As parents of young ones, it’s easy to get caught up in the rush of daily life and routine, especially when it comes to grocery shopping and meal prepping. There’s no doubt you want the best for your child so they’ll grow up happy and healthy. Mealtimes with small children are fun, sometimes challenging, and the perfect time to test out new foods with them.

Nutrition Comes from Variety

Food diversity plays a major role in proper nutrition and development.  While it’s great to encourage your child to eat foods you know they like, offering new options on the regular ensures they get nutritional benefits from a variety of sources.

According to the 2011-12 National Nutrition and Physical Activity Survey, the dietary habits of most children older than two do not meet recommended guidelines for adequate intake of vegetables, legumes, fruit, dairy, lean protein, and grains.

For children age 4-11 Nutrition Australia recommends a daily intake of:

  • Vegetables & Legumes – 4-5 standard serves
  • Fruits – 1-2 standard serves
  • Grains & Cereal – 4-5 standard serves
  • Meats, Fish, Eggs, Nuts & Seeds – 1 ½ – 2 ½  standard serves
  • Dairy – 1 ½ – 2 ½ standard serves

At a very young age, it’s best to discuss with your paediatrician which foods to give and when. They can guide you through what’s best for your child and answer any specific questions you have. When the child is ready, it’s important to introduce new foods one-at-a-time to gauge their response to the taste as well as watch for dietary reactions.

Try serving the food more than once or twice to be sure they don’t care for it and remember that tastes change over time. They may really dislike peas now and then love them in five years.

There is some recent evidence that early exposure to certain foods may reduce the likelihood of allergic reaction to those foods. It seems that exposure to eggs in the first year can lower the risk of allergic reaction for high risk children and the same appears to be true for peanutsAlways follow the counsel of your doctor and take their guidance on what to feed a child in their first two years of age.

Of course, no parent ever wants to discover their child is allergic to anything, but by offering new things in a controlled environment at home, you can identify potential food sensitivities at an early age and be aware of any special diet needs your child has.

Another benefit of diet variety early in life is that children learn how to have a positive attitude toward food, which can help them significantly later in life. Now more than ever, there is reason to believe that diet plays a pivotal role in disease prevention, healthy lifestyle, and overall lifespan.

Moreover, viewing food as a source of nourishment, vitality, and sustenance discourages negative associations with food that could cause problems at a later age.

Overcoming Picky Eating

If you don’t have a picky eater then you probably know someone that does.  Introducing new dishes is a common challenge with younger kids and it can take time to find new things they like. Rest assured, there are ways to discourage fear and stubbornness while encouraging them to eat a variety of different foods.

Start by establishing family time and sharing meals together as a group. Allow your child to see you and other members of the household enjoying the different aspects of the meal.  Such an example appeals to a child’s natural desire for inclusion and acceptance and may encourage participation in eating the new food.

When your child shows an unwillingness to take a taste test, one way you can involve them in the introduction of new foods is through preparation and cooking. Let them join you in the kitchen and help with washing vegetables, adding ingredients, and stirring things together.

Explain the process each step of the way and allow your child to smell the ingredients as they go in and observe the way the dish is cooked and served. By involving them in creating the meal, they become familiarised with the food being offered and excited to try it out.

If you notice your child is developing an inclination for tastes and nothing else, it might be time to try some new ways to offer foods they’ve had before. Instead of steaming or boiling vegetables, try stir frying them or adding them into stuffing and casseroles.

Lean meats might taste boring on their own but could be much more palatable in a meatloaf, pot pie, or stew.  Some children dislike the texture of beans, legumes, and other vegetables – try blending or pureeing them into soup, mashed potatoes, or dips. When offering the new food, ask them to agree to try it one time and then be understanding about their response.

This way, your child trusts that you will listen to their feedback and you can reasonably expect them to give most foods a chance. Inevitably, you’ll find at least a few new things you and your child can agree on.

A Healthy Food Disposition

These days, children, adolescents, and young adults struggle with eating disorders that result from unhealthy relationships with food. Parents want the best for their children and it’s easy to overlook how many outside factors influence a child’s feelings about food. It’s important to pre-empt developing a negative mindset by encouraging a love for all kinds of food early on.

Teach your child about the recommendations for different food groups and encourage a healthy balance more than focusing on a particular type of food over another.  NEDC advises that “About one in 20 Australians has an eating disorder and the rate in the Australian population is increasing.”

While this might seem trivial when they’re so young, children develop eating habits, stress management, and coping tactics early on and those behaviours become engrained throughout life. Educating them about how to eat healthy while treating all foods equally and positively empowers them to expand their dietary horizons while making healthy decisions and smart food choices.