Study after study has shown the importance of what our children eat as babies and toddlers on their health and future diet. The Averting a recipe for disaster campaign says in their report, 'Our Children And Their Food':
"food habits are formed when a child is first weaned. During that first year they will develop preferences that may last a lifetime."
So, no pressure then.
The first issue with getting young children eating healthier is to spread that message far and wide; that the food choices we make as parents really do matter. However the second issue is trickier. What do we do as parents when, no matter how hard we've tried, our toddlers refuse to co-operate? I don't think I know a single parent who hasn't had to deal with an eating issue with a toddler; even if just a short-lived phase. Here is some food-for-thought (excuse the pun!) on getting toddlers eating better.
Please note: I am not an expert in toddler behaviour or health. If you're facing serious issues with your child's eating, please seek professional help. This article is aimed at parents who are dealing with minor issues or simply looking for ideas to improve their child's eating habits.
My theory on approaching toddlers and food is based on the observation that most toddlers:
- Are stubborn and hate feeling like they have to do something.
- Are naturally inquisitive and like exploring new things.
- Love independence and like to feel like they are in control.
- Are full of contradictions and despite trait 2, also love routine and familiarity.
How to turn these traits to our advantage?
My first tip is don't focus on individual foods. You might be worried because your toddler won't touch a green vegetable, but don't tackle this by going into over-drive trying to get them to eat broccoli. The more your toddler feels pressure to try a certain food, the harder they'll resist (trait 1). Focus instead on improving your child's whole attitude to trying new foods. Experts say that children often need to taste a food several, if not tens of, times before their taste buds will tell their brain they like it. In which case, getting them open to the idea of simply tasting things is critical. Don't be put off when they don't wolf something down at the first attempt. Keep encouraging and keep giving it to them on multiple days. Now that my kids are 5 and 3.5, they know that I always expect them to try a food, even if just the tiniest taste. They like to sing this line from the PBS Kids programme Daniel Tiger: "try a new a food, because it might taste good." For me, this line neatly sums up what I want their attitude to food to be.
That's all very well, but what do you do if your toddler flat refuses to try anything new? This is where you have to play on Trait 2 and where cooking with young children, even as young as 1, comes into its own. In the process of cooking, they learn to see food as something to explore and discover as part of a fun activity. It never ceases to amaze me what my children will try as they're cooking, that they would baulk at if I just presented it to them on the plate. I like to use recipes that don't have things like raw meat so that they are safe to explore and taste as they cook. I also like to lay out all the ingredients, partly to make it easier, but also so that they can see what they're cooking with and explore it.
There is little point in cooking with children for them to watch you do most of it because what you are cooking is too complicated or unsafe for them to do. The most likely result is one bored and frustrated toddler. If you want to maximise the benefits of cooking with them, they need to feel as engaged and involved as possible; trait 3 - control. The way to do this is pick a simple, age-appropriate and achievable recipe (see our guide to choosing a recipe to cook with a toddler). Then you can give them the freedom to produce something, largely on their own. If they feel the pride of making something themselves, they are much more likely to try the end result; which can be a brilliant way to introduce new dishes/foods. Obviously, it's not practical to cook with them all the time. I have a friend who gets all her recipe books out every weekend and each child (hers are 2 and 4) gets to pick a dish for her to cook for them that week. Same principal: give them control and ownership and they are much more likely to co-operate.
Trait 4: toddlers love familiarity. We've all been there, serving them the same thing week-in, week-out because we know they'll eat it and we don't want the demoralisation of going to all the effort of cooking something new and it ends up in the bin. But the more variety they have at a young age, the more familiar they are with the idea that we eat lots of different things. If you make variety the norm, then they are more likely to accept and try different foods. Remember that if you are making a change to introduce more variety, it may take a while for that to become familiar to them; persevere.
Familiarity is also key to food recognition. I am going to be a bit controversial here, but I disagree with people who advise improving healthy eating by hiding foods in dishes that they think children will like or presenting food so that it doesn't look like food. Don't get me wrong, I like to use recipes that throw in something healthy, like vegetable scones or vegetable muffins. However, I don't sneak them in. I think it's important that young children are familiar with food, particularly vegetables, in its natural state; whether that's picking it out in the supermarket or back in the kitchen cooking together. Yes, you can get quick wins by sneaking certain food into dishes, but it's not addressing the overall issue of their reluctance to try things. You're not always going to be there to mash up their broccoli into a pasta sauce or make them a smiley face. But if they recognise broccoli because they helped mash it up, then it will be more familiar when it turns up on their plate with the Sunday roast. By all means get sneaky it if it gets them to eat a vegetable, but recognise it's limitations in addressing picky eating.
So our Top Tips are:
- Don't focus on individual foods, focus on forming their whole attitude to trying new food
- Don't give up on a food or dish too quickly; it might take them a while to accept it.
- Help them to see food as something fun to discover.
- Make them feel involved in what they're eating.
- Maintain variety in their diet.
Tickle Fingers recipes are especially designed so that children aged 1-4 can enjoy being as hands on as possible with cooking. Find ideas for lunch, dinner and desserts they can explore with minimal adult input in the Tickle Fingers Cookbook: hands-on fun in the kitchen for 1-4s.
The Children's Food Trust works with schools, pre-schools and parents to help children eat better. They run a network of cooking clubs, Let's Get Cooking, which also offers online advice and recipes. Boost your skills, find great recipes or even learn to cook from scratch. If cooking education is something you are passionate about, join their family network at www.letsgetcookingathome.org.uk to stay up to date on news, ideas and information.
Jamie's Food Foundation has it's Ministry for Food, which has recipes online and runs cooking classes in Bradford, Leeds, Newcastle-Upon-Tyne and Rotherham. There's also Jamie Oliver's Kitchen Garden Project, which provides resources and ideas for teaching children cooking and gardening to primary schools.
BBC Cook of the Year 2015 Jo Ingleby (who is my food hero) won because of her fantastic work bringing cooking to 2 to 4 years in an inner-city nursery. She has a great selection of recipes and contributed to this useful BBC article of tips.
Averting a recipe for disaster campaign is an initiative by the founder of Ella's Kitchen, Paul Lindley. It is calling on all political parties to improve nutrition for the under fives. Visit their page to find out more and pledge your support.
Feeding Picky Kids is a useful blog and book all about... feeding picky kids.
War & Peas by Jo Cormack is an interesting read.
Tickle Fingers Community: When we come across a good recipe, post, organisation or business to do with cooking with young children, we share it on our Tickle Fingers Community Facebook page, twitter @cookwithtots and put on Pinterest. Follow us and, if you have something which you'd like us to share, let us know.