For many parents the thought of mealtimes with a baby or toddler can be quite overwhelming - and for some it can be a real battle.
There are some mistakes that parents seem to make which can help lead to meal time dramas spiralling out of control. Over the years I've identified some common issues that come up time and time again, and have come up with these tips for parents to reclaim meal times. Remember, it's mum and dad who are the boss, not the tiny people!
1. Meal plan and freeze
Meal planning at the start of the week allows you to manage the variety of meals and snacks in your child's diet. Do one cook up, portion and freeze. This takes the stress and effort out of meal times, and leaves you less likely to be dealing with an overtired child at dinner time as you prepare something new.
2. Don't offer choices, and limit snacking
If your child refuses to eat what you serve (always make sure you serve a good variety) then DO NOT bring them anything else. This is teaching them bad habits and setting you up for years of frustration and wasted meals. Children are canny and they quickly learn to play you, holding out for their favourite food. Be strong and let them know the meal is the meal and there will be nothing else.
Kids won't starve themselves: if they are hungry, they will eat.
3. Set meal time parameters and boundaries
Like with most things, kids who know what to expect are happier and more relaxed. Having a set structure around mealtime is really important in developing your child's confidence and sense of self.
Set some rules around meal times and stick to them. For example, you can make sure:
- meals are always in a high chair
- TV always off, and no phones, iPads or toys on the table
- whether you're eating or not, sit with your kids.
These sorts of things are all about setting the foundations for family meal times.
4. Try not to use squeeze pouches
No matter how organic or natural the ingredients are, to enable squeeze pouches to be shelf stable, they go through a process of extreme heat and pressure to kill any bacteria. They are high in sugars and use stabilisers to set them. This can impact the nutrition – and they can taste really foul.
Starting solids is the time for children to learn to taste, chew and enjoy food. Squeezies offer no sensory stimulation; babies don't see, smell or touch the food. They are teaching kids that food comes from a packet, not from fresh ingredients lovingly prepared in the kitchen.
5. Serve delicious food
Babies (and toddlers ... in fact, all of us) like food with flavour. It is a massive misconception that babies like or need bland food. Cook with flavour and love, and you will be rewarded with a happy eater; serve bland, boring and repetitive food and your child will start to refuse it.
6. Avoid too many treats and too much sugar
Everyone loves a treat, but they need to be clearly labelled as a 'sometimes food' and not offered every day. Your child will very quickly develop a preference for sweet (or salty) foods that can lead to a life-long love affair that is difficult to break. Help them by limiting it from the outset.
To help avoid too much sugar in everyday life, try these tips:
- serve porridge and homemade muesli over packaged cereal products
- only buy natural whole milk yoghurt; skim milk products and kid-branded tubs and pouches have enormous amounts of sugar in them
- bake your own muffins and biscuits, controlling the amount of sugar you put in
- follow the rule that if it's in 'mini packets' it's probably got lots of sugar or salt – two nasties for our kids.
Following these practical tips will help you and your child to have a better relationship with food and keep things calmer for you.
Emily Dupuche is a Melbourne mum of three and author of the Australian best-seller Food Babies Love, a guide to introducing solids. Emily has also created the Food Babies Love Fresh Pots range, which includes early proteins for 6+ months, textured meals for 7+ months, and toddler meals for 10+ months. Find out more at foodbabieslove.com.au.