It’s a scenario most moms and dads know all too well: the food goes in, the food comes right back out. A look of firm resolution on the face of your little tyke as she firmly refuses to open her mouth and enjoy the delicious, nutritious food you’ve prepared. All she’ll eat is banana-flavoured yoghurt. And perhaps occasionally a chicken nugget. You’re starting to get very concerned. But is it really that important for your child to eat a variety of foods? And what to do if they don’t?
It’s what you put in
‘Proper food is the cornerstone of good health,’ says Cornelia Owens, a registered dietitian with a special interest in child and infant nutrition. ‘Certain nutrients, that can only be found in proper food, aid in the development of a well-functioning immune system.’
With ‘proper’ food, Owens refers to food made from whole ingredients and not processed foods from packets or boxes. ‘Good food can alter your genetic makeup and reduce your child’s risk of developing lifestyle-related diseases, such as diabetes, later in life. Nutrients such as iron, zinc, vitamin A and folate are important for the brain development of a child. A lack thereof can cause irreversible damage on mental and physical development,’ she cautions.
Sources of important nutrients
Vitamin A Yellow and orange vegetables, eg carrots, sweet potato, pumpkin
Vitamin C Green leafy vegetables eg broccoli, spinach, citrus, guavas, tomatoes
Calcium Green leafy vegetables, dairy products, sardines (with bones mashed in)
Iron Liver, meat, eggs, whole grain breads and cereals
Zinc Whole grain breads and cereals, legumes (eg lentils, beans), meat, chicken, fish
Folate (B9) Green leafy vegetables, legumes
When to introduce foods
The recommended age to start offering solid foods (also known as complementary foods) is around six months, says Cornelia. She says it’s not good for babies to start before that because infants have tiny tummies so they need concentrated, easily digestible sources of energy and nutrients.
‘Solid foods are not as densely packed with nutrients and kilojoules as breast milk or formula milk. If a baby gets introduced to solids too soon, their appetite for milk decreases, which means they get less nourishment. A baby’s immune system is immature before six months, so by adding more solid foods, the risk of ingesting bacteria and viruses that can cause illnesses, especially diarrhoea, increases.’
How much and how often?
Cornelia advises starting with one meal per day and slowly increasing to two meals per day.
‘By the time the baby reaches eight months, you can offer three meals. At one year, the baby can have three meals and two nutritious snacks.’ She encourages adding textured food from the start. ‘This makes them more inclined to accept all sorts of textures and flavours as they grow up.’
The World Health Organisation’s (WHO) Guiding Principles for Complementary Feeding of the Breastfed Child suggests introducing finger foods by eight months and says children should be able to consume the same foods as the rest of the family by 12 months, taking care to avoid foods that might be choking hazards such as raw carrots, grapes or nuts. Cornelia warns to be mindful of store-bought products as it only introduces baby to smooth textures.
As for the volume, she says there are no clear guidelines on the amount of food your baby needs. ‘A baby born at 4.2 kg will need more food to sustain growth than a baby born at 2.8 kg. Follow the simple principle of responsive feeding: offer the food and let the baby decide how much he or she will take in. When your baby starts to close his or her mouth, turns their heads or says ‘no’, it’s a clear sign that they are not hungry any more. You can tell if your child is eating enough by regularly assessing their weight and length growth.’ If your baby isn’t growing sufficiently, you should immediately consult with your paediatrician.
Responsive feeding is the reciprocal relationship between infant and caregiver, characterised by the child communicating his or her feelings of hunger and satiety (through verbal or non-verbal cues), followed by the immediate response from the caregiver.
‘If your child struggles to accept new food, start by modelling the consumption of that new food. Eat it on different occasions before offering it to your child.’ An effective technique is to simply introduce it on your child’s plate. If by the third or fourth time your child still doesn’t show interest, encourage them to try it.
‘Never force or trick a child to eat a certain food and avoid hiding foods in your child’s favourites, as this doesn’t teach them good eating habits. Offer your baby new foods first when the child is still hungry, and start with vegetables and less sweet fruits. ‘Steer clear of foods containing salt and sugar as these are simple tastes for babies to process, making them more inclined to refuse nutritious foods.’
The first step to prevent your child from becoming a fussy eater, is to not label them as such, says Cornelia. ‘Start talking to your child about different foods and assess your own diet to ensure you haven’t influenced your child’s eating habits. Eating is a learnt behaviour. Children often appear fussy merely because they aren’t hungry. This can be due to too much intake of cooldrinks or sweets or, in an infant older than one year, too much milk.’
Right, from the start
The Nutrition Information Centre of the University of Stellenbosch (Nicus) gives the following tips:
serve food in a relaxing environment, preferably at a table.
make food fun by allowing the child to partake in the preparation process.
allow enough time for the child to complete the meal.
space mealtimes appropriately, about 1 1/2 hours in-between meals and not when the child is tired.
encourage self-feeding. Mealtimes should be allowed to be messy.
offer a variety of foods, including favourites. Try bright colours and crunchy textures rather than soggy or lumpy foods.
ignore attempts at attention seeking and undesirable behaviour.
making a fuss if a new food item is rejected. It can be re-introduced a few days later, perhaps prepared differently.
using favourite foods as a reward. This can lead to manipulation and a negative attitude towards that food item.
excessive coaxing, as these struggles are often futile and may lead to a life-long dislikes of certain foods.
Words: Liezel Joubert | Photography: Unsplash