How to handle picky eaters
Created by Anurima Updated on Mar 11, 2014
Anxiety, stress and anger is what I would feel as dinner time approached. My daughter would sense the negative vibes and realize that battle time was about to begin. Hesitantly she would approach the dinner table, sit on her chair, look at her plate, look at me and gag at the food! Her reaction would trigger off a series of negative emotions which would make mealtimes feel like a battle. That was around two and a half years ago! She is now 5 and mealtimes are happy times where we sit together discussing the world, and in the process of answering her endless questions, dinner is usually over in 20 minutes!
Ever since she was a baby, my daughter Richa nursed like a champ, enjoyed eating fruit purees and transitioned well into taking formula. Her hesitation in trying solid food began as she approached 10 months. She would not want to try finger food and disliked eating mashed food, which left me in a dilemma and I did not know what to offer her. As a first time mom, all I knew is she needed to eat to be healthy. But as a result of poor eating she started to fall ill frequently, her immunity was low and she was below average in her growth. I decided to feed her no matter what. I would try to remain calm when offering her food, but looking at her reluctance, I would lose my temper and have, on occasions even forced her to eat. That made her dislike food and mealtimes even more. I realised that my approach was not correct and definitely not advisable to cultivate good eating habits in her. So I did some research, took my mother's advice and gradually started to make changes in my habits.
Below is a list of Do's and Dont's which helped me encourage Richa to like her food and enjoy mealtimes:
1. Don't be a dictator: Deciding on a menu and serving it to your child and expecting them to finish it without asking questions will result in them disliking food altogether. Most parents would agree with the phrase 'my child should eat what is cooked'. This is true to an extent but for a child as young as 18 or 24 months, food is a new experience and they are not aware of the variety it comes in. Ask your child what he/she would like to eat, offer them a choice between two dishes, show them which ingredients would go into it and if possible let your child watch you cook. Involving your child in the cooking process helps them understand more about food, its importance and helps create a curiosity within them. A curious child will experiment. So even if your child does not finish the whole plate of food, he/she will try to taste the food, which is good sign.
2. Don't frighten your child: It is a common practice to make children gulp down their food by scaring them with fictional figures such as 'budha baba' or 'boogey man'. This may work for a few days, but on the other hand, you could be instilling fear in your child, which will affect their confidence.
3. Don't mash up food and offer: Serve food separately for older children. For instance, do not mix dal with rice and vegetable and offer your child. Serve the food separately and let them mix and eat. This helps them see what they are eating, helps them recognize a certain food and makes them feel independent.
4. Minimize distractions: No television, toys, colouring books, gadgets should be encouraged at mealtimes. Your child should learn to focus on the food as this also contributes to good eating habits. Allowing your child watch a cartoon show while you feed him/her could be a temporary solution but it does not help your child understand what they are eating or determine when they are full.
5. Don't allow your child to move about while you try to feed them: You child may seem to eat quicker and may also finish their meal if he/she is allowed to walk around the house, sit on the swing, step out onto the balcony to watch cars, all the while you running behind him/her with the plate of food. This is again a short term solution and does not help your child understand the importance of sitting in one place while eating.
6. Do not force: Your child does not have to finish his/her meal every time. If your child is full, they can occasionally leave the table without having to empty the plate. Forcing your child, getting upset, scolding, punishing for not finishing food can lead the child developing negative emotions with food.
7. Don't worry about the mess: Let your child eat by themselves. Young children will make a mess, drop food onto the table and their clothing. You need not get worked up and jump at the first opportunity to feed them. As the saying goes, Practice makes perfect, let your child practice eating and soon they will perfect it and mealtimes will be mess-free, well, to an extent.
8. Don't hover around: Fussy eaters are very conscious and aware that he/she is being watched when at the table. Passing angry glances, hints that he/she has to finish, keep reminding your child to eat eventually makes the situation very stressful to your child.
A few tips to make mealtimes interesting for your picky eater:
1. Take your child grocery shopping: Let your child choose what he/she would like to eat. This will create an interest and awareness in your child with regards to food.
2. Cook together: Take your child's help in cooking. Discuss the menu and let your child watch and help out while you cook. Let your child sprinkle in salt, rinse the vegetables or mix cold liquids. This encourages children to finish what they made with mummy or daddy.
3. Get creative: Invest in some colourful crockery, cutlery and placemats for your child. The stores are flooded with attractive bowls, cups and plates with cartoon characters printed on them. Your child will look forward to eat in his/her a plate with their favourite cartoon character. Make food attractive and interesting. Invest in some large biscuit cutters and make sandwiches, eggs using those cutters; make a triangle or a square paratha instead of the usual round one; broccolis and cauliflowers can be trees which your child should eat in one bite; serve rice in the shape of an igloo (fill in the rice in a small bowl, flatten and turn it onto the plate). When feeding babies, make your child imagine that each spoon an insect, bird or animals. Let them open their mouths wide to eat the dinosaur and follow with a loud cheer once your child swallows it. This also makes mealtimes fun.
4. Let your child eat on their own: Allowing your toddler to eat a part of their meal helps improve co-ordination and creates a sense of independence. So let your child eat on his/her own while you keep an eye and help out when necessary.
5. Introduce new foods in small portions: If you are offering your fussy eater a new food item let him/her see it, touch it and taste it. If your child does not like it, don't force them but keep offering the food from time to time in small quantities. Children's tastes and preferences change from time to time, so your child may like eating chicken after months of persevering.
6. Keep portion size small: Serving a small portion of food will allow your child to finish the meal, which also gives them a sense of achievement. You may gradually increase the portion size keeping in mind your child's appetite as some children may just be small eaters.
7. Keep junk food away: Do not let your child snack too often and avoid junk such as chips, chocolates and the like. Offer your child healthy snacks and schedule snack/mealtimes and stick to it.
8. Disguise food: Make a mixed vegetable paratha in the shape of a cloud; serve it with ketchup or yogurt. Your child does not need to know that the paratha contains cauliflower which he/she hates. Focus on the shape of the food, the sauce or a tasty dip to go with the paratha and for the rest, your child does not need to know!
9. Be a role model: Children learn from our habits and behaviour. If we have our dinner in front of the television, our child too, will want to do the same. To set a good example, we should follow good eating practices, which our child will also learn by observing.
10. Keep calm and Relax: Research has shown that it could take up to 15 times of offering the same food for your child to accept it. With patience and perseverance your child will begin to finally accept to eat green peas. Most children grow out of the picky eating phase by the age of 4 years, although some aspects of the behaviour may still continue- your child may never like to drink milk for years to come. Always remain calm at mealtimes and don't make your child feel that you are keeping an eye on him/her. Let them relax and focus on the food and not your mood.
Don't panic if your feel your child is not growing at a fast enough. Children do not grow at the same pace, they grow in spurts and there could be a time when your child doesn't seem to be growing at all. You may discuss options with the paediatrician if your child falls ill too often or seems lethargic and tired.
The suggestions mentioned in this blog are tried and tested by me over the years. The list is not exhaustive and I welcome your suggestions and experiences in dealing with a fussy eater in your house.