We’ve all been there – watching another child emptying their plate enthusiastically and asking for more, while ours barely pick at a couple of bits. What could be the secrets of parents whose children seemingly eat everything?
It’s in the genes
Humans are innately programmed to favour sweet and salty tastes over bitter ones. This is a throwback to our hunter-gatherer ancestors who avoided bitter-tasting toxic berries and opted for nutritious sweet fruit or salty fish instead. Our taste receptors are genetically determined and make some people like or dislike sweet or bitter flavours more than others. The good news, though, is that even genetic preferences can be modified, especially when children are young.
Get familiar with foods
Children who are familiar with where foods come from are more likely to enjoy eating them. Involve your child in shopping trips, meal preparation and cooking, or maybe even growing their own food, so they know the process by which it arrived on their plate.
Give everyone the same meal
Young children really don’t need to have different ‘toddler meals’ from the rest of the family. You can give them the same healthy foods that you enjoy. In an ideal world, this involves sitting down as a family for every meal, but we’re all busy and sometimes this isn’t possible. Why not cook the family meal early and feed your toddler first? Eat together as often as you can – seeing the whole family enjoying the same food helps your child enjoy it too.
Just give it a try
Instead of insisting that your child eats a food they don’t like, encourage them just to try it – they may be pleasantly surprised! If they still don’t like it after trying, you could explain that it’s an ‘acquired taste’ – that is, they’ll probably like it when they’re older. Sometimes the idea of being grown up is enough for your child to give it another go.
Cut down on snacking
Children are more inclined to eat everything on their plates if they are actually hungry. If they snack constantly during the day, they’ll be less inclined to try something new at mealtimes. Limit snacks to two or three a day, and keep them light and healthy: sliced apple, carrot or cucumber, plain yogurt or rice cakes. Energy-dense snacks such as biscuits, cakes and crisps can affect a child’s appetite.
Take inspiration from our continental neighbours in France and Italy who make every mealtime an enjoyable occasion for everyone round the table. The food itself takes centre stage and everyone discusses it, eats with enthusiasm, and encourages the children to enjoy it – being good role models for eating behaviour. Meals are structured and often begin with a healthy vegetable dish or tempting salad - children wolf this starter down because they’re hungry. And they’re hungry because they don’t snack before meals.
Make it look tempting
It matters to children what food looks like. A bowl of beige or khaki mush is uninspiring, whereas a plate of bright orange carrots, purple beetroot, yellow baby corn and green peas looks far more appetising. You could get creative and make pictures on the plate – a broccoli forest on top of a mashed potato hill, or a teddy with vermicelli fur, an olive nose, Brussels sprouts for eyes and a ketchup smile. Encourage your child to talk about the foods – what do they look like? Smell like? Taste like? Can they create their own food art?
It takes a long time to get children to eat everything – between five and fifteen attempts per food is not uncommon. Older children are more resistant than younger ones. And neophobia - a normal phase when young children refuse to try new things – may thwart your best efforts. But relax, keep on serving the foods, keep being enthusiastic about them and eventually your child will come round to enjoying a wide range as part of a varied, balanced diet. Perhaps they’ll be that child who eats everything you put in front of them.
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