Expert Opinion

Nutrition Q&A with Sarah Bell

What should I do if my child keeps rejecting a certain food? Is it worth finding ways to implement it into their diet? 

We all have our own opinions of what tastes good and what doesn’t. Children have less mature tastes than adults, so it is common that the foods that we think are delicious, often aren’t enjoyed by our children. Children often prefer foods that are more simply flavoured and are kept separate from each other.

If you’ve cooked something that you really want them to eat or you’re set on only cooking one meal at dinner time (like I am), there are certainly ways around dealing with this.

What I loved doing, is making a deconstructed version or a kid’s version of whatever we were eating. For example, if I was making tacos, rather than putting all the foods onto the taco, I would put the foods separately onto the kids’ plates in a deconstructed version. So long as your child is given a balanced diet that has a variety of foods then I wouldn’t be too concerned about them not liking a particular food or dish. If it’s a food that you really love, then you can try to find a way to make it work for them as well. Remember that their tastes will change as they grow, so what they don’t like now, they may like in 6 months or so.

Does my child need to follow a gluten-free diet in order to be healthy?

Unless your child has a specific intolerance to gluten or is coeliac, or you have been advised to feed your child a gluten-free diet by your health care practitioner, then they most likely would not need to follow a gluten-free diet to be healthy.

Cutting out whole food groups in children is not recommended unless it is negatively affecting their health. Grains that contain gluten include wheat, barley, rye and spelt. Oats often contain gluten as well, not because it is naturally occurring in the grain but because they are often contaminated with gluten during processing. Avoiding these grains means that your child could be missing out on vital B vitamins, fibre, minerals, and complex carbohydrates unless they are replaced with a gluten-free wholegrain like buckwheat, amaranth, millet or quinoa.

If you are considering feeding your child a gluten-free diet then I would strongly recommend seeking advice from a Nutritionist or Dietician, to be certain that your child is not missing out on any essential nutrients.

Is it true that a fruity-heavy diet can be bad for my child? 

Fruit is an essential part of a healthy and balanced diet. It can be a fantastic and easy way to introduce lots of nutrients, antioxidants, and fibre into a child’s diet. Many kids tend to prefer fruit over vegetables due to their natural sweetness.

Ideally, it is great if a child has 2-3 pieces per day. Going above 3 pieces isn’t going to be harmful as such but it means that they could be filling up too much on fruit and not leaving enough room for other important macronutrients like protein and healthy fats. Excess fruit consumption could also cause some gut upset like diarrhoea.

When kids eat the fruit in excess it is often because they are being independent in feeding themselves and a piece from the fruit bowl is very easy and accessible for them. If you’re worried that your child is eating too much fruit, I would recommend:

  • Popping the fruit bowl up out of reach after they have already had 2-3 servings.
  • Having vegetables cut up in containers in the fridge so that they are easy and quick to access
  • Boiling eggs or having some premade wholesome baked goods prepared and showing your child where they are stored.

If my child rejects vegetables, what are the ways around this? What sort of recipes should I opt for to ensure there are veggies in their diet? 

Children tend to go through phases with vegetables, one day they will happily eat that piece of broccoli on their plate and the next day they say they hate it. I find the best thing to do when it comes to a child refusing vegetables is to continue offering them so that they can see vegetables as being part of a normal and healthy diet.

A child may need to be offered a new food 10-15 times before they will try it. This is normal behaviour so my advice is to try not to get too worried about it and don’t be too hard on yourself as this can cause stressful mealtimes. Continue offering the vegetables by placing them on their plate but not actively trying to make them eat them. Eventually, you may find that they decide that they like it again and eat it even without being prompted.

Of course, if you are worried about how many vegetables your child is eating, you can always find ways to incorporate it into their diet without them realising, while at the same time offering it in its natural form so that they are still having that exposure to the vegetables. One of my favourite meals to make to sneak some extra veggies in is veggie-loaded Bolognese, where all the vegetables have been finely grated and completely incorporate into the meal without the child even knowing.

How can I encourage my child to try new foods or flavours?

As I mentioned before, it can take 10-15 times of introducing new food to your child before they will even try it. When offering new foods, I always find it helpful to put a small serving of the new food on their plate, while filling the rest of their plate with foods that I know they like and will eat.

For example, if you are making a chicken stir fry that you haven’t made before, place a small serving on their plate along with some plain chicken (which you can cook in a separate pan while you are cooking the stir fry) along with some sliced raw vegetables (like capsicum and carrot) as well as some rice or noodles. This way they are getting exposure to the new flavours while also having enough of the foods that they’re more likely to eat and enjoy.

Remember to be patient and not put pressure on your child to try the new foods, rather be encouraging and accepting if they choose not to try them.

How can I prepare for the holiday season if my kid is a fussy eater? 

The holiday season comes along with a variety of delicious foods to try, though often these foods may not be so “kid friendly”. If you’re worried that there will not be enough food on offer for your child, I would recommend taking a small cooler filled with foods that you know your child loves. For example, you could pack a small container with chopped vegetable sticks, some grilled chicken breast or boiled egg, some yoghurt, and a bliss ball. Doing this means that your child can try the new foods on offer if they like but you also have some healthy foods that you know they like as a backup.

Doing some meal prep of some freezer-friendly foods that your child likes can be a great idea so that these foods are easy to grab and go. Some foods that can be great to prep and freeze include fried rice frozen in individual portion sizes, bliss balls, savoury muffins, and zucchini slices.

Should I let my kid have sweets and chocolate this holiday season?

Yes! Restricting “sometimes foods” will only strengthen your child’s desire to have it and could end up with them having a poor relationship with food in the future, leading to excessive eating of sometimes foods and the inability to self-regulate how much of these foods that they eat. While a lot of treats are not healthy by any means, I would argue that it is unhealthier to not let your child eat these foods. They will soon learn that if they eat too much of the sometimes food it will make them feel unwell. This is part of the learning process.

I recommend that if you are heading to a party where you know your child will be offered sweets, make sure that they have eaten a healthy, balanced diet that day. Provide them with some protein and healthy fats beforehand to help keep their blood sugars stable and to avoid the big meltdowns that often come with too much sugar. E.g., try a berry smoothie with whole-fat milk (or dairy-free milk of choice), yoghurt, nut butter and chia seeds or a boiled egg with wholegrain toast before heading to a party.

Now of course, this advice comes with a caveat. I would not recommend feeding foods high in refined sugars, artificial colours, or flavours to children under two. In these younger years, babies and toddlers are developing their tastes and if they are fed foods high in sugar, salt, and artificial flavours, it skews their perception of what normal food tastes like. These years are essential to growth and brain development, and they have very small stomachs – it’s so important that babies and toddlers are given foods that are nourishing and promote health and growth, not filled up with foods that are devoid of nutrients.

About the author

Sarah Bell is a Nutritionist and healthy recipe developer. Being a mother of 3, Sarah is passionate about pediatric nutrition and turning fussy eaters into well-rounded eaters. She loves creating family-friendly recipes that are easy to make and taste delicious.
As a Nutritionist, Sarah knows the importance of gut health to our overall health and wellbeing. Because of this, she loves creating recipes using wholefood ingredients that promote good gut health and that are free from refined sugars.