My son will not eat food unless mashed

I have a three-year-old son who refuses to eat any meal put in front of him unless it’s a snack or has been fully mashed. If we do manage to get a morsel into him, he can hold it in his mouth for more than an hour rather than swallowing it.

He attends a creche and after initial problems that went on for a few months he will now eat some of his dinners there most days, though once again they have to be mashed. He refuses things like pizza or sausages. In creche they spend one afternoon making a pizza and he is the only child not to eat it. He will eat snacks such as rice cakes, slices of bread, yoghurts and fruit pots as long as there are no “bits” in them.

He absolutely refuses to try anything new, even a sweet. They say it takes 20 times to introduce a new food to a child and to offer it along with the foods he likes. But how do you do that when he doesn’t eat off a plate and everything is mashed together? Or when he refuses to even look at the meal to begin with?

Should I continue to mash everything so that he’s at least eating something? Or, at three years of age, should I insist the food items are separate on the plate in bite sizes? He has no issues with chewing that would require items to be mashed or pureed. Is it a taste thing? A mental block? What is the best way to approach it so that he will eat meals and also try new foods?

I am worried the lack of nutrition will affect his physical and cognitive development. At the moment he is of average weight, height and is a very smart little boy who appears to be advanced in his verbal and reasoning skills. Perhaps that’s because he eats for the creche! But we would like him to eat for us too.

Parents worrying about fussy eating and getting into battles with children about this are very common in early childhood. Concerned parents like yourself want to make sure their children are getting the best nutrition, and it can be hard when children reject your carefully prepared food without trying it or when they eat food elsewhere and not at home.

In encouraging young children to develop balanced diets, the key is to adopt a patient, gradual approach that proceeds at your son’s pace. In almost all cases of fussy eating, the children are developing fine and when you do a careful audit of what they are eating, they are getting a balance of the nutrients they need through from a limited range of foods.

In your own situation, the main issue seems to be that your son is refusing to eat traditionally presented meals and will eat only foods that are mashed or without “bits”. Below are some ideas for making progress.

Tune in to your son’s sensory preferences
Like many young children, it strikes me that the core issue for your son is the food texture. He finds it hard to eat anything other than mashed food and finds unexpected lumps or “bits” hard to deal with.

Some children have a particular oral sensitivity that means that certain tastes, textures or unpredictable food movements are uncomfortable for them. This might also mean they hold food in their mouth or in their cheeks often as a means of dealing with the sensations in their mouth and distracting themselves as they eat.

Most children simply grow out of this over time, though they might be slower developmentally to move from mashed food to certain solids than other children.

Gradually expand the range of textures
It is a good idea to have a goal of increasing the range of textures your son will eat, but you have to do this gradually, at his pace. Continue to serve him the textures he likes to eat (mashed food, smooth yoghurts, bread and rice cakes) and then gradually introduce new textures. Often the best way to do this is in parallel. You can put the food he loves on his plate and then a small amount of the food beside it, such as a small carrot piece, and so on.

Give him permission to take food in and out of his mouth as he experiments. For example, it is okay for him to smell or lick an apple slice and then put it down or to put it in his mouth and then take it out again. If he does not like something he tries, give him permission to spit it out and praise him for his efforts – “Good boy for trying the banana slice.” Be careful not to respond with: “That is disgusting.” This all helps him feel in charge of the eating process, which will encourage him to experiment more.

Try to make eating new foods fun
The more you introduce fun into trying new foods and textures the better. Demonstrate eating with a fun tone of voice showing the motions he needs to make for different textures: “Here is a crunchy apple slice . . . let’s crunch crunch.” Or “Here is a chewy slice, let’s chew chew.” You could also set up a game of putting new textures in and out of his mouth that he might find fun.

You might have a few of the textures he likes alongside new fun ones that he might try such as an ice cube, a salad leaf, dips or fruit pieces. You can start this game by simply taking turns smelling the foods before considering tasting them.

Get him involved in healthy food
As he gets older, try to get him involved in preparing healthy foods, such as helping you place fruit pieces on a plate as you cut them. Or involve him in growing some food, such as basil on a counter, or radish seeds that take four weeks to grow in a vegetable plot. He does not have to eat these new foods initially, just watch them grow, smell them and feel their textures. In addition, read him simple children’s books about healthy food with pictures or a challenge to find foods of five colours, and so on.

He does not have to eat these new foods initially, just watch them grow, smell them and feel their textures. In addition, read him simple children’s books about healthy food with pictures or a challenge to find foods of five colours, and so on.

John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, June 2016. John writes in the Irish Times Health+ every Tuesday.
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