Eating with kids

A panel of experts answer real parents' questions on what, when and how to encourage youngsters to eat up (and how to deal with those who can't seem to get enough, too!).

Young kids. When they're not apparently trying to starve themselves, they're eating everything they can get their hands on – even if it's just from one food group!

Here we answer a few parents' questions on what's going on, and if their child really will be healthy in spite of their mealtime dramas.

"My five-month-old has just started eating pureed vegetables and fruits. The baby books say she ought to start on a tablespoon and work her way up slowly from there, but she can't get enough of whatever we feed her. For instance, she progressed for a tablespoon's worth of banana the first night to an entire banana's worth by night three. Are we risking too much too soon? Are there any dangers of her overeating?"

Nutritionist Kate Di Prima:

All babies have different appetites.

Some are extremely interested in food and will eat anything presented to them whilst others will pick like a sparrow.

Even with such different appetites they all grow around the same rate as their main source of energy should be breast milk.

Between the ages of 6-9 months babies usually consume 2 or 3 solid meals per day (around 1/2 to 1 cup per meal) and 4 to 5 breast feeds per day (about 600 800ml in total).

Babies and young children are generally very good at letting you know when they are full and therefore don't overeat.

Early childhood nurse Sharon Donaldson:

There may be dangers of overeating if parents don't pick up cues that their child is full.

Allow time between each teaspoon of food.

Try not to rush, no matter how impatient your child appears.

There is a risk of constipation, so offer water regularly once your child starts solid food to help keep poos soft, and to provide some oral hygiene.

Try to offer a variety of foods, even if she seems to favour one particular food. If you feel that your is still hungry, then offer extra pureed vegetables.

"My daughter Olivia, seven months, always wants to feed herself these days, but she doesn't seem to get much into her mouth. I'm worried that she won't get enough food if I leave her to it. Is it best to leave independent feeding to finger food to start with I give her chopped melon, banana etc and to feed her for her main meals? When is it okay to hand the spoon over to her?"

Family therapist Mironne:

Rebecca, I would encourage you to let Olivia 'have a go'.

It doesn't matter that she misses more times than not as this will change as she develops more.

Be confident that you are teaching Olivia that life is about 'having a go' not always taking the safe road. After all none of us excel without practise, which includes experiences of failure and success.

For yourself, think about what is it like to see her wanting to feed herself and begin moving towards independence.

You might try looking for a compromise. Let her feed herself for the first 5 to 10 minutes and towards the end of that time start popping a few spoonfuls in.

Above all make this a time to enjoy each other (and the experience mess and all) rather than dreading what is to come.

Parenting educator Lois says:

Unfortunately there is no right age for a child to feed themselves, they are all little individuals who want different amounts of independence at different times.

Why not try both having a spoon, allowing her to feed herself at the same time as you?

Some meals, allow her to feed herself with a spoon and other times with her fingers.

Although messy, it is amazing what and how much children can eat with their fingers. Having her weight checked regularly will also reassure you that she is getting enough food.

The more practice she gets, the better her cutlery skills will become.

Early childhood nurse, Sharon:

Most children prefer self-feeding somewhere from 7 to 8 months onwards.

This is where finger foods play a part. Provide Olivia with some finger foods and feed her the rest of her meal from a spoon. You can still encourage her to use the spoon but assist her with the majority of her feeding until she is getting more in her mouth by self-feeding.

Most children don't usually master a spoon till about the age of at least 18 months.

"My son, three and a half, will only eat certain foods. Avocado and eggs are a favourite, but trying to get him to taste other foods, such as vegetables, seems to be impossible. He's just not interested. Do I have to resort to 'hiding' vegetables in mashed potato and bolognaise or is there another way of getting him interested?"

Nutritionist Kate Di Prima:

At 3 to 4 years of age it is a common for children to become defiant and fussy with food.

At this age he is trying to say to you that he wants some choice (although you still have to set the boundaries).

I am a fan of the tasting plate with three or four different foods such as cut up fruit, salad sticks, a dip, crackers and savoury or sweet slice, you'll entice your child to try something different, to experiment with different tastes and recognise repeated foods as 'normal'.

It is successful when 'good eaters' are around and he can follow their lead.

Just keep encouraging him for trying something new (even if it is a lick!).

Parenting educator Lois says:

Although fairly annoying, this is typical behaviour for a child of this age.

As hard as it is, the more of an issue you make of it, the more of an issue it becomes. Keep offering different foods but don't make a fuss if he does not eat them.

Making food fun or offering it in different ways can sometimes work, for example by cutting into different shapes, making 'food faces', grating or slicing, serving vegetables raw or with a dip of some kind.

Giving food different 'special' names that are based on your children's favourite characters can also work.

"Dinner always turns into a battle of wills at our house with my two-and-a-half year old daughter, Tana. She will not eat in the evenings and I've tried all sorts of things, like moving the time so she's more hungry, and cutting out snacks mid-afternoon. I worry about her not getting enough food if she doesn't eat her evening meal. Any suggestions?"

Family therapist Mironne:

She is right on track with her development!

If she was not showing you that she wanted to be her own person I'd be concerned.

Know that Tana will not starve herself. Set out to make mealtimes fun. A time to connect with all members of the family. Establish a routine.

Perhaps Tana can be involved with some aspects of preparation to begin this. Then give her a time to eat and reward eating behaviour with your enthusiasm.

If after a time she does not eat ask her to leave the table. This way Tana is learning that she cannot have you dancing to her tune.

Keep her food for later in case she does get hungry (she may not).

Above all relax. If she misses a meal it will not stunt her growth. She will also learn that you are in control (in a good way).

Parenting educator Lois:

Firstly, be aware that health professionals evaluate a child's diet by looking at what they consume over a whole week, not in just one day, and that children do not starve overnight.

Secondly, a child's stomach is about the size of their fist. They don't have to eat heaps to feel comfortably full.

Try these tips:

  • Be calm and remind yourself that meals are times for connecting not fighting
  • Offer her healthy choices in several bowls, banquet-style, in front of her empty plate, so that she can eat as much or as little of what she chooses
  • Set a reasonable time limit, perhaps 20 minutes, that you sit with her or eat at the the same time.
  • Allow her to leave her seat whether she has eaten or not when the time is up.

It is in your toddler's power to not swallow even if you were to force food into her mouth! To continue to have a battle of wills is a recipe for bad food habits.

"My son Eli, nine months, is in love with dairy food – yoghurt, cheese and milk – and doesn't seem to want much else apart from the odd bit of fruit. Is this okay? Can a baby have too much of one food group?"

Nutritionist Kate di Prima:

Dairy foods are usually a huge favourite with young babies as they are soft and don't really require any chewing.

They are an excellent source of protein, calcium and energy but lack iron, fibre and other vitamins and minerals. At 9 months Eli is still getting the bulk of his nutrients from breastmilk.

You need to start encouraging him to try other foods that require him to chew such as fruit, soft vegetables and soft, diced meat and chicken.

Chewing is also important for his development. The more variety you achieve in Eli's first year the less fussy he will be later on.

"Katherine, my daughter who's two, just doesn't eat. She seems to eat a biscuit and a few bites of banana a day. I take her to the GP frequently, but she just says, 'don't worry', which is very hard. Is it really okay for such a tiny person to have hardly any food all day?"

Nutritionist Kate di Prima:

I have been in practice for 15 years and have seen many children who seem to survive on a diet of air and water still grow healthily.

The body seems to adjust to a decreased intake. If the GP says she is fine, she is probably looking at her growth chart (weight for height), which is a good indicator that she is healthy.

Use picture books, recipe books or a tasting plate with a selection of foods for her to try common wisdom suggests that children need to see a food up to seven times before they will try it.

Early childhood nurse Sharon:

For the moment, as long as she is growing and putting on weight it's okay if it seems she is only eating a little.

It is important though, to keep offering a variety of nutritious foods and not offering only things that she likes/will eat. If they are hungry, they will eat.

You could try keeping an accurate 'food and drink' diary of what Katherine is eating over a two-week period and if you are concerned, and Katherine has not been gaining weight, return to your GP or Early Childhood Health Nurse for a check up, and take your 'food and drink' diary with you.

"In one of our baby manuals it says give babies vegies first rather than fruit. Is this a good way to go?"

Nutritionist Kate di Prima:

Some manuals do recommend that you try vegetables first as they are not as sweet as fruits which also have a stronger flavour than vegetables.

What can happen is that babies then prefer only sweet purees and mums and dads battle to get the vegetables past tightly sealed lips.

I believe that you can try which ever order you like providing you are trying a wide variety of foods so that by the time Cally is 12 months she is happy to consume whatever the rest of the family is enjoying.

Early childhood nurse Sharon:

It is a common myth that fruit offered first will encourage a 'sweet tooth'.

This is simply not true. There are no set rules about whether to serve fruit or vegetables first, both as a first food or at a particular meal.

Hint: When offering a new food, try to offer the same new food for three days running, separate to other food. This will allow enough time for your child to get used to this new food, and also to see if he will have a reaction or not.