Follow these expert tips to ensure your child has a healthy relationship with food, right from the start.
Every child goes through periods of picking eating, whether it’s due to teething, an illness or plain old boredom. The most important thing to remember when weaning your child is that it’s not about how much your child eats or how often: ultimately, the goal while weaning is to help your child forge a healthy relationship with food. The right attitude will have lasting consequences throughout their life.
In Weaning Sense, occupational therapist Meg Faure and paediatric dietitian Kath Megaw talk about the importance of teaching your child to recognise when they are “full” and when they are “hungry”. Paying attention to cues and respecting them teaches your child about “intuitive eating”, which, they say, “has been shown to be one of the biggest predictors of obesity”. If you force your child to eat, eventually your child will be unable to recognise their internal signals of “hunger” and “fullness”, and poor eating habits will be established.
So, how can you help build successful eating habits? Here are some tips.
1. Expose your baby to new flavours and textures early
Your child doesn’t need to start on bland rice cereals or commercial puréed foods. In fact, Weaning Sense says that these foods often go through an extensive process that removes many key nutrients and flavour, which can influence how willing your older child will be to try new flavours and textures. So, from the get-go, introduce new foods to your baby frequently. The COLLAB approach advocates for both smooth foods and more textured foods, so you don’t need to stick to only purées or draw a hard line with baby-led weaning. Instead, offer your baby a variety of foods and allow them to taste from your plate during mealtimes to introduce new flavours and textures.
2. Add flavour
On the subject of flavour: don’t be afraid to add flavour to your baby’s foods. While you want to limit exposure to salt and sugar, there are many other ways to add flavour to your baby’s foods. Try puréeing fruit and adding it to oats for some natural sweetness, for example, or add herbs and spices to scrambled eggs, muffins and other foods. Remember that your baby has already been introduced to these flavours while in the womb and breastfed babies will have been exposed to herbs and spices through breast milk as well.
ALSO READ: Is salt really that bad for my baby?
3. Repetition (without pressure) is key
Your baby may well be resistant to certain foods from the start or go through phases of liking and disliking specific foods throughout their childhood. Don’t let that put you off, though. Your baby’s preferences won’t change unless they are regularly exposed to the offensive food. So be sure to include the non-preferred food along with other favourite foods at mealtimes, giving them the option to taste the food when they are ready. You can even try serving the offensive food in a different format – for example, even if your baby doesn’t like banana purée, they may still like raw banana, or they may prefer strawberry yoghurt to raw strawberries. And be sure to let your baby see you eating the “offensive” food as well. You may even find that while your child is unwilling to eat the food from their own plate, they are more willing to have a bite when helping themselves to your plate!
4. Model healthy eating
On that note, take a hard look at your own eating habits – because you can be sure your child is keeping a close eye on them! And if mommy or daddy doesn’t enjoy certain foods or they like having a chocolate or dessert after mealtimes, your child will soon follow suit. So make healthy eating and good eating habits part of your household: try to sit down together for at least one meal as a family and make sure everyone’s plates include lots of healthy, colourful foods. Remember, the goal is not for your baby to clear their plate – they may still be resistant to the spinach on it, for example, but if they see the rest of the family enjoying a spinach quiche, they may be more willing to give it a try too. And they may even discover that they really like it!
5. Make it fun!
Cooking and eating should be fun! Yes, we eat because we need certain nutrients for survival, but the wonderful thing about being human is that we have learnt to mix and match certain ingredients to create delicious meals. And how wonderful to be able to share that with your family? So get your baby involved from the beginning, even before they’re regularly joining the family table. For example, set up a sensory bin with jelly or mashed foods and allow your young baby to explore the feel and colour of different foods. Allow them to sniff different herbs and spices in the garden and your pantry, and let them taste how these different ingredients can add flavour to foods. When they’re older, allow them to help you in the kitchen by stirring ingredients together or cutting out shapes for pancakes or French toast.
6. Create structure and a routine
As much as food is about fun, though, you will need to add some boundaries when your child is eating solids regularly. This will allow them to recognise when they are hungry, rather than giving them constant access to snacks or milk that will keep them filled up. Babies and toddlers thrive on routine, and once your child starts day care, they will need to fall in with a schedule anyway, so start them on one at home already. Set up times for meals, snacks (including milk) and naps, and soon your child will know when to expect mealtimes and come prepared to the table.
ALSO READ: What is the COLLAB approach to weaning?
7. Be patient
Weaning is a journey, and it can be stressful if you think your baby isn’t consuming enough solids. Remember that while there are “averages” when it comes to height and weight, each child is on their own growth chart and their doctor should be continuously monitoring that your child is on track. Babies grow a lot during the first year, but after that, their growth tends to slow down, so you’ll find that they naturally eat less. Trust that your child will eat when they are hungry, be sure to offer them healthy foods at regular intervals, continuously expose them to new ingredients and be consistent – then be patient. If you carefully observe your child’s eating habits, you’ll notice that over the period of about a week, your child is more than likely consuming a wider range of foods than you realise.
8. Get help if you need to
Of course, if your baby isn’t growing according to their growth chart or shows signs of an allergy or is particularly resistant to solids, trust your instinct as their parent. Get in touch with your healthcare provider if you have any concerns around your child’s health or eating habits. You can also book a consultation with Kath Megaw for expert advice. Or consider enrolling in a course – Parent Sense offers a wide variety of courses covering topics from choking to snacking. See the full list of Parent Sense courses here.