Six ways you may be sabotaging your child's healthy eating habits

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  • Learn to be patient because fussy eating is common in young children
  • Sneaking fruit and vegetables into your child's diet isn't as hard as you might expect
  • Set an example for your children – you can't expect them to eat something you've never tried

As children get older, food starts to become less about satisfying hunger and more about independence and socialisation.

With meals a struggle for many families, parents and caregivers may resort to negotiation tactics to get their children to eat healthy foods. This can lead to unconscious sabotaging of kids' eating habits. 

1. Patience makes perfect

According to research, fussy eating is common in young children, peaking at 20 months and gradually fading away by five to eight years of age. Added to this, eight to 10 exposures to a new food may be needed before a child starts liking it. This means that patience is key – which is easier said than done.

Offer one new food at a time and only in small amounts to prevent overwhelming your child. Make sure there is always one food on the dinner table that you can reasonably expect them to eat. Serve a new food along with a favourite food. This will help improve the likelihood of your child accepting the new food. Their acceptance of a new food is also highly influenced by verbal praise and approval from parents and caregivers.

2. Adjust your attitude

A self-fulling prophecy is when something comes true because we act as if it is already true. This same principle may apply when we feed our children. If we assume children only like chicken nuggets and tomato sauce and despise spinach, this may become our reality. You may be surprised to see your child enjoying the carrots they see in a friend's lunchbox or the spinach they witness Popeye eating on TV.

3. The tug-of-war

“Finish your vegetables, then you can have some ice-cream.” While statements like this may seem harmless, they diminish the value of nutritious food while creating the impression that treats should be valued over healthier foods. While negotiation is a good skill for children to learn, perhaps the dinner table is not the place. If you have fallen prey to this, simply start using different techniques. For example, neutralise ice-cream by making it clear that everyone gets it when it is served as dessert, regardless of whether they ate their veggies. Allow time for play after meals. The anticipation may encourage your child to finish the plated food more quickly, thereby avoiding the need for negotiating.

4. Giving in

Preparing separate meals for your child to the rest of a family is not only time consuming but also a sure way to sabotage good eating habits. Like negotiation and bartering, be careful of making eating a power struggle and giving in to your child's fussy tastebuds.

Similarly, offering after-dinner snacks will teach your child that there is always something tastier to enjoy after the meal. Remember that refusing to eat what is prepared may not just be about food but also about striving for independence, which is part of a child’s normal social and emotional development.

5. Hide and s(n)eak

It is recommended that preschoolers eat a minimum of 200g or 1½ cups of fruit and vegetables every day. Yet more than three-quarters of this group fail to meet this recommendation. Sneaking vegetables into dishes like mince, or fruit into smoothies is a clever way to boost the nutrient content of their meals. However, some experts feel that sneaking healthy items into a child’s diet may teach them not to trust the foods they are served.

Show your child how you add chopped or grated vegetables like carrots, mushrooms, peppers and baby marrows into mince dishes and stews. Let your child watch you blend an apple with yoghurt when making smoothies. While sneaking in the fruit and veg is a good start, we also want children to explore different tastes and textures and naturally develop a taste for nutritious foods. Be sure to regularly dish up the whole, unblended versions of fruits and vegetables. This will help desensitise them to foods they are not so fond of.

6. Walk the walk and talk the talk

A child’s acceptance of a new food is highly influenced by parents and siblings, especially the mother. If you do not want your child to eat a food, do not bring it into the home or be seen eating it yourself. Set an example by allowing your child to see you trying new and interesting foods. Choose a new and different fruit or vegetable during your next visit to the supermarket and encourage your child to do the same. Having chosen the food will mean your child takes ownership of it and will be more likely to eat it.

References:

Early Eating Behaviours and Food Acceptance Revisited: Breastfeeding and Introduction of Complementary Foods as Predictive Food Acceptance 

Taste Exposure Increases Intake and Nutrition Education Increases Willingness to Try an Unfamiliar Vegetable in Preschool Children: A Cluster Randomized Trial 

How Infants and Young Children Learn About Food: A Systematic Review

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