Mess is best

When it comes to toddler food habits, the best word to describe this is MESS! With most meals ending up either as a face mask or a work of art on the high-chair, floor, walls or anything nearby, it is hard to know how much nutrition they are actually getting in. 

But there are actually a lot of developmental benefits to this method for kids.  

From a very young age, babies use various senses to help learn about the world around them. This includes smelling, licking, touching and playing to understand how various textures and tastes behave. For example, how a solid stays in one place, versus a glass of milk that drips and flows when it is tipped out of its container. The only way kids understand this is by exploring, and mess is the means by which this happens. 

For most parents though, the biggest question is how do I know if they are actually getting enough. The answer is; it depends. It depends on the phase of introducing and establishing solids, and on baby's growth. 

Starting solids

The recommendation is to exclusively breastfeed (or formula feed when breastfeeding is not possible) until 6 months. However, the guide for most infants is to start experimenting with solids around 6 months, or when they show the following signs:

  • Hold their head and neck up well. 

  • Sit upright when supported. 

  • Show curiosity and eagerness to try the foods (looking or reaching for foods when they see you eating) 

  • Open their mouth when food is offered. 

First foods can be anything that the family eats, in soft or pureed, with a focus on something iron rich. Why? Most newborns have enough stored iron for at least the first four months of life, which were built up in utero. Iron is an essential nutrient for various bodily needs, from immune function, to cognitive, behavioural and mental development. On a side note – this is why iron requirements increase for pregnancy, and are especially important in the last 6 weeks or so of pregnancy when baby is building up their iron stores. So at around 6months of age, you can try iron rich cereals, or animal sources of iron like red meat in the most appropriate texture for baby's age. 

Around the age of 6 months, foods can be offered after a breast or formula feed. Gradually, over the following months, food can be offered before a milk feed, progressively, one meal at a time.

With many changes in practice of what the best way to feed a child actually is, deciding on the need for pureeing foods compared to Baby Led Weaning is a personal choice. Baby led weaning is where foods are chosen and introduced according to what they can hold and put in their mouth, skipping the pureed and mashed stages. There is never one right way to do it, only what works for your family and your baby. The only thing to be mindful of is choking hazards, and ensuring that there is a focus of iron rich foods.

If pureed foods are what you start with, then within weeks to months babies can progress to coarsely mashed, soft, finger foods. This progression helps with dexterity, as well as with the development of facial and oral muscle that help with speech. This time though, is when the messiest period can be. But know that it is all practice, like learning to read and write, it takes trial and error to find the correct way. 

The building blocks for healthy habits 

As parents, our role at this time is to offer the right foods at the right times. Kids will decide on exactly what and how much they eat. It helps to remember that this is a transitional phase, so the initial quantities they eat will vary and be supplemented by breastmilk, or formula, especially in the first year of life.

Babies and toddlers will regulate their intake day-to-day, or sometimes even week-to-week, meaning if they eat more than required on some days, they may eat less on others. This can be a good thing for parents to remember, so expectations of food habits are realistic. 

But there are still some things we can do to help create healthy habits, especially around those veggies that they keep rejecting! 

  1. Kids love to copy, they just do. So sitting at the dinner table when mum and/or dad are eating can be the a great way to encourage behaviour you want to see. This is not always easy, especially with many kids, only two parents and fewer hours in the day. You know your family best, so find ways to sit together, even if it starts off as only one parent eating at the same time, or only once in the week. 

  2. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. There are certain physiologically linked and also learned behaviours that apply to the foods kids choose. When it comes to naturally ‘liked’ foods, there is a tendency to enjoy sweet foods (a message to the brain associating energy with taste). So foods with bitter tastes, like vegetables, are learnt to be like through ‘associative learning’. Association with flavour and energy, as well as familiarity allows a child to learn that it is safe to be eating a certain food. For some foods, it can an average of eight to ten repeated exposures until they accept it as a routine food - I know, who keeps count of how many times they will through it on the floor. And sometimes a previously liked food can be rejected from time to time until their understanding of all the food items available to them become more solidified. But know that this does not mean parents should give up!

All of this takes time and effort, so it can be easier to think your child is a ‘fussy eater’ when all doesn’t go to plan. Adequate intake for babies and toddlers can be assessed based on variety of foods eaten, rather than quantity alone, and by growth. From 7-12 months of age, this variety can come from core food groups listed in the table. This is only a guide on quantity, as each child may need more or less depending on their stage, but shows steps to begin with to form the foundations of appropriate dietary intake into adulthood.

With so many things to learn in parenthood, it can be hard to know if this is something that needs support or not. Seek advice if you feel concerned that your baby’s appetite, growth or developmental milestones are not going as expected. For some children, restrictions due to food allergies may cause concern in parents it is best to see a doctor or an accredited dietitian to confirm any suspected intolerances or allergies before eliminating foods or food groups so nutrients are not missed for appropriate growth and development.

When it comes to the mess and constant rejection of food here are a few strategies that I've found o a long way:

  • Always feed in a high chair or child safety seat.

  • A bib that catches food goes a long way.

  • If you have dogs, they will love to help with the clean up. (Just be sure they are able to eat everything that gets splashed on the floor!)

  • Give it time, we all learn to eat “like adults" eventually.

For further guidelines as children age, you can also refer to the national dietary guidelines for 2-18 years: Eat for Health – Healthy eating for children

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