One of the biggest challenges I see in my practice is picky eating, whether in healthy children or kiddies struggling with underlying medical issues. While it is generally “just a phase”, it’s a phase we would ideally like to avoid – it can be incredibly frustrating for mom and dad, and has repercussions for health– at this critical stage of development, you want your toddler to be getting all the protein, healthy fats and micronutrients she can get, as well as avoiding toxic refined carbs and trans fats that come with toddler preferred foods .
If this is what you are currently sitting with, relax – picky eating can be managed, especially if you catch it early (a good paed dietitian or occupational therapist are highly recommended). For those of you who haven’t quite reached the picky eating stage, there are steps we can take as early as pregnancy to prevent this hair-pulling fussiness that is so characteristic of the terrible twos (…or threes… or fours!).
Eating is not just for nourishment – adults certainly don’t choose lemon cheesecake and steaming hot chocolate for the fuel it provides. We choose lemon cheesecake because we’re sitting around a table with friends and we are all sharing a treat and a giggle. We choose hot chocolate because it’s raining outside and there’s nothing more comforting than a sweet hot drink by the fire. Eating is an experience – a social experience, an emotional experience, a taste experience. And when it comes to experience, most of us will choose one that is comfortable, one that we know, one that doesn’t scare us. If someone came to you and asked you to jump out of an aeroplane, speak in front of 200 people, or try a fried tarantula (a Cambodian delicacy) – chances are, you would refuse, because these experiences would be foreign to you and completely out of your comfort zone.
The same applies to our littlies. If they have almost no experience with bitter tastes (brussel sprouts, broccoli, dark chocolate) or sour tastes (tomatoes, oranges, balsamic vinegar), how can we expect them to accept them as safe and comfortable? It’s unrealistic. A phrase I want you to remember is experience leads to acceptance. This refers to tastes, textures, or heck, even a new baby brother. So it’s all about increasing experience and exposure to that food, taste or texture, and getting your bubs to the point of acceptance.
Let’s start from pregnancy: Try your best to eat as much variety of tastes as you can – bitter vegetables, fatty fish, spicy curries, garlicky meats, herby roasts, tangy fruit. These tastes do get transferred to your amniotic fluid and baby uses his sense of smell and taste to experience them. Studies do show that this kind of exposure in the womb does influence baby’s preferences after birth – for several years at least! The famous example is babies from Indian families – from six months, these little guys are perfectly comfortable eating strong curries and hot spices. Why? Because they got exposed to them day in and day out in mom’s belly and from mom’s milk.
If your morning sickness meant that all you could eat for 9 months was dry crackers and pickled gherkins, don’t despair – breastfeeding is another optimal time for taste experience. Again, tastes do get transferred into breastmilk, so do your best to go crazy with healthy, whole food flavours. Of course, if you have never touched a chilli in your life before, don’t stress about exposing baby to that hot spiciness – the aim here is to get baby to accept and love the family foods, the foods you will be feeding him for the next 18 years. However, this may also be a good time to look at how you and the family eat. Does everyone get enough fruits, enough vegetables, enough fish? Maybe everyone needs to branch out a bit, not just for baby, but for your own health. Remember the importance of variety in the whole family’s health – you are unlikely to be well nourished if you only ever eat 10 different foods. So many parents come to me complaining of picky eaters, only to confess that they themselves never eat salad or sweet potato – it is unreasonable to expect baby to eat a perfect diet if mom and dad only live off boerewors rolls.
Weaning, of course, is another valuable window period – please don’t be nervous of flavours in this stage of development. There is no need to introduce a new fruit or vegetable every week. It will take you many months to reach a varied diet – precious months where baby could be learning about tastes and textures and flavours. A new fruit or vegetable can be introduced every day, and you can cook these foods with garlic, cinnamon, ginger, rosemary, turmeric, cumin, basil – whatever fresh or freeze dried herb or spice you can find. Protein foods only need three days between introduction, and these can also be cooked with any natural flavours you can think of. Note: please avoid honey in the first year.
Now kiddo is over 1 year old and it’s too late to worry about flavours in utero or in milk. Still, don’t despair! It’s never too late to start exposure. By this stage you might struggle to get your little one to actually put flavours like cabbage or avocado in their mouth, but don’t forget other kinds of experience. Mom, dad, nanny, crèche teachers all eating and enjoying food (vocally if possible) in front of toddler is invaluable experience with those foods. Games, toys, or videos with food characters count as experience. Playing with foods is experience, as well as playing with different textures such as goo, shaving cream, mud, or coloured spaghetti. Simply having food on a plate is experience. It’s all about teaching your child that these foods are safe and predictable and comfortable.
This all may seem like a lot of trouble merely to increase the variety of your little one’s diet, but remember the point of all of this. These are valuable years for teaching healthy eating and for development of body and brain. The picky eater’s diet of white bread, sandwich meat, tomato sauce and fruit juice is not the way to get to the desired end goal of optimal growth, ideal brain development and healthy food relationships.