Everything your child eats in the early years will have a major impact on their growth, development and health. So, it’s no wonder parents and carers tread carefully when making choices about the food they prepare.
It can be quite overwhelming to ensure your child manages to get all the nutrients they need. But it’s also a case of “information overload” and it’s easy to get mixed messages.
Nutritionist Nicola Inger Scruby, founder of The Unrefined, says according to the Australian Dietary Guidelines, children (aged 1-3 years) should enjoy a wide variety of nutritious foods from the five food groups.
“But anyone with a toddler knows that sticking to such guidelines can be tricky, particularly when you’re trying to navigate meal-time with a strong willed, fussy two-year-old or ‘threenager'. It’s our responsibility to expose our children to these food groups but not force them to eat,” Nicola says.
“The ‘division of responsibility’ is a term coined by Ellyn Satter. Essentially the term reflects both the child and the parent’s role in feeding. The parent is responsible for what goes on the plate, while the child is responsible for how much.”
When it comes to fussy eaters, Nicola maintains it’s quite normal for a child to be into their food one week and not so into their food the next week.
“Between the ages of one and three a toddler’s appetite begins to slow down as they do not require as many calories as they did in their first year of growth. Repeated exposure helps to make food more familiar and reduces the likelihood of fears and aversion. In fact, evidence suggests that children may need to be exposed to a food more than 20 times before they actually try it!” Nicola says.
Top tips for navigating fussy eating
Here are Nicola’s tips for parents trying to navigate fussy eating:
- When introducing new foods or vegetables, offer at least one food that you know your child likes (aka a “safe” food).
- While it may not always be convenient, try to eat as a family or with your child at least a couple of times per week to model good eating habits.
- Avoid force feeding (putting food into your child’s mouth) as this can cause a negative association.
- Avoid giving your child lots of snacks during the day or before a main meal so they are more inclined to eat their meal.
- Ensure main meals are balanced with macronutrients (a source of protein, healthy fat and carbohydrates) and micronutrients (fruit and vegetables).
- Try to avoid giving your child a “back up food” if they don’t eat what’s in front of them. Simply take the food away, put it in the fridge and re-offer if they are hungry later (always ensuring there is a safe food on your child’s plate).
Nicola says if your child is not meeting their milestones, continually refusing food or seemingly distressed at mealtimes, parents should consult a medical professional, as it could be a sign of an underlying health condition or deficiency.
Understanding salt and sugar
Another issue parents often grapple with is how much salt and sugar to give their child.
Nicola advises parents to limit added salt and added sugars. The recommended dietary intake of sodium for children aged one to three is 200-400mg/day (however, this guideline has not been updated for over a decade and no upper limit has been set).
“According to the 2011-2012 Australian Health Survey, the majority of sodium intake for children aged two years and older was from cereals and cereal products, milk products, processed meats and snack foods. The average sausage from the supermarket can have a range of 400mg-700mg of sodium per sausage! This is why it’s always important to check the nutritional panel and find foods with the lowest salt,“ Nicola says.
“These days, there are a lot of healthy foods and convenience foods with no added sugar. When purchasing convenience snacks for toddlers, look for foods with no added sugar - this includes artificial sweeteners or hidden sweeteners such as corn syrup, dextrose, glucose, maltose, sucrose, fruit juice concentrate, rice malt syrup, evaporated cane sugar, molasses and coconut sugar.
“One teaspoon of sugar is approximately 4g of sugar. When looking at a nutritional panel, I like to divide the sugar content by 4. If it contains more than 1-3 teaspoons of sugar per serve, is not made from real fruit, I reconsider purchasing it. If it’s a one-off treat, I don’t usually check the sugar content!”