14 top tips to make family meal times a breeze

happy toddler eating

happy toddler eating

Food – what, how and whether kids are eating – can take up more than its fair share of parents’ energy and thoughts, particularly in those early years. From first foods to fussy pre-schoolers and beyond, family meal times can be an ever-changing minefield.

That’s why we thought we’d get some tried and true tips from someone in the know. Children’s nutrition and recipe expert Annabel Karmel visited Babyology for a live chat earlier this week, while she was in Sydney to launch her new Quick and Easy Weaning book and updated app.

Here’s what she had to say about some of the top questions from Babyology readers in our live Q&A.

1. How can I get my fussy toddler to eat?

Try to ignore bad eating habits and praise your child for trying something new. You can disguise vegetables by blending them into a tomato sauce, making veggie balls or making a potato and carrot mash. It’s a good idea to make small portions in ramekins as it looks more appealing than a dollop of fish pie on a plate. How food looks is important to children.

2. How do you avoid a battle of the wills at meal times?

Sometimes it’s not a bad thing to miss a meal, as a hungry child will try new things. Otherwise, you tend to give the same things all the time that you know he will eat – and that just encourages him to be more fussy. It’s a good idea to eat together. That way he can try things from your plate. You may be surprised at the things he likes. My daughter liked olives and curry from about 18 months. Another thing you can try is to make your own healthy “junk” food. I make delicious chicken nuggets and coat them with a mix of crushed Rice Bubbles and grated parmesan. I think most children will eat chicken nuggets!

3. What’s the difference between a food anxiety and plain-old fussiness?

Some children who suffer from reflux or have a food allergy may become anxious about eating certain foods. Also, many children are anxious about trying new foods and you may need to introduce them several times. A good tip is to invite one of their friends over who is a good eater, as peer pressure certainly works wonders. Fussiness will generally be overcome with time and patience. Most children go through a fussy phase. Try to avoid giving empty-calorie snacks and give new foods when your child is hungry – so straight after nursery or school, when they’re generally starving, is a good time.

4. My child only likes fruit and biscuits – what can I do for lunches and dinners?

My son was a very fussy eater. He also loved fruit so I made him chicken and apple balls, and that way I got him to eat chicken. You can freeze these and then take out as many as you need and they’re so good the whole family will enjoy them. If you struggle with inspiration for lunchboxes, try this bowtie pasta salad with chicken. It can be made the night before and just toss in the dressing in the morning. My children love it! This easy one-pot chicken would make a good lunch and you can freeze portions in small pots. Other ideas are well-cooked scrambled eggs or mini sandwiches with fillings like cream cheese or chicken and sweet corn.

5. I’ve just introduced solids and my baby loves it, but how much is too much to start with?

Babies tend to eat what they need and will turn their head away when they’re finished. Some babies need lots of food and others seem to be healthy without eating very much – just like adults. If you’re worried about constipation, make sure the baby has plenty of fruits – things like prunes and dried apricots are good.

6. When is the best time to start offering finger foods and what should I start with?

Every baby is different. Once your baby can hold food and has pretty good hand-to-eye co-ordination, I would start introducing soft finger foods like pear, banana, peach, steamed vegetables like carrot sticks. It could be seven months, it could be nine months. I like to combine giving purees with finger foods. You have to be careful giving hard finger foods as they can bite off a chunk, store it in their mouth and then not be able to swallow it properly – so never leave your child alone when eating. Later, you can give mini meatballs, chicken balls and veggie balls as finger foods. Many children prefer to eat finger foods than be spoonfed by about the age of 11 months as they become very independent.

7. How can I serve veggies without always having to hide them in other things?

Often little ones prefer raw vegetables, so try carrot sticks, sugar snap peas and sweet pepper with a tasty dip. They also like to hold vegetables with their fingers, so corn on the cob it good. One other thing to try is a vegetable stir fry with noodles and a teriyaki sauce or these Chinese chicken noodles.

Annabel Karmel

8. If a child won’t eat vegetables, can they get the nutrients they need from fruit alone?

Yes. Vegetables and fruit are both great sources of vitamins. Generally the more colourful the fruit or vegetable the better it is for you, so sweet potato contains beta carotene and is better for you than ordinary potato. The nutrients are in the pigment. Blueberries are richer in antioxidants than any other fruit due to their dark-blue colour. When you think about it, there are very few foods that are blue!

9. Should I worry if my child is “underweight” for her age? What foods can I giver her so put on bit more weight?

Adult guidelines of low fat/high fibre don’t suit babies and young children. Babies grow more rapidly in their first year than at any time in their life. You need to include nutrient-dense foods such as cheese, eggs and meat in your child’s diet. If you’re making vegetable purees it’s a good idea to stir in some grated cheese. For babies, I make delicious beef casseroles with vegetables such as sweet potato, carrot, onion and sometimes I add fruits such as apple or dried apricot.

10. Can children join their parents on diets such as paleo / caveman / quit sugar?

Children are growing and therefore they need a balanced diet. The most common nutritional deficiency in children is iron deficiency, so red meat is important. Also, many children do not get enough essential fatty acids, so oily fish such as salmon are important. Many diets exclude certain foods, which makes them unsuitable for young children. Having said that, it’s fine not to give things like sugar or empty-calorie snacks such as crisps. When choosing dairy products, don’t give children low-fat – they need the calories to fuel their rapid growth. It’s also important not to give too many high-fibre cereals, as fibre can deplete the body of important minerals like iron.

11. Is it OK for kids to eat frozen food such as crumbed fish and oven chips?

Frozen food locks in all the nutrients. Sometimes frozen vegetables are more nutritious than fresh. I generally use frozen peas. Crumbed fish and oven chips are fine to give occasionally. I would also give fillet of salmon or whiting without breadcrumbs as you don’t want your child to always expect fish to come coated in batter or breadcrumbs. Sometimes instead of oven chips, try making sweet potato wedges. They’re absolutely delicious baked in the oven. Simply toss in a little oil and roast in the oven for about 15 minutes at 200C. Drizzle with a touch of maple syrup and roast for another three minutes.

12. How many meals should a child have per day?

Every baby is different. In general, they should have three main meals a day with healthy snacks in between. Sometimes giving too much fruit can fill them up without them getting the nutrients they need, like iron, which comes from red meat, lentils or eggs.

13. What’s the main cause of childhood obesity – diet or lack of exercise?

I think it’s a combination. Unfortunately foods like pizza, chips, burgers and chicken nuggets have become everyday foods. Often the ones you buy are high in saturated fat and salt. It’s important to make good quality foods yourself. In the early years you need to establish good eating habits that will last for life.

14. What’s your favourite fool-proof recipe?

My children love this chicken and potato pie. It’s very quick and easy and you can make several and freeze them. In the ingredients it list shallots, which are small, round onions, not spring onions. This is a great meal for the whole family.

So there you have it! Hopefully some of these tips will help to make your family’s meal times a little less stressful. If you missed the chat, you can revisit it here or check out all our posts on Annabel Karmel’s great products.


Michelle Rose

Michelle Rose

Michelle is a journalist and mum to two girls who are obsessed with dinosaurs, fairies, pirates and princesses in equal measure. She lives in Melbourne's east with her husband, daughters and a giant, untameable labradoodle. Michelle loves all things vegetarian, wine (it's a fruit) and online shopping.

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