How to introduce new foods to picky eaters

Toddlers can be appalling picky eaters. It turns out that little eggplant eaters, gherkin gobblers and sushi scoffers are made; not born. Here’s how to raise an adventurous eater.

Ask any baby sister or dietician who deals with young children and they’ll tell you tales of desperate parents with kids who’ll eat only carbs, only chicken nuggets, nothing green, only smooth yoghurt, or, seemingly, just about nothing at all.

As parents, we have a deep-seated desire to give our little ones healthy food to ensure they have enough nutrients and energy to grow and thrive. But this is often a battle when you’re raising picky eaters.

Alison Campbell-Lang, a dietician with a special interest in paediatrics, says that by the time parents bring their toddlers or preschoolers to a dietician, the damage is done and the bad habits are firmly in place.

She says: “The sooner you get a baby started on the road to healthy eating, the better. Adventurous eating starts from birth.” Children are less likely to be picky eaters if you introduce them to a variety of foods from a young age.

Six strategies to introduce new foods to picky eaters:

1. Breastfeed first

A baby’s taste buds are already working while she’s in the uterus and swallowing amniotic fluid.

Once she’s born, if she’s breastfed, she’ll be exposed to the taste of her mother’s breast milk that changes depending on mom’s diet; unlike formula that will taste the same every time.

Campbell-Lang says: “Breastfeeding may improve your chances of having a less-fussy eater because she’s exposed to different tastes.”

2. Try texture

Some picky eaters seem to object to texture more than taste. They reject any food that’s not smooth.

This is particularly the case with children who are sensitive and sensory-defensive, have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or Asperger’s syndrome.

We sometimes make the mistake of pureeing baby food too smooth for too long. Campbell-Lang advises: “Don’t leave it too late. By seven months, you should be increasing the texture of food. The quicker you progress with texture, the better the chance of your child not being a fussy eater.” It’s good to challenge your baby a little. Try to blend the food a little. Then stop blending and just mash it with a fork.

3. Wean right

Campbell-Lang says that kids should start by eating the foods their family eats. She says: “Often moms read a book by some UK baby expert and wean based on that, or buy food in a jar, and then try to transition the toddler onto family foods when they’re two or three. It’s better to introduce your child to the food of your family or culture early on.”

She says that early variety is key: “In line with World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines, we’re starting babies on solids later, at six months. There’s a window of opportunity between four and seven months when babies are more receptive to new tastes. After that, babies need more exposure to a taste to accept it. With this later introduction of solids, it’s important to get on with introducing variety.”

The staples of a baby’s diet (breast milk, rice porridge and orange veggies) tend to be sweet. Campbell-Lang recommends exposing babies to a variety of tastes from an early age. “Expose them to tastes that are more savoury or bitter like protein and green vegetables,” she notes. It’s now thought that over-careful weaning can lead to fussy eating and that early exposure to a variety of foods results in better acceptance. Campbell-Lang says the belief that waiting to introduce new foods lowers the chance of allergies, is also in question. Sister Elizabeth Beavon, advises: “Add flavour to your baby’s food as early as possible. Sprinkle cinnamon onto apple purée, or bake sweet potato and butternut with rosemary.” By the time you reach the toddler years, try to have a range of foods on her eating list; it’s only going to get trickier, says Campbell-Lang.

4. Favour fingers

Introduce safe finger foods from around eight months. “There’s a tendency to leave finger foods until one year old, but I find it’s better to introduce safe finger foods earlier under supervision,” says Campbell-Lang.

“Get vegetables and fruit in early, so that toddlers get used to them,” she adds.

5. Plan meals and snacks

Want your child to eat a decent meal? Make sure she comes to the table hungry. “We live in a disordered eating world. Meals and snacks aren’t planned, so kids graze all day,” says Campbell-Lang.  When mealtimes come, kids aren’t hungry. Remember, a carton of fruit juice or a glass of milk is a snack. A child who has yoghurt an hour before supper is less likely to eat something she doesn’t love than a hungry child.

6. Be brave

In the toddler phase, from about one-and-a-half, mealtimes often become more difficult.

Campbell-Lang explains the combination of factors that are at play:

“Growth rate has slowed down and toddlers are filling up on drinks and snacks.

“Kids seem to live on fresh air. Moms sometimes panic and, in order to get their toddlers to eat something, they decrease the nutritional value of foods they offer. Your toddler won’t eat chicken breast, so you give chicken nuggets. She picks at her supper, so you give her Two Minute Noodles.”

This is the time to stand by what you know is good nutrition, and ensure that what does go into your child’s mouth is as nutritious as possible.