textures, despite the challenges. I’d like to share some ideas that have worked for us in encouraging our daughter to love real, natural, and nourishing food.
Buy delicious produce
From the very beginning we’ve tried to use organic, local, and seasonal produce when preparing purees or foods for baby. It’s important to make sure you get really flavourful, vitamin-rich vegetables. Organic, local, and seasonal produce often taste better. If you are purchasing from a new shop, market, or farm you could taste-test before using it for baby. If the first tomato, carrot, or strawberry your baby tries is absolutely delicious, they are sure to love it for the rest of their lives. Additionally, by buying organic you’ll minimise your baby’s exposure to those nasty chemicals found in the dirty dozen which can be associated with food sensitivities and allergies in children and adults.
Offer a variety of foods
The more tastes and textures you can expose baby to early on, the better. “Conventional wisdom” in many parts of the world advises parents to avoid peanuts, egg white, dairy and seafood until 1-2 years of age. But recent scientific consensus is that meat, eggs, yogurt, cheese, seafood can all be introduced to baby after 6 months of age, with rare exceptions. Meat, which is rich in an extremely usable form of iron, is particularly good to introduce early on to breastfed babies, as breastmilk does not provide sufficient iron after 6 months. The only thing you shouldn’t give your baby is honey (because of potential bacterial contamination) and liquid milk (unless it is an ingredient in foods). After 1 year, whole cow’s milk can be introduced to your child’s diet.
Broccoli for breakfast
Babies don’t really have a sense of the difference between breakfast, lunch or dinner foods. In the beginning we didn’t worry about giving certain types of foods at different times. If I thought our daughter would eat broccoli then I would give her broccoli even if it was 9am. This helped reinforce her liking for nutritious foods.
Offer new foods many times
Offer a new food a few times over several days. If your child will not try it or does not seem to like it, just wait a few weeks and try it again, or offer for them to try it off your plate next time you have it. Kids’ tastes change constantly. Just because they don’t eat it today doesn’t mean they won’t scarf it down tomorrow.
A hungry baby or toddler will usually eat almost anything you put in front of him or her. The best time to offer your child a nutritious meal is when he or she is hungry but not famished. If he is not hungry and has filled up on snacks he will most likely be pickier about his dinner. If he’s famished he’ll have a meltdown and won’t be able to get it together enough to eat well, or will revert to familiar, comforting foods. For best results, try to offer food in that happy medium time of hungry-but-not-starving.
For toddlers, you may need to limit snacks so that your child is hungry enough to eat well at meal time. If you want to try this, do keep in mind that snacks are important to help growing kids get enough calories and nutrients. So don’t remove them completely, but perhaps switch to something less filling (i.e. fresh fruit instead of a granola bar). For babies, you may need to adjust meal times for when they are most hungry, at least an hour after their last bottle or breastfeed.
Give real food snacks
As I mentioned before, snacks are important for kids. But you don’t have to resort to processed or packaged foods just because it’s snack time. We try to give real food for snacks whenever possible. Think cucumber pieces, carrot sticks, fresh berries, apple and peanut butter, frozen peas, and so on.
Remember that organic doesn’t always mean “healthy.” Organic corn puffs are still corn puffs. Your toddler is much more likely to learn to love real, natural, and nourishing food when they eat fresh fruits and vegetables instead of processed snacks. We only give processed foods like rice cakes, biscuits or dried fruit leathers as a special treat when travelling.
Let them help
Last but maybe most importantly, help your baby get excited about eating by explaining to her what you are doing as you prepare food. Let older babies and toddlers help with washing, pouring, or scooping. You’ll probably notice they are licking their fingers to taste it while you both prepare the food. They will be more likely to eat the nutritious, delicious meals you are preparing if they get to see where the food comes from and be part of making it a meal.
These have been some things that have helped our daughter learn to love real food. We’ve tried to practice most of these tips since she began eating solids. Now, she will almost always try something new. And her favourite foods are nourishing, real foods: chicken, salmon, asparagus, tomatoes, scrambled eggs, plain (natural) yogurt. Of course our daughter does not eat everything all the time, and dinnertime isn’t always a success. But we are still learning, and she is still growing. We’re thankful she is off to a good start, and we’re hoping she keeps on loving real, nourishing, natural food as she grows.
About the author
Samantha Van Dyke is an American from Virginia, currently living in Oxford, England with her husband, young daughter, and newborn son. She is a registered dietitian who is passionate about infant and young child nutrition. She hopes to work internationally to improve child nutrition in the developing world.