Food refusal: How to feed a fussy eater

Kinderling News & Features

One of the most frustrating things that can happen as a parent is to spend hours lovingly preparing your bub’s lunchtime puree – and have it thrown straight back in your face! Jess Beaton, nutritionist with One Handed Cooks, shares her advice on how to deal with food refusal and get finicky babies to eat.

Five reasons babies refuse food

1. "I’m busy growing!"

“Babies grow so much in their first few years of life, particularly from six to twelve months. They go through so many developmental leaps and milestones such as getting their first teeth, learning to roll over, commando crawl, stand up, even walk. Plus they’re learning so much more about themselves and the world that they may have limited concentration for sitting still and learning to eat.”

2. "I just want a cuddle!"

“Your baby may be teething and experiencing pain and discomfort. Or they may have had a terrible night’s sleep and be cat-napping during the day. There may be days they just don’t have the energy to sit there and explore food and they just want to sit there and have a quiet cuddle with you instead.”

Listen to Jess on Kinderling Conversation:

3. "I’m not feeling that great"

“Iron and zinc (found in foods like meat, chicken, fish and eggs) is so important from around six months. If your baby hasn’t been eating well it may be that their iron or zinc levels are low and this can contribute to a lack of energy or a lack of appetite.”     

4. "I’m not hungry today!"

“Just like adults, babies can go through phases where they feel less hungry. Their appetite can be affected by the weather, the amount of sleep they’ve had or their mood in general. It’s perfectly normal for babies to eat different quantities on different days.” 

5. "It’s making me gag..."

“Babies all have their own sensory preferences. Some love to get messy, while others will get really anxious at the thought of getting any puree on their hands or face. Some babies like foods that are really soft and smooth and it may be that they have a more sensitive gag reflex than others who like big, bold flavours and who favour foods with crunch and texture. Babies who have less of a sensitive gag reflex will want to ditch the puree early and move on to finger foods.”

Now we understand why baby might not be chowing down, Jess advises the following...

Six tips for dealing with food refusal

1. Relax at meal times

“If your baby’s refusing to eat or starting to throw food around, don’t go into stern parent mode, issuing orders like ‘Don’t squish your peas!’ and ‘Don’t tip your plate upside down!’ If you’re giving too much negative comment they might start to feel a little bit more anxious at mealtimes. If your baby does start throwing food, pick it up gently and put it back on the table. Reward them for any positive behaviour.” 

2. Talk about food in a positive way

“Encourage your little one to engage with the food in front of them. Say things like ‘Look at that yummy cucumber stick!’ ‘Can you see the different colours of the skin and the peel?’ If they’re playing with their food, ask them ‘What does that pea feel like when you squish it between your fingers?’”

3. Get them to mimic your behaviour

“Your little one might only be seven or eight months old, but if you demonstrate an activity they will follow. For example, if they’ve got to the stage where they’re picking food up and putting it towards their mouth, if you imitate their behaviour that’s a huge positive reinforcement for them and they’ll feel rewarded.”

4. Be patient

“If your baby goes through a phase of refusing a certain food over and over again, it may be that they’re not comfortable with what you’re dishing up. A certain food might be too hard, too soft, too crunchy, too hot or have too much flavour for them.  Continue to offer the same food again, but don’t put any pressure on them to eat it. Kids may need to taste something 15 or 20 times before they enjoy it.”

5. Give choice and control

“When you offer a new food or something your little one regularly refuses, always include one or two things you know they like. Tasting plates are a great way of offering a variety of foods and including elements from different food groups. Ideally, put carbohydrates (say rice or pasta, bread, cereals), fruit, vegetables, some protein (meat, chicken, fish, eggs or legumes) and even some dairy. A tasting plate gives your child choice and control.” 

6. Offer a variety of textures

“If your little one has several different foods on their plate, they can start off with the easy things like fruit or soft, roasted vegetables. Then, once they’re more settled and calm, they can go on to explore more textured things like chicken tenderloins or meatballs, something that takes a bit more effort to chew. Babies will get anxious and cranky if they’re only presented with hard foods they can’t chew.”

One Handed Cooks have some fantastic ideas for baby finger foods. Jess’s favourites include Chew Me Out Fruit Bars and Pumpkin Bacon Risotto Balls which will tempt even the fussiest of little eaters.