The Veg bomb

Encouraging children to gobble up vegetables with the same enthusiasm as they do sweets has always been one of life’s greatest parenting challenges. We’ve all faced mealtimes with defiant toddlers, mouths sealed shut and faces screwed up in disgust, as we try spooning seemingly innocent ‘greens’ past their unyielding lips.

Although at times it can seem a fruitless battle, it’s one that can be won and it’s definitely worth winning early. We all know that a healthy, balanced diet will benefit our child’s development, energy levels, immunity, well-being, concentration levels and future health, not to mention that of future generations. “If we don’t get this right from day one, we’re setting ourselves up for trouble in later life,” says Sally Preston, a food scientist, mum of two and the brains behind Babylicious and Kiddylicious frozen baby foods. “A fussy child becomes a fussy adult, whose child then watches them turning their nose up at food and, in turn, becomes a fussy eater themselves.”

So if you feel like you’re losing the food fight, fret not. Sally has the answers.

Why are some children fussy eaters?

All children are different and some will naturally be fussier than others. However, Sally believes that unless we train children to enjoy the sensory experience of food from the very first mouthful, we’re teaching them to be fussy eaters later on.

“We all know that children have to be taught to walk, talk and sing and it’s no different with food,” explains Sally. “Over time, it seems we’ve forgotten to train babies that food comes in all different colours, flavours, odours and textures.

“If a baby is fed food that’s orange, looks the same, smells the same, tastes bland and is thick and claggy, day in day out, they’ll start to believe that’s what food is. Later on, at about two years old, they instantly become very unreceptive to anything that’s new and strange. So it’s really important that we get variety into their mouths early on.”

There’s another vital reason that parents should encourage their children to eat a broad diet from day one and it goes way back to cave men. Research of our ancestors shows that when toddlers first left their caves, they would only eat foods they recognised and that had previously been given to them by a trusted adult.

This survival mechanism remains in today’s toddlers and can be seen when they start nursery. “If they’ve been given the same old orange puree at home, when someone they don’t know at nursery puts broccoli, cauliflower or carrots in front of them, they simply won’t eat it,” says Sally.

So how can we encourage our children to enjoy a varied diet?

Step one, says Sally, is introducing a wide variety of food as soon as you begin weaning. “It’s as simple as cook apple today, banana tomorrow, carrot the day after, and broccoli and peas the day after that. Initially, food is of no nutritional value because your child will still be getting everything he needs from milk. The very first food is just there to get children used to different textures and flavours.”

Step two, is perseverance. Research shows that a child has to try something 20 times before you can genuinely say they don’t like it. “Just because he spat his chicken casserole out once doesn’t mean your child doesn’t like it,” says Sally. “It’s just that he hasn’t ever experienced it before and when it went in he thought, ‘That’s odd,’ and spat it out.”

Don’t give in. Simply wait for another day and reintroduce whatever it was they spat out. Eventually you’ll find you’ve trained your child’s taste buds to enjoy a diverse diet, which will give him a much better attitude towards food as he grows up.

Does eating a varied and healthy diet during pregnancy encourage babies and toddlers to eat more wide-ranging foods?

Yes, recent research shows that flavours from a mother’s diet reach the amniotic fluid during pregnancy, introducing babies to tastes while they’re still in the womb. Sally points out a study that found babies born to Asian mothers love the strong flavours of onion and garlic, in which their mother’s diets are rich, from the word go because they’ve grown used to them in the womb.

If a mother has a positive attitude to food, she’ll pass it on to her child.

And a mother’s influence goes well beyond the womb. “If a mother has a positive attitude to food, that will be passed on to her child,” explains Sally. “Sitting round the table as a family, eating different meals everyday, will give your child a much better attitude to food in later life. Likewise, if you push things you don’t like to one side, your child will copy.”

The way you and your child view food can also have huge health implications. Studies have found that children who are faddy eaters at the age of two or three have a greater tendency to become obese in later life.

So what should you do if your child is a fussy eater?

  1. Persevere and introduce change gradually: If you’ve been giving them the same meal day in day out, change one component – perhaps add a couple of peas or carrots or some gravy. Make really tiny changes that over a week or month become bigger changes.
  2. Don’t overwhelm your child: Use small plates and bowls to serve your child’s meals. If you put a big plate in front of a child that doesn’t want to eat they can feel so overwhelmed by the enormity of it that they won’t eat anything. You can always give them more if you start off small.
  3. Separate food: Some children don’t like different foods to touch on the plate, often because they’re trying to work out what each thing is. Use a plate with individual sections or make it fun and use a green bean or bits of spaghetti to divide it all up.

Should parents be worried their child isn’t getting the right nutrients if they refuse food?

“No – offer them a meal and if they don’t want it, they don’t want it, just relax. If you’re relaxed they’ll be relaxed as well,” reassures Sally. “As an example, a friend of mine, who’s also a food scientist, has a son and all he ate for a year and a half was yogurt, smiley faces and cheddar cheese – every single meal. He got over it and now he’s a strapping rugby player.”

Many mums feel guilty at giving their little ones shop bought meals, should they?

“Homemade is the Holy Grail but mums should take all the help they can get to make their lives just a bit easier,” reassures Sally. “As well as time pressures, there’s also a huge number of mums who say they can’t cook and have no confidence to try, which is really sad. So they come to us for the next best thing for their children.”

Sally’s used her experience as a food scientist and mum to create Babylicious and Kiddylicious, frozen food that’s as good as homemade for babies from six months to pre-school years. The meals are made using carefully selected, high quality ingredients just like you have in your kitchen cupboards – with no added salt, sugar or additives. They are gently cooked to create yummy dishes before being freshly frozen to ensure that the great taste and nutrients are locked into every meal.

“Freezing is Mother Nature’s way of preserving food in its natural state to provide the best taste and nutritional value,” explains Sally. “Other ‘homemade’ baby food brands are cooked, packaged, then heated a second time to 72°C or 85°C to give them a longer shelf life. The second cook is what turns food that orange colour, destroys all the natural flavours and degenerates the nutritional value.

“No mother I know cooks spaghetti bolognaise, puts it in a pot then heats it again to 85°C. But I am aware of mothers who cook a meal and put it in the freezer.”

Is organic baby food better?

“According to the EU, any meal for a child under the age of three is only allowed to contain such a tiny weenie amount of pesticide that there is actually no difference between organic and non-organic in the baby food market,” says Sally. “You simply aren’t allowed to have pesticides in baby food products.”

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