How come some children are good, healthy eaters, and some are super picky and have a difficult relationship with food? Is it a matter of nature, or of nurture? I was recently chatting with my girls’ ballet teacher, a lovely lady of sixty-something, and she was telling me about her baby granddaughter, who basically refused to eat anything from the day she was born. She’s been in and out of hospitals, being fed with drips, feeding tubes in her nose, and all sorts of astronaut kinds of food. There doesn’t seem to be a physical reason that the baby is refusing to eat — the little girl simply has no interest, probably even an aversion, to food. (I can only imagine how difficult this must be for the baby’s parents.)
So we can’t say that difficult or picky eaters are always a product of their upbringing. I do however think that very often, our own attitude to and relationship with food is of an enormous influence on our children.
My own four children happen to be very good eaters. They are interested in food, they try new things, and are not overly picky or fussy. Probably my husband and I have partly been lucky, and we’ve partly been doing some things right.
Eating is a much debated and quite sensitive topic amongst parents. This weekend I was talking with some girlfriends after we just had lunch with our families. We were discussing how we raise our children, and what parenting choices we have made to help our children become the good eaters they are today. I thought this would be an interesting (but difficult) topic for our Tuesday Tips series, so I have made a list of tips that in my experience can help make eating a positive and fun part of the day. Here goes:
– Involve the children in the dinner preparation. They can start helping at quite an early age. Tell them what you are doing, let them try the ingredients. Trust them with a knife — Ava has been making a really good Caprese Salad from the age of 4. Even Casper (2) chips in with cutting the mozzarella! Also: grow your own veggies if possible (even on the windowsill). Take your children shopping (f.e. to the (farmers) market), let them choose some food and prepare that food that evening. When your children have been actively involved in the dinner preparation, they will be more open to try and enjoy the food.
– Eat with the children as often as you can. Sit at the table, and have a proper family dinner experience. Don’t turn the tv on (you could even argue to turn the music off). Dinner is a social experience, it’s about connecting with each other and sharing the pleasure of each other’s company and good food. Set the scene, make a nice table, use little bowls, napkins, light candles, etc
– Don’t allow negativity about food, instead be positive and adventurous about food. Set the right example; don’t ‘dislike’ food yourself. If you love food, your children will love food. I’ve had children at my table who started to be negative as soon as I served the food on the table. ‘Oh, tomatoes! I hate those! Eeeks, I don’t eat brussels sprouts, they are disgusting!’ I personally don’t allow my children to use those kind of strong associations in connection with food. In general, I want my children to understand that the food that I buy, prepare and serve on our table, is good, healthy and delicious food. I don’t allow my children to be disrespectful to this food, or to the cook (me!) who has done her best to prepare a yummy meal.
– Be relaxed about food. When introducing a new food — don’t overhype or over-react, be casual about it, make it a part of the regular eating experience. I also have experienced that some foods, which I expected my children not to like (sauerkraut, for instance, or olives), have been received with great enthusiasm. So instead of being doubtful (‘you can try, but you probably won’t like it’), be casual. You might be surprised!
– Always encourage your child to try everything on the table. Don’t let them get away with ‘not liking’ something too easily. If my children, after positively trying the food, don’t like it, I ask them why they have difficulty with it — for instance, the food can be too spicy, too bitter, too salty, etc. I then try to get where they are coming from, and most often understand, but maybe we talk about how ‘too salty’ can also be good in combination with other things. Overall, this has made eating and trying food a more positive experience and a fun interaction.
– If a certain food is disliked, just let it pass, but don’t ban it from your kitchen. Positively offer it to them again at other times. Encourage them to keep trying; their taste might change and chances are that at some point, they will (learn to) like it. Especially if they see other people enjoying that food!
– When your kids don’t want to eat their dinner, that’s ok, but don’t offer a substitute.
– Expose your children to different varieties of food from a young age. Don’t generally cook ‘child-friendly’ dishes for your children, serve them regular adult dishes with regular herbs and spices. (I personally believe that even during pregnancy it’s important to eat a variety of dishes!) Take your children to restaurants, and choose from the main menu (most restaurants will be happy to serve half of a main dish to a child, or split one main dish on two plates). Emilie told me that she encourages her children to be flexible in their eating so she can take them to friends places and she can travel with them and experience different cultures. She told me that she refuses to be a guest in someone’s house and have her child turn their nose up at a meal, so if her girls want to come, they will have to eat without making a fuss!
That’s it! I realise this is a tricky subject, so please remember that these are tips that stem from my own experience. I’m curious to find out what your family’s relationship with food is. What’s your attitude? What are your tips and routines?
Hey hey, I’m the first one! I have one a slightly fussy easter and one not so fussy one, but they certainly have opposite palates; basically one likes light fresh Asian tastes and textures (rice noodle, limes, lemon grass etc.) and the other prefers heartier richer European foods (stews, root vegetables etc.) Anyway I did baby led weaning with my more adventurous eater and I think this helped, I just always served her our meals, never stewed or mushed her food and I really think this helped- it was very messy though!
Also I like the idea of actually setting the table and making it feel a bit fancy and special, not just eating on one side of the craft and books. Thank you
Such a timely post! My husband and I are struggling with our youngest child’s eating or food rejection. She is 2 and seems to ‘hate’ nearly everything. Perhaps she would eat vegetables if Haribo made them, but for some time now, we have been trying so many tactics and to no success. Your post has given me the boost to keep on trying.
I agree about not saying that food is disgusting. My mum always told me that if I went to a friend’s house to play, I had to eat what they were serving, and to never say that something was ‘disgusting’, because it might hurt the feelings of the person who does like eating it.
Two things I find work when my daughter is rejecting food – one is get a coversation going on flavour and texture (is it soft or crunchy?), having to describe the food seems to encourage her to try it. Also just saying ‘you don’t want it? Oh you are not hungry then’ and putting it aside but not offering an alternative. I also do 3 courses which works for us (spanish background) and agree setting table nicely which we also do for afternoon snack time on her little table with her teddies etc! Thank you Esther for these tips – meals can still be v stressful and exhausting so always good to read new ideas! I love the idea of growing food with the kids!
I have a 16 month daughter and even before she was born my husband and I had very strong ideas about food; how and what we would feed her, I completely disagree with snacking, grazing, treats etc, whatever label you want to use, we have been the last of a large group of friends to start our family so have had the benefit of observing all the others and I just felt that the constant snacking must be bad for eating real meals at mealtimes. This has been the hardest aspect of my daughters weaning, from very early on she was only eating breakfast, lunch and dinner with just milk feeds as extras, as the feeds dropped off she naturally increased what she wanted to eat at each meal time, she has rarely snacked and she eats everything -usually, she does have occasional moments!
My friends and family and the play groups we attend all allow snacking and I am getting to the point where I feel “bad” for not allowing her to join in, I am also regularly questioned about why she can’t snack! But my common sense won’t allow me to give her a biscuit at 3pm when she will be eating her tea at 4:30, I’d sooner she had her full tea and the biscuit as desert if she still wanted it, but that is just my opinion, and I know I am in the minority.
We always cook from scratch and she is really starting to enjoy helping, we have a “fun pod” so she is safe while at the kitchen counter, recently she mixed eggs, milk, vanilla and sugar for her french toast, she also put the bread in squished it down and tried to turn it but her hands were too little. She “helps” by mixing chopped veg with oil, herbs, garlic etc, she sets the timer on the oven and enjoys waiting for the beep!! She shouts “teeeeaaaaaaaa” when she hears it before running towards the kitchen.
There are so many things you can do to help your child/ren love food, we have a veg patch and she has just started helping me prepare the ground, I’m not sure at this stage what her understanding is but when the plants start to grow I’m sure she will learn what we have done.
She has had a dairy allergy from birth which is gradually fading but was also allergic to soya products so I have had to use cunning methods to get calcium into her via leafy greens and other calcium rich foods. We make smoothies for breakfast full of kale, but sweetened with apples, mangoes, raspberries, banana’s -whatever needs eating up and she loves them. I use the smoothie maker to blitz a can of white beans which I add to mashed potato as they are also good for calcium and I get no complaints from her.
The main thing you need is time, we are very lucky, I decided to leave my job to be with my daughter so I have all afternoon if we want to to bake, cook, etc, it doesn’t bother me if we get messy because we are in no rush. My husband also works from home so we can all sit down for our meals together and we do every day. She generally sits at the table for 45 mins at breakfast, 45 at lunch and a good hour for dinner and she rarely complains so it makes taking her out for a meal extremely easy.
I also agree about asking a restaurant to give food from the adults menus, the children’s menus seem horrid in most places, dull, tasteless, unhealthy and not something I would ever give her.
I would also say try not to be nervous/anxious (easier said than done with a fussy eater I know) when serving foods, be excited and positive when eating and try not to watch the child/wait to see the reaction, just get on and eat up and eventually they will join in! -Hopefully!
A good book I read while pregnant and re-read since are “french children don’t throw food” I found it full of sensible usable advice.
I agree with everything you have written here. From my own experience I would add a few suggestions. Serve the food from an adults plate using adult cutlery ( from around age 2/3). Children usually want to act older than their years and this helps. I’d serve small portions to very young children. A nutritionist once said that a large portion is visually off putting to small children and offer spicy and exotic food to little ones, kids seem to adore sushi. This is more for the parents as it means the choice of restaurants when eating out is increased.
I love these tips and agree with all your points! I think it makes life so much easier when your kids are good eaters and relaxed about trying new foods. It makes travelling easier and more fun when you can all enjoy the different foods from each new place without stressing whether your kids will like/eat it. xx
A tip: never give your children food you yourself would not eat (e.g. ready made food from jars arghh!)
Another tip: Serve them a special ‘treat’ around 5pm. This is a difficult hour because they are hungry and you need to prepare dinner. Put it in a special, nice looking bowl (in Dutch: bakje) and fill it with e.g. cucumber, carrot or other healthy things and add a treat like a few savoury items e.g. chips, salty sticks, cheese, sausage etc. With the bowl they can watch tv or play on the pc or tablet. Their moment, their snack and you can keep busy in the kitchen. If then they fuss about the veggies at dinner, leave them, they already had them. Don’t make a fuss, they’ll start asking for it by themselves.
Don’t misunderstand: I am not talking about the very difficult cases here, just start with the tips as soon as they’re off babymilk. And don’t start panicking if kids refuse to eat after they’re about a year old. That’s normal. Leave them. They won’t starve, only drinking is important (water obviously). In an earlier remark someone said that if Haribo would make vegetables her 2-year old would eat them. At 2 years, no kid should even know that Haribo is a manufacturer of sweets!!
The longer you wait with giving your kids sugar, the better eaters they’ll become. YOU like sweets, your baby does not know the taste so leave it that way as long as possible.
I have three children, two boys (6 & 4) and then a girl (3). My boys have great appetites, are happy to eat a variety of foods and usually eat their fruit and veggies before anything else. My daughter has been very difficult, from about 18mths old refused to eat any vegetables, despite eating them happily when weaning. We’ve never treated her any differently than the boys regarding food so it’s come as a big shock and frustration to us. We are slowly teaching her to eat her veggies and grating/ hiding them in everything! Nature or nurture?!
This was my experience too. Our son has always been a great eater and loves healthy food, but at around 18 months our daughter started refusing all vegetables and most fruit (unless hidden in sauces etc.) having previously loved them. Our approach was to make sure she got a balanced diet via the hidden good stuff but didn’t make a fuss about what she refused. It seems to have been a passing phase (something about control/assertion?) and now she’s happily earting everything we put in front of her again.
I agree so much with all of your points! I grew up eating a variety of foods and never developed a taste for “kid” foods. I am very conscious to raise my children the same way. My grandmother was a gourmet cook from New Orleans and we ate things like escargot and frog legs as small children. I grew up in and am raising my own kids in Houston, TX and we really avail ourselves of the variety of foods in this very diverse city. As infants my kids eat stinky cheeses and spicy (within reason) foods. When we go to restaurants we give them portions of our own food instead of ordering from the children’s menu (a cheaper alternative as well!). I’m happy to say that I have a three year old and a one year old who are very robust and adventurous eaters! I have found it helps, when offering a new food to serve one new item along with several foods I know they like so they still have something to eat without setting the precedent of getting a new custom made meal.
I totally agree with your tips. Being a mother of 3 (3,5y/2y 5mth) eating is – especially after busy kindergarden days sometimes challenging. I noticed that sometimes they are so tired that they wont eat, what helps for me is (especially with the 2 yr old) is to let him try a bite and if he doesn’t want to eat give him some yoghurt already. Mostly he then gets some energy back and will eat his meal in the end anyway. It avoids a big argument/tantrum and keeps the dinner positive. Luckily both kids are good eaters from the beginning.
Furthermore it works for us to let them have a sweet or cookie or something similar sometimes or a sweet spread (nutella/chocolate sprinkles – the last one very Dutch) on their sandwich. I noticed that because they sometime get this it is not such a big deal/treat for them and as a result they even prefer vegetables (raw paprika/cumcumber/olives), fruit and cheese instead. In my opinion – especially when they get older and/or have older brothers or sisters – it good not to treat it as ‘forbidden fruits’ because it is likely to have an adverse effect.
Lastly I personally absolutely dont like cheese (yes even some Dutch do…). I always tried not to show this to the children as I wanted them to normally eat it. It worked! They both love cheese. So my theory is that it also helps to let them try things you might not like but just offer it (my husband does love cheese) and let them experience it themselves if they like it.
For the avoidance of doubt, the cookie and/or sweet is of course not offered during or just before mealtime. They usually get something like this after or during playtime in the park or similar activities. 🙂
My daughter is 4 and always been a good, easy eater. (her favorite dish last summer was “salade de poulpe” = octopus salad, which surprised a lot of people on our holiday in France, yes, even the french!) But now that she is starting school in the US she is doing what she sees the other kids do: saying the food looks gross and she doesn’t want to try it. I’m not sure what to do, except keep doing what we have always been doing and force her to try… Hugh. Such a complicated relationship we have with food…
I have seen so many relatives hover over and hassle their kids about each and every bite. Who could possibly enjoy eating under those circumstances?! And I couldn’t agree more about not making a fuss “oh, you won’t like that!” or being a super picky eater yourself in front of your kids.
I personally, like to eat in the company of others who enjoy their food. Eating seems to be one of those occasions where other people’s attitudes and emotions really affect my own experience. And I believe kids are equally affected. Eating good food, eating an exciting variety, is a pleasure. Discussing the tastes and textures, or the preparation is fun. Maybe modeling this for my kids helps them love food, maybe it doesn’t, but it certainly can’t hurt.
Our sons OT once told us it takes 13 interactions with a new food before a child will often like it. She taught to offer it consistently for two weeks. My oldest son is 6 and has autism. He has had strong aversions to food since age1. It has been so challenging and with all the other needs he had the food battle became lower priority. My husband I believe had even worse food aversions as a kid but has overcome many of them (I continue to encourage him. His mom is shocked he will eat most fish now). Food is such a sensory based experience it can be a real challenge for some when sensory input is not “normal”. As he has gotten older I can rationalize with him some to try new things but “new” is often a spin off of something he will eat like to get him to eat grilled cheese I had to call it a quesadilla sandwich. I know people consider that kids good but we are able to add protein in now even fish and he’s ok. We can slowly talk about food once he tries it and likes it but before then he is so afraid of it. I can now get him to try something and promise him if he doesn’t like it it’s ok. I then praise him for trying something new. We still can’t get him to swallow veggies and fruits the best we ever got was licks or putting in mouth then spitting out as he’s gagging. We make green smoothies and he gets his veggies that way thanks to vitamix making it so smooth. We noticed color, smell, texture and temperature aversions. Tricky stuff!
Great tips Esther! I agree that it’s so important for children to develop a healthy relationship with food and to have positive associations with mealtimes. Something I thought was very interesting (and has been helpful for me to remember) is that it’s very natural for a child to dislike a new food the first time they taste it and in can take 10+ tastes of that food before they accept/like it…so persistence and patience is key! 😉
Happy eating xx
One thing I’d say is that often fussy eaters have undiagnosed tongue ties. If you found it painful or had problems breastfeeding, if your child had reflux as a baby or if they didn’t transition well from smooth to more textured food this could be a good indicator. These children find it hard to manipulate and chew certain food or can’t clear certain food off the roof of their mouth so they often get dismissed as fussy or picky. Plus I think snacking is fine, it’s much better to eat little and often. As long as they aren’t gorging themselves on rubbish I think it’s far healthier to eat when you’re hungry and that varies from day to day depending on what you’ve done surely?
We stress too much whether our kids are eating our not. If we are at a restaurant or someone’s home and my fussy DD doesn’t fancy it, she doesn’t have to have it. It’s totally up to her. She can go hungry and when she’s hungry we try not to stress about it since it’s her responsibility and her own management. It’s OK to be hungry! The above is easier said than done though 🙂
Totally agree with involving the kids in making the food! It’s so important they get the experience of dealing with different foods and learning what to do with them from an early age. Also, it’s a fun activity for everyone to do together. Great post Esther, love it! 🙂
I follow the same principles and my kids are still bad eaters, especially my 20 months old daughter. She has her own mind and also refuses her favourite food if served at the wrong time (I just don’t know when is right or wrong). It does sometimes frustrate me but I had to learn to accept it by telling myself, a child does not starve themselves and if she is hungry she will say something.
One thing I have found is to avoid having food ‘on tap’ all the time. When my children were toddlers, I didn’t dare leave the house without something. I noticed that they would happily graze all day and although this was always healthy food, they didn’t particularly want or need their main meals. Of course, it doesn’t matter if a healthy diet is obtained through lots of small slacks or 3 main meals, but you can’t really expect a child to have both. Now my children are older (4 and 7) they are both hungry for mealtimes and eat well when food is provided. They still get snacks, but I don’t stress about them getting a bit hungry now and again. It’s good for them to know what hunger feels like and to recognise when they are full. As for likes/dislikes, I always provide at least one food I KNOW they will eat alongside less favoured or new foods. Also, a child may eat virtually nothing one day and never stop eating the next! That doesn’t make them a ‘bad’ or a ‘good’ eater. They are just following the needs of their body at the time.
These are all great suggestions, many of which we follow, but sometimes it’s not so easy. My husband and I eat a wide variety of home made, and some of it home grown, real food. However, from day one our son was never into food and has a very strong aversion to anything soft. This means he eats things that are slightly altered from what we are eating. As a result, he eats a fairly wide variety of healthful foods. He’ll grab a bowl of raw carrots over potato chips any day. Because we have always taken him to restaurants, he embraces lots of flavors (Indian, Vietnamese, Thai . . . ). It just can’t be soft. We refuse to have battles over food. There is no making him try foods. It’s offered but not forced. We want him to come to food on his own accord without baggage. Slowly, over time his categories of acceptable foods have grown. Because he is a swimmer and needs to fuel his body, we have made some concessions but it also has made him hungrier and more willing to try new things. We go to great lengths to praise him when he decides to try new foods. Some of us aren’t lucky enough to have good eaters or even the run of the mill picky eaters but with patients, knowing your child, and some luck a good eater can emerge.
I really enjoyed this article, especially the bit about respecting the food and the chef. Thank you for writing it. It can be such a passionate subject and people get ever so funny…we have always tried to stick to set snack/meal times since the boys have been tiny, and within reason we don’t offer alternatives. We also don’t count mouthfuls or bribe with dessert (hardly ever make dessert!!). I have friends who are so scared of their children developing eating disorders that they almost sway too far the other way and let them eat whatever and whenever? To me that’s crazy!
Am going to make more of an effort to set the table with nice crockery. It’s so hard when Husband works late so often and I’m not a massive fan of eating at 5.30!!
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As the mother of a baby who will soon be weaning, I found this article and the comments after really interesting. There are some brilliant tips here, and I’m hoping that using them will help make my little one happy to try new things. I think the main thing I’ve come away with from here is that being relaxed about food, demonstrating enjoyment of it yourself, and encouraging being experimental are key. Wish me luck!