In the weaning stage infants have to learn many manipulative skills, including the ability to chew and swallow solid food and use utensils. They learn to tolerate various textures and flavors of food, eat with their fingers, and then feed themselves with a utensil. Very young children should be encouraged to feed themselves.
At the beginning of a meal, children are hungry and should be allowed to feed themselves, when they become tired, they can be helped quietly. Emphasis on table manners and the fine points of eating should be delayed until they have the necessary maturity and developmental readiness for such training.
The food should be in a form that is easy to handle and eat. Meat should be cut into bite-size pieces. Potatoes and vegetables should be mashed so that they can be eaten easily with a spoon. Raw fruits and vegetables should be in sizes that can be picked easily. In addition, the utensils should be small and manageable. Cups should be easy to hold, and dishes should be designed so that they do not tip over easily.
Children prefer simple, uncomplicated foods. Food from the family meal can be adapted for the child and served in child-size portions. Children younger than 6 years of age usually prefer mild-flavored foods. Because a young child’s stomach is small, a snack may be required between meals. Fruit, cheese, crackers, dry cereal, fruit juices and milk contribute nutrients and energy. Children ages 2 to 6 years often prefer raw instead of cooked vegetables and fruits.
Infants should be offered foods that vary in texture and flavor. Infants who are accustomed to many kinds of foods are less likely to limit their variety of food choices later. To add variety to an infant’s diet, vegetables and fruits can be added to cereal feedings. It is important to offer various foods and not allow the infant to continue consuming a diet consisting of one or two favorite foods. Older infants generally reject unfamiliar foods the first time they are offered. When parents continue to offer small portions of these foods without comment, infants become familiar with them and often accept them.
Don’t replace more nutrient-dense foods with fruit juice. If excessive amounts of juice are consumed, children may fail to thrive. In the second year of life, water and pasteurised full-cream milk are preferred drinks and should be offered in a cup rather than a feeding bottle. Sugar-sweetened drinks and fruit juice should be limited and tea, coffee and other caffeinated drinks are unsuitable.
The size of the plate and the amount of the food should be in proportion to their age. At 1 year infants eat one third to one half the amount an adult normally consumes. This proportion increases to one half and adult portion by the time the child reaches 3 years of age and increases to about two thirds by 6 years of age. Young children should not be served a large plateful of food. A tablespoon of each food for each year of age is a good guide to follow. Serving less food than parents think or hope will be eaten helps children eat successfully and happily. They will ask for more food if their appetite is not satisfied.
Children should not be forced to eat. A typical, healthy child eats without coaxing. Children may refuse food because they are too inactive to be hungry or too active and overtired. To avoid both overfeeding and underfeeding, parents should be responsive to the cues for hunger and satiety offered by the infant. A child who is fed snacks or given a bottle to mealtime within 90 minutes is not hungry for the meal and may refuse it. If a child refuses to eat, the family meal should be completed without comment, and the plate should be removed. This procedure is usually harder on the parent than on the child. At the next mealtime, the child will be hungry enough to enjoy the food presented.
Young children should eat their meals at the family table. It gives them an opportunity to learn table manners while enjoying meals with a family group. Sharing the family fare strengthens ties and makes mealtime pleasant. However, if the family meal is delayed, the children should receive their meal at the usual time. When children eat with the family, everyone must be careful not to make unfavorable comments about any food. Children are great imitators of the people they admire.
The introduction of solid foods at around 6 months should start with iron-containing foods, including iron-enriched infant cereals, pureed meat, poultry and fish (all sources of haem iron), or cooked tofu and legumes. Vegetables, fruits, and dairy products such as full-fat yoghurt, cheese and custard can then be added.
Small, hard pieces of food should be avoided as they can cause choking. Salt should not be
added to food, as infant kidneys are immature and unable to excrete excess salt. Frequent consumption of added sugars is associated with increased risk of dental caries. Infants given salty or very sweet foods may also acquire a taste for them, resulting in poor food choices later in life. Foods with a high risk of choking such as whole nuts, seeds, raw carrot, celery sticks and chunks of apple should be avoided for the first 3 years as their size and/or consistency increases the risk of inhalation and choking. However nut pastes and nut spreads can be offered to infants from around 6 months of age.