How to help your baby develop healthy eating habits from the start

How to help your baby develop healthy eating habits from the start

Meal times with young children can be so much fun, but as we all know, they can so very quickly turn to custard and be the most frustrating experience of our day! Food is such an important factor when it comes to growing brains.  In the following article ‘The First Years: Establishing Nutritional Excellence’ we share some great ideas about food and how to establish a healthy relationship between your children and the food they eat.

The first years: Establishing nutritional excellence

Maureen Hawke, Bindy Cummings and Dr Tessa Grigg

What children eat affects how well they grow and learn, yet there is only a small window in which parents can influence their children’s nutrition. Regularly giving babies even small amounts of sweet, fatty or salty foods can contribute to them learning to prefer those over nutritionally valuable foods. While not every child is alike, children learn to like what they get exposed to and then eat what they like.

Introducing solids

  • Introducing solids is one area where there have been some recent changes. The wisdom of your mother or grandmother says to introduce one new food at a time with a few days to see what happens, but current thinking is that you can introduce more than one food. However, ensure you only introduce known allergens one at a time (full article click here: dairy, egg (well cooked), tree nuts, soy, sesame, wheat, fish and other seafood)1. Check with a health professional regarding this, or you can read this article click here, which includes the 2020 updated European guidelines
  • Another trend is to introduce solids using an approach called baby-led weaning rather than just relying on the more traditional spoon feeding. Understanding the benefits of both approaches and using a combination seem to be Cichero’s 2 If you like detail, you can read more about this research here

Here are a few tips to help establish good eating habits

  • Try to avoid offering foods as rewards
  • Avoid encouraging children to eat more after the child has signalled that they have had enough
  • Avoid using food to influence children’s behaviour or mood. The emotional use of food can undermine a child’s ability to self-regulate their food intake. That is, to know to eat when they are hungry and not to eat when they are not
  • Cut down on grazing and aim to eventually have regular meals and snack times
  • Try to avoid allowing mealtimes to become a battleground. You control the food eaten; your child controls the portions
  • Expect to offer something new, ten to fifteen times before the food is accepted and liked.
  • Practice what you preach!
  • Do not expect grandparents to practice what you preach. Grandparents are allowed to make up their own guidelines… according to my mother
  • Don’t stress. Nothing ever really goes according to plan, and that’s OK. With the right intentions and time, you will get there

The finicky child – Is a picky eater born or made?

There can be a range of reasons for picky eating:

  • Zinc Deficiency: Many children are deficient in zinc, a critically important nutrient. The consequences of this can be picky eating and a limited appetite. Processed and refined cereals such as white bread, pasta and crackers deplete zinc. Lack of zinc distorts the sensory perception of taste, smell and textures. A zinc deficient palate is unable to detect the subtle flavours of vegetables. Even after the zinc deficiency is corrected, eating problems can persist based on sensory memory
  • Sensory Issues: Aversion to the look, taste, colour, smell and texture of foods, or what it has touched on the plate can also cause picky eating. Some children are exquisitely sensitive to the most minor change, for example a change in brand, and can often detect even the most subtle difference. Taste, texture and smell and how food feels in the mouth, all determine acceptance.
  • Parents who are fussy with their own food can inadvertently and unintentionally pass this fussiness onto their children. The main task with a finicky eater is not to get them to accept more food, but to keep eating from being an issue. You can help your child learn to be polite about refusing food. Instead of saying “yuk” a simple “no” or “no thank you” will do. Saying “no” to foods frees them up to saying “yes” more often!

My child won’t eat vegetables!

Try to avoid pressure, bribery or forcing your child to eat vegetables. When you bribe or force children to eat certain foods, they like them less. Let them see you eat it and eventually they will try it by putting some of it in their mouth and tasting it. They may not swallow it. Parents often see this as food rejection and are discouraged. However, respect eating ‘quirks’. Avoid using dessert as a bargaining tool. Bargaining about food teaches children that dessert is better than vegetables. If they have to eat their vegetables to get dessert, then dessert must be wonderful and vegies not so good!

Why chewing is good

Having a few teeth makes chewing possible. Modern diets of refined, processed foods give fewer opportunities to chew. Once they are old enough, chewing foods like raw vegetables and fruits also helps develop children’s jaws and may prevent overcrowding of teeth. In populations which eat a predominantly raw food diet there is no overcrowding of teeth, making braces unnecessary. Chewing foods helps open and close the Eustachian tube (the one that connects nose and ear). Blocking of this tube can be involved in glue ear and ear infections.

Some basic guidelines

  1. Fresh is best
  2. Organic food is better
  3. When you can, prepare your child’s food yourself
  4. Avoid processed foods as these may contain artificial colours, flavours and preservatives that can affect health and behaviour (see list below)
  5. Eat a rainbow (colour wise) every day

Processed foods are frequently high in sugar, as well as saturated fats and reduce the appetite for more dense foods such as whole grain breads and cereals, vegetables and fruits, and protein foods such as meat, fish, chicken, beans and lentils. Fruit can however be a problem to some children as some fruits are very high in salicylates and amines and these substances can cause attention and behaviour problems in susceptible people. Eat the fruit rather than drink the juice. Encourage water – juice may take away the child’s appetite for meals.

Your best chance to control food preferences and diet

The earlier you start encouraging healthy food habits the better. The pre-school years may be the last time you will have some form of control over your child’s diet. Use these earliest years as a time to develop a taste for fresh food. With better nourishment and avoidance of highly processed and refined foods, the better conditions you are creating to build your child’s immune system and grow connections within your child’s brain. When the brain is well nourished, learning and remembering things is easier and improved behaviour and sleeping can result. If the brain and body are not being well nourished the child will more likely be susceptible to illness, behave badly and show signs of developmental immaturity.

Become a nutrition detective

Common health and behaviour problems may start with food intolerances, sensitivities, food allergies or nutritional insufficiencies. To find out if food is a cause of your child’s problem you may need to do some nutritional detective work. There is an abundance of ‘diets’ available and dietary information can be confusing. Consulting a Dietician or Nutritionist is a good place to start. Good health is promoted through healthy dietary habits starting in early childhood. Sue Dengate has valuable information in this area click here

Additives and preservatives known to cause problems

  • Sunset yellow  110
  • Tartrazine                        102
  • Carmoisine                      122
  • Ponceau 4R                     124
  • Sodium Benzoate        211
  • Ribonucleotides           E635, 627, 631
  • Sorbates                          200-203 (sauces)
  • Benzoates                       210-213 (soft drinks)
  • Sulphites                         220-228 (dried fruits)
  • Nitrates, nitrites           249-252 (hams)
  • Propionates                   280-283 (bread)
  • Antioxidants                  310-321 (oils)
  • MSG 621 – 639

Maureen Hawke: is a neurodevelopmental therapist and the Director of Learning Connections Centre (Brisbane) and has been using a holistic approach to treat children with learning difficulties, attention disorders, behavioural problems and developmental delay for 30 years. She trains teachers throughout Australia and internationally in the use and benefits of the Learning Connections Programs in schools.

Bindy Cummings: B Ed (Human Movement) Hons. Bindy has worked as a teacher, child development consultant, early childhood development lecturer, teacher trainer and INPP & iLS consultant. She is the co-creator of GymbaROO’s Active Babies Smart Kids online series, has authored many published articles on child development. She is working on the content and development GymbaROO’s portal and online training programs, and the creation of new online programs for parents and children.

Dr Tessa Grigg: (PhD, Dip Tch ECE and Primary) is the Research and Education Manager for GymbaROO-KindyROO. She has a wide range of experience teaching young children and adult students.

  1. Halken, S., et al., EAACI guideline: Preventing the development of food allergy in infants and young children (2020 update). Pediatric Allergy & Immunology, 2021. 32(5): p. 843-858.
  2. Cichero, J.A.Y., Introducing solid foods using baby-led weaning vs. spoon-feeding: A focus on oral development, nutrient intake and quality of research to bring balance to the debate. Nutrition Bulletin, 2016. 41(1): p. 72-77.