Fiona McDonald Joyce has some indispensable advice for encouraging a healthy attitude to food from an early age
When it comes to feeding your child, are you in the ‘it’s only a biscuit, what harm can it do?’ camp, or are you a ‘just one rice cake, darling, you want to leave room for your carrot sticks’ sort of mother? I hold my hand up to being the latter; that breed of Healthy Eating Mother who brings out an oatcake at playgroup and tries to distract her son lest he see that the other children are enjoying custard creams. If you are a Custard Cream Mother, please bear with me if I sound over-zealous, and at least read what I have to say. Perhaps we could meet somewhere in the middle?
My name is Fiona McDonald Joyce and when not feeding the ducks or pushing a swing in a south London park with my little boy you will find me in the kitchen, testing recipes for my work as a nutrition writer and consultant. As a mother as well as a nutritionist, I know only too well the difficulty of trying to ensure your child eats well and enjoys their food, while also trying to find the time to shop for and prepare nutritious meals. Then, of course, there is the issue of what exactly constitutes a nutritious meal? Are toddlers getting enough iron? Are they eating too much fruit sugar and damaging their teeth? My aim is to provide practical nutrition advice, to help you as you strive to give your child the very best start in life. I hope that you will participate, too, asking questions and sharing your experiences.
I want to start by looking at the best ways to help your child to love good food. Here are my hard won tips for fostering a healthy attitude towards eating:
1. Relax. There is little more infuriating than the sight of a plate of carefully steamed organic salmon and broccoli being smeared over the side of a high chair by a disdainful toddler. Learn to shrug it off. You have done your job, providing them with a nutritious meal. One of these days they might just eat it.
2. Don’t praise or scold your child too heavily if they eat or don’t eat, and avoid insisting or overly encouraging that they finish what is on their plate. Let them stop eating when they have had enough (even if that seems at odds with your expectations) so that you don’t override their instinctive appetite control, which could lead to issues surrounding over-eating when they are older.
3. Make a treat just that – something to be enjoyed now and again, rather than a prerequisite for the end of each meal. Remember that it is you who is responsible for setting their expectations.
4. Don’t ban foods. It is impossible to keep your child ignorant of the delights of chips or chocolate for ever, so relax your standards a little where you cannot control your child’s diet, lest they realise that you are actively withholding something that everyone else is enjoying. It will only make it seem more attractive and could store up resentment.
5. Don’t give up. It could take as many as 10 different taste exposures for your child to accept a new flavour. If they turn their nose up at cauliflower, try it again next week. And the week after that.
6. Go with the flow. Give the child as much autonomy as safety and the social occasion permit – if your toddler wants to practise their pouring skills on a bowl of lukewarm soup, let them. Recognise that playing with food constitutes messy play, a crucial part of every child’s development and not simply poor table manners.
7. Calibrate their palette. This is the perfect and once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to shape your child’s taste buds. If you want to give them a treat, make it dark chocolate, high in cocoa solids and in antioxidants and iron, rather than sugary, milk-chocolate confectionary. Equally, throw finely chopped watercress or spinach into their scrambled eggs or baked beans – they don’t know that Heinz doesn’t add green leafy veg to every can.
8. Set a good example by eating with your child. Not only is it more sociable, it is also proven to encourage them to eat foods that they may otherwise have spurned. A study published in 2008 in the journal Preventive Medicine suggested that parents can increase the amount of fruits and vegetables their children eat simply by eating more themselves, so eat the way you want your child to eat.
9. Smile if you want them to eat broccoli. A study published recently in the journal Obesity showed that children’s desire to eat a particular food was influenced by the emotions displayed by other people eating that same food. This worked even if the child actively disliked a food. Seeing someone who appeared to enjoy it made them more open to trying it.
10. Get them involved. Let your child help you to prepare a meal. It may be excruciatingly messy and slow, but it is also one of the best ways to encourage them to eat the results, not to mention fast track their fine motor skills development. Their sense of satisfaction and pride more than makes up for the time spent mopping up the floor afterwards.
11. Encourage conscious eating. Mindless mealtimes in front of the television can distract your child from the task in hand or result in overeating as they ignore their brain’s satiety signal. You can also promote healthy digestion by letting your child rest after lunch. If they don’t have a nap at this time, encourage quiet time by looking at books or leaving them to play in their room.
12. Ring the changes. I like Oliver to eat eggs for breakfast, as they are an excellent source of protein, iron, zinc and B vitamins. Serve them every day, however, and my carefully poached eggs can end up on the floor. Now I serve them every other day and the plate is cleared.
If you have your own advice to share with readers, please do post your thoughts and comments here, or feel free to ask a question if you have concerns about your child’s eating habits.