Some people are born with the genetic inclination to like certain foods, healthy or sugary. This might give a small advantage or disadvantage in learning to enjoy eating healthily, but the way we teach ourselves to eat (and it is teaching and learning) counts for much more. Apart from anything, having a child who is happy to eat vegetables makes cooking dinner way less hassle: hide veg in sauces if you have to, but it’s easier not to have to hide from vegetables.
There are two golden rules when teaching children how to eat and enjoy a wide range of healthy food:
- Don’t fuss
- Lead by example – all the adults in the household hold this responsibility
Here are some tips that have been tested by scientists (and by me) – they apply to adults as well as children. They’re not just to help young fussy eaters enjoy their food, but are useful across everyone’s diet when trying something new or working to improve our diet:
- Train the taste buds: this is probably the most important tip of all, and will be a gift to your child throughout their life. Training our taste buds to appreciate flavour over sugar; quality over quantity; freshness over grease and a wide variety of rich, healthy flavours is the best way to ensure we get a balanced diet. From their first bite, we can take pride in helping to develop a child’s tastes to recognise, appreciate and prefer healthy food, and to get enjoyment out of trying and learning to like new foods. And it’s never too late to do this for ourselves!
- Make it fun: children particularly respond to the whole experience of eating food. Kid won’t eat celery? Show them how it crunches, make it a game and ask them how noisy they can make their food sound when they bite it. ‘Ow, that’s so loud for my ears!’ Forget table manners for a while. Incorporate food into play: sit on the floor together and make up games around different foods. Toddlers, for example, might pretend to be a dinosaur, and the walnuts are their prey. Older children can explore how food smells, what the different colours are, how it feels or compare different tastes. And don’t forget cooking it! Cooking (not just baking cakes) with your children is essential for teaching them basic skills, introducing new foods and encouraging them to eat the end results. As soon as they are old enough, give children the responsibility of planning and helping to make family meals.
- Start small: pea-sized, to be precise. When introducing a new food, don’t insist that the child (or yourself) actually eats it, and don’t be put off by ‘I don’t like it’ the first, second, third…or ninth time. Research shows that if a we/a child try something ten times, the likelihood that we will eat more of it and enjoy it increases dramatically. Just ask them to taste a pea-sized amount. First they only have to lick the new food. Next time ask them to eat that tiny tiny amount – if they won’t, then stick to a lick. After that start increasing the size gradually. With small children it might not take long: little children are programmed to be wary of new foods, but if you eat it in front of them and then ask them to taste a tiny amount, that fear can quickly turn into enthusiasm. This is a technique developed by University College London, and is the basis for a programme called Tiny Tastes, designed to help parents struggling with a child’s limited diet and food likes. I have used this technique with adults, children, babies and toddlers and promise you it works if you stick with it.
- Don’t ever demand that a child finishes everything on their plate. The aim is to allow them to learn to recognise when they are full, and then stop eating. Many of us have or can identify with stories of being put off a food forever after being forced to stuff it down when we were full or didn’t like it.
- Tell a story: this is helpful for adults and children. Where was that carrot grown? How did it grow? Could you plant some in your garden and watch them grow, or even just plant cress seeds on the windowsill? Have you visited a farm together, or walked through local fields and seen vegetables growing and animals grazing? Learning about where our food comes from is fascinating, eye-opening and can change the way we see food forever, no matter what our age.
- Lead by example: children copy those around them. If they see you enjoying a wide range of ingredients, cooking from scratch and trying new foods, that will be their norm and inform their own attitude to food. A child is not going to eat broccoli if they see their parents avoiding it. Sometimes persuading a child to try something new can be as simple as eating some yourself in front of them and not offering them any! See how quickly they ask you if they can have some too…
- Keep at it: developing our taste buds is a learning curve, and takes time and patience. Introducing children to new food shouldn’t be forced, argumentative or rushed. Let them take their own time, but make sure they are surrounded by healthy choices so whatever food they eat is good for them. You want children to see eating as a positive experience, not one associated with pressure and conflict.
- Don’t offer alternatives: children shouldn’t be forced to eat what’s on their plate, but make it clear that there is nothing else waiting to replace it. My mantra is: ‘You don’t have to eat it, but there isn’t anything else.’ Ensure there is a varied range of food on their plate at mealtimes, but if they don’t eat their dinner don’t offer treats, snacks or something safe you know they will eat instead. Offering an alternative makes the first meal seem like a chore, like something unpleasant you were asking them to work on. However, do offer pudding as normal, providing pudding is something healthy like natural yoghurt and/or fruit. Children shouldn’t feel they’re being punished for not eating what was offered to them. This works – perhaps counter-intuitively – the other way too: try and avoid praising a child for eating their dinner, it’s not a test to pass or fail.
- Don’t assume: children’s taste buds are no different to adults. They like a wide range of flavours, and there really should be no such thing as ‘kids’ food’. They aren’t programmed to prefer chicken nuggets; in fact many children prefer their food to be flavoursome. Olives, blue cheese, haggis, nuts, sauerkraut, herbs and spices – there is no reason that children won’t like any of these. Get into the habit of serving children the same food as grown-ups, and season children’s food with herbs and spices as you would an adult’s (but not salt). You might be surprised at what becomes a new favourite.
- Be consistent: it’ll make everyone’s life harder if you insist your children eat their vegetables one day and then cave into demands for ice cream for dinner the next. Children need to know that you’re asking them to eat healthily because you love them, because it’s the best thing for them, and because healthy food is delicious. They also need to know that they won’t get sausages instead of vegetable pasta by making a fuss.
- Food is not a reward: we’ve all done it, but avoid using treats as bribery. Not only can it add up to a lot of sugar in the diet, but we should be careful about making children associate treats with behaviour. And, as mentioned above, avoid using pudding or sweet things as a ‘prize’ for having eaten their dinner or their vegetables.
- Be careful of snacks: many snacks aimed at children are packed with sugar and dodgy chemicals. Snack time is a great opportunity to get fruit and veg into a child’s daily diet, and to introduce new foods in a no-pressure way. It’s not a full meal, so not a big deal if they don’t eat it – put chopped tomatoes on the table while they’re watching TV; hand out oatcakes as they’re heading to the park; give them carrot sticks while they’re doing their homework. No pressure, and the natural urge to snack will get the food eaten.
Healthy Food Swaps
|Fruit juice, squash and fizzy drinks||Plain water, milk, kombucha, kefir or occasionally a little fruit juice mixed with fizzy water|
|Sugary breakfast cereal||Porridge, sugar-free muesli or Weetabix|
|Jam – this is fine sometimes of course, but let’s mix the flavours up||Sugar-free peanut butter, sliced banana or Marmite (not Marmite for babies and young children), hummus, cheese and apple|
|White bread, pasta and rice||Brown and wholegrain versions, preferably organic. Sourdough bread.|
|Skimmed milk||Semi-skimmed or full fat milk|
|Sweetened yoghurt (including fruit-flavoured)||Natural yoghurt: top with fruit, cinnamon, nuts (chopped fine for under 5s), raisins, muesli etc.|
|Sugary biscuits or cheese crackers like Mini Cheddars||Oatcakes or unsweetened crackers like Ryvita|
|Dried fruit – keep this to mealtimes, it will rot teeth if eaten too regularly||Fresh fruit|
|Salt||Flavour: herbs and spices|
|Sweets and kid’s ‘sugar-free’ sweets||Fresh fruit|