Specialist paediatric dietitian Ana-Kristina Skrapac advises on how to get your children eating their five a day
We are constantly reminded of the importance of vitamins and minerals, of fibre, and of the endless health benefits of eating fruit and vegetables. The Department of Health’s ‘five a day’ rings in all parents’ ears. So we know they are good, but how do we get children to eat them?
1. Start early. Babies are taste naive and gradually develop a taste palate by repeated exposure to varying foods. Start small, with licks and bites of new foods of different textures and soft finger foods.
2. Be positive role models. Children learn by copying behaviours. Eating as a family can be fun and enjoyable as well as providing a space to introduce new foods. Have a sharing plate in the middle of the table, mixing familiar foods with new foods in an appetising display.
3. Make sure your child sees you eating! Children are much more likely to eat the foods they see their parents eat. Research shows that a positive predictor for a child’s eating preference is the mother’s eating preferences. This may be because mums are commonly the main caregiver at mealtimes.
4. Children are more likely to eat what they see as normal. Simply by having fruits and vegetables available and accessible, children will learn that they are part of normal eating.
5. Downplay food refusal. It’s easy to feel frustrated when your child spits out food or refuses to try something. By downplaying our responses to children’s food refusal behaviours, we are breaking the cycle. Instead, calmly remove the food and don’t provide alternatives!
6. Keep mealtimes positive. Children have short attention spans, and generally 20to 30 minutes is enough for your child to eat at a normal pace. Mealtimes can feel drawn out when children go through fussy-eater phases but prolonged mealtimes tend to lead to further anxiety rather than more mouthfuls.
7. Build on curiosity. Curiosity is the first step in the chain of behaviour change. Give your child a role around meal preparation or shopping. Helping to prepare the meal with simple kitchen tasks can increase curiosity in your child around new foods and where they come from. A simple mealtime routine could be setting the table, which helps to define expectations and set the mood.
8. Ensure your child is hungry! Avoid letting your child graze on snacks or drinks between meals. This will make them feel full before the meal and will increase fussy-eater habits at mealtimes. Instead, keep to regular mealtimes and set snack times to keep appetites maximised for main meals.
9. Vary the texture. Try serving vegetables raw or steamed to keep them crunchy. Children tend to dislike soft, mushy textures.
10. Try food combining. Include fruit with foods at mealtimes or snacks. Grapes and citrus fruits bring a fresh taste to summer salads, or you could try serving chopped fruit with cheese cubes as a healthy after-school snack.
Ana-Kristina has been providing nutrition services for infants, children and adolescents for 15 years. She offers private consultations in her Harley Street clinic, specialising in paediatric gastroenterology and food allergy, feeding difficulties and eating problems. Visit london-nutrition.com for more information and follow her on Twitter @AnaKristinaLNC