Fighting the fuss when it comes to eating

Sorry, baby: you can't live on mashed potatoes alone. Meal-time battles can become a daily headache and worry when your little one is a fussy eater. Even as a child nutrition expert and author of 40 books including "The fussy eaters' recipe book," Annabel Karmel isn't immune to picky eating. "As we all know, children grow rapidly and when they realise they have more than one option, they start to clearly express their thoughts on the choice they prefer," she says. "I have been there and I know how frustrating it can feel at times, as Nicholas, my son, carried me through this journey." You can't reason with a small child, but you can use a series of tricks to give her maximum nutrition with minimum conflict.

The earlier you can teach them about getting the balance right between wholesome options and occasional treats, the more chance you’ll instill a love of good, healthy food.

Annabel Karmel -- Child nutrition expert

Entice the eyes

Introduce the same bright colours, familiar shapes and beloved characters that your child knows from playtime into mealtime. "The way your infant’s food is served up can make the difference between your child accepting and refusing food," says Karmel. She suggests sticking fruit on skewers and serving mini portions of food in ramekins. You can also use cookie cutters to prepare toast, cheese and slices of watermelon or apple. Cut these foods into the first letter of your child's name or the shape of an animal.

Let your child serve herself as much as possible. Having control over her food may encourage her to eat more. Simply serving food in a brightly coloured dish or bowl featuring a beloved superhero might also help. Once she's about 18 months old, let your child pick out a special dish and use it only to serve healthy foods. She'll learn that if she wants to see her princess plate, she'll have to accept the fruits and vegetables that come with it.

Be a little sneaky

"What children can’t see, they can’t pick out," says Karmel. "If infants will not eat vegetables, create recipes that vegetables can be blended into, such as a tomato and vegetable sauce for pasta or mashed potato with carrot." Look for ways to incorporate foods your child refuses into the foods she most loves. Adding pureed healthy foods to dishes is a sure-fire way to sneak them into a fussy eater.

Cook carrots, spinach, sweet potatoes or beans until soft and blend them into purees, adding water if necessary. You may also make purees using frozen berries or peaches. To make meal-time easy, make purees in large batches and freeze them in ice cube trays. Thaw a few cubes in the refrigerator each night and stir them into meals the next day. Mix veggie purees into macaroni and cheese, casseroles and tomato sauce. Stir fruit purees into apple sauce or cereal, or blend them into smoothies with yoghurt.

Eat socially

Though she won't have much to say about current events, your baby can make a wonderful dinner companion. Instead of feeding her separately, incorporate her meals into family meal time, suggests Karmel. "Taking the focus off your infant’s eating and refocusing on social chit chat at the table could help." Not only will you spend some quality time together, but she'll have something to focus on other than scanning her plate for questionable foods.

If you have older kids, use them to model healthy eating habits for your little one. Say things like "Look at how nicely Will is eating his chicken. Is it good? Good job eating like a big kid! Now maybe Rosie can eat some of her chicken too." Praise your picky eater each time she takes a bite. As a bonus, giving the older ones the title of "model sibling" could inspire them to eat something they wouldn't otherwise.

Try and try again

"It’s been said that it takes 10 to 15 times for an infant to try a new food before they like it, so perseverance is important," advises Karmel. "Keep offering new foods and try mixing them with foods you know they like." If she rejects plain chopped and steamed broccoli, mix it in with well-cooked pasta and a little shredded cheese and let her eat it as finger food. She might accidentally get a bite of the green stuff along with a piece of penne and discover that it's not really so bad, or she'll just get in the habit of munching away and end up finishing off the broccoli without objection.

Make substitutions

So you've served your baby scrambled egg ten times and have been pelted with rejected egg ten times. It's time to look for a food that will provide similar nutritional value and will appeal to your little one's tastes. Think about the flavours and textures of her favourite foods. Do they have anything in common? Perhaps she gravitates to foods that are juicy. If she's not going to get protein from eggs right now, you might try introducing chunks of wet tofu or serve smoothies that include tofu. Every time you rule out a food that she simply won't eat, introduce another new flavour.

Annabel Karmel's hidden vegetable sauce

2 tbsp light olive oil 1 garlic clove, crushed 1 medium onion, peeled and finely chopped 100 g (3.5 oz.) carrots, peeled and grated 50 g (1.8 oz.) courgette, grated 50 g (1.8 oz.) button mushrooms, sliced 1 tsp balsamic vinegar 400 g (14.1 oz.) passata (ready-sieved tomatoes) 1 tsp soft brown sugar 1 vegetable stock cube dissolved in 400 ml (13.5 fluid oz.) boiling water A handful of fresh basil leaves, torn Salt and freshly ground black pepper

  1. Heat the oil in a pan, add the crushed garlic and sauté for a few seconds, then add the onion and sauté for a further 2 minutes.
  2. Add the carrots, courgette and mushrooms and sauté for 4 minutes, stirring occasionally.
  3. Add the balsamic vinegar and cook for 1 minute.
  4. Stir in the passata and sugar, cover and simmer for 8 minutes.
  5. Add the vegetable stock and cook for 2 minutes, stirring continuously.
  6. Add the basil and season to taste.
  7. Transfer to a blender and blitz until smooth.