Little A recently went through a bit of a picky eating phase. It gave us some insight into what a lot of our friends go through every day with their picky little toddler eaters, and we felt lucky that our Little One just hasn’t been too finicky about food so far. That doesn’t mean that he always eats everything we put in front of him, but mealtimes are generally peaceful and enjoyable moments at our table.
I believe that this is mostly down to luck. We just got lucky and happened to get a non-picky eater in Little A. I also think that some of it might be down to a few things that we happened to get right with the whole food thing.
So, just in case something might be helpful to anyone who is struggling with this (or who wants to get the best start and avoid a future struggle with food), here are my best tips for introducing foods to baby and avoiding picky eating:
- Have a food philosophy. I was told at some point that it’s the parents’ job to decide what is eaten and when. And the child has the right to decide if they are eating and, if so, how much. At times when Alec is difficult at a meal, I repeat this to myself as a mantra.
- Have realistic expectations. If you are one of those people who is happy to just have a piece of toast for lunch and a bowl of cereal for dinner, don’t expect your child to be super enthusiastic about food either… I think children form their relationship to food partly socially – by watching and being included in the way the rest of the family eats.
- Stay positive. Almost nothing is as frustrating as a toddler shaking his head and saying “no” to even trying a single bite of a meal that you have gone to great lengths to prepare specifically for him in the most nutritious, appetizing, timely and tasty manner. But getting upset about it and turning the experience into a negative one is the worst thing you can do. Just abort mission and try again (with the same food!) later.
- Expose your child to a wide variety of flavors (and consistencies) early on. I highly recommend preparing your own baby food, for this very reason. You don’t have to exclusively prepare your own food, but ready-made baby foods are limiting in variety of taste and consistency. Alec had every veggie under the sun in his first few months and often in combination with herbs and spices like mint, basil, cinnamon etc. I found the Béaba Baby Cook to be a huge help in preparing Alec’s food for the first several months. Read about it here.
- Eat together. Alec’s recent picky phase clearly coincided with my third trimester cooking-laziness phase. I would have been happy to just eat sandwiches and most of our actual cooked dinners were prepared by my husband or my mother-in-law. There was quite a lot of take-out, and Alec ate almost all his meals by himself, instead of our usual daily family dinners. Then my husband went on paternity leave and we headed to the country. There has been more time for planning and preparing meals and we are eating almost all our meals all together as a family. And suddenly, Alec’s picky phase is just a memory. He has been trying new foods daily without any hesitation and has made great strides feeding himself with a fork or spoon, exploring a wider range of consistencies and just eating really well overall. To me it is so so clear how important family meals are, and I’m glad that I’ve been so militant about them for the most part.
- Get toddlers involved. Babies and toddlers are so keen to get involved in what goes on in the kitchen and I think it’s an excellent way to keep them interested in food and cooking. There are a million ways to do this, from choosing produce together in the grocery store, to cooking and preparing food together. We use baking as sensory play several times a week (see here) and Little A has a play kitchen in our kitchen (see here). Kylie of How We Montessori has her one-year-old participate in preparing his own snacks, see here. And during the summer, I am taking advantage of our time in the country to show Alec where strawberries and other foods actually come from.
- Time meals well. Trying to get an over-tired, over-hungry baby or toddler to try something new is just super frustrating and doomed to fail. Just like with a newborn, respect your toddler’s rhythm and make sure snacks and meals are timed just 2 to 3 hours apart so your child is hungry, but not starving when you offer a meal.
- Do what works. A small child may need to taste something 6 to 12 times before really deciding that they like or dislike it. When we started Alec on solids, I just did whatever I could to get each flavor into him those 6-12 times, and I don’t think there was really any flavor that he finally dismissed after several attempts. I used apple sauce liberally. Either mixing unpopular veggies such as zucchini with apple or pear, or just putting a little apple sauce on the end of the spoon so it was the first thing Alec tasted. In the end he had had zucchini enough times to be comfortable with the flavor and consistency and the apple sauce could be left out. I still do this with new foods when necessary. Other tricks we use are to include favourite foods in new foods. Alec loves peas, so I try to include peas when I introduce a new type of food. My husband discovered that Little A was more open to tasting a new food basically directly from the stove than from his bowl sitting at the table. So he will often take a spoon of whatever we have just finished cooking (make sure it’s cool of course) and give it to Alec before we sit down. It works. Alec has only recently started eating avocado from his plate. Previously he would only eat avocado from my hand while I was preparing dinner. Fine with me. He’s rarely ruined his dinner eating avocado (and even if he did – that’s also fine with me), but it’s been the perfect way to get this nutritious food into him while buying me a little cooking time. Whatever works.
- Don’t dumb it down too much.The one thing that is sure to make our little one dismiss a meal is if it is too bland. We have all but stopped making “baby versions” of what the rest of the family is eating. Now we just leave out the salt (it can be added at the table if needed), and cut up Little A’s food, making whatever we are making as spicy and tasty for the whole family.
- Baby Sign. Even if you’re not using baby signing with your baby, consider trying just two signs when you start to introduce solids. The fact that Alec understood and responded to the “finished/done” and “more” signs from six months old and then started signing them himself (along with a bunch of other signs) at around a year, has been such a huge help to us and has reduced the frustration one might otherwise feel in connection with meals when you’re not able to communicate properly with your child.
- Consider Baby Led Weaning. I had heard about Baby Led Weaning (BLW), and been strongly recommended to try it by my friend Erline (read about her experiences here), but to be honest, I didn’t really see the point of it. Why mess around with finger food from day 1 when purés are so convenient? I’ve come around though and will probably incorporate more BLW techniques when we introduce solids to Baby #2. Besides encouraging independence and self confidence in Baby, I think it creates more of an openness to different consistencies. Alec has always been a little sensitive to consistencies – he resisted chunkier purés as a baby and has been hesitant towards anything gooey (dips, sauces, even crepes) as a toddler. I think perhaps he would be less finicky if he had learned to handle food in chunks from the start.
For more food ideas for babies, toddlers and families, visit Mini Piccolini’s Mini Veg here.