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Behavior Parenting

How to Make Mealtimes more Manageable and Deal with Fussy Eating


How to Make Mealtimes more Manageable and Deal with Fussy Eating

As parents, we all want to provide the best for our kids. This includes the nutrition aspect as well. Our kid eating up all greens, vegetables and fruits, while also getting a good dose of carbohydrates and healthy fats sound great. We can always dream, right?

If your toddler or preschooler is refusing to eat any food apart from dosa or spends most of his time playing with the food instead of eating it, then you may be dealing with a picky eater. If the constant conversation around the house is whether the child is eating enough, or whether they are eating healthy, then don’t worry, you are definitely not alone.

Mature eating habits set around 5. The ages 2 to 5 is when kids are learning taste preferences. Around 2 is when they are starting to exert control over their bodies, their movements, their choices, and now they try and exert control over their food as well.

If every mealtime turns into a battle, and there are constant rows at the dining table, then we have a few tips to make mealtimes a lot more manageable. It can be frustrating that the meals you took hours preparing all go to waste when your child doesn’t eat it, but it is important not to give in to anxiety, overreact or let it show. Otherwise, the anxiety can only rub off on the kid and make him even more stressed.

Getting enough nutrition for the week

Your child may be choosy, picky, or fussy when it comes to food. But if he is getting enough nutrition for the week, then it’s perfectly fine. Think if your kid has had enough carbohydrates, dairy, protein, and fruits and vegetables for the week. If yes, and the child is active and energetic, then he is definitely eating enough.

Respect your kid’s boundaries

Never wait till the child is too tired to eat or too hungry he starts to act out. You should also have realistic expectations of your child’s appetite. Remember even at the age of 4, your child’s tummy is just the size of a fist! Let’s say he had really heavy snacks - then it’s unrealistic to expect them to have much of dinner.

If your child says he’s not hungry, he really may not be hungry. So, try again after half an hour or one hour. If he is filling full, and he says he does, let it go. It’s alright if they don’t finish everything on their plate. Gently ask them if they have had their fill by saying “Tummy full.”. Your child throwing the last few bits of food or pushing the plate away may be a sign that they had enough. While it may not seem so to you, trust them! Consequently, encourage them to “ask for more” when they are feeling hungry.

If you bribe, force or threat, then the child will eat for the sake of making you happy and not because he is hungry. This will make him less sensitive to his own hunger cues and fullness signs.

Division of Responsibility

Some parents commit the mistake of hovering around their kids at mealtimes, expending all of their energy in making the kids eat. If that sounds like you, you could try out what Ellyn Satter suggested in her Division of Responsibility theory. According to her, it’s the parent’s job to serve meals/snacks and they have autonomy over what to serve and how many portions of the food or snack to serve. The child will then decide whether he will eat it and how much quantity of food or snack he will consume.

This makes the child much more independent and he has some control over mealtimes. Mealtimes also become a lot more manageable for both parent and the child.

Introduce a Range of Flavours and Foods

At around the age of 2, your child will start to show preference towards more bland foods. Plain foods like idli, dosa, bread, chapati, milk and those are all. In all probability, you may coax them to eat that dal with chapati or those delicious scrambled eggs with toast. But this happens once in a way and you end up getting exhausted.

Most parents fall into this trap. “My kid loves carrots, so I will only serve carrots every single day.” Children will then learn to expect the same thing every day. While it may be tempting to just stick to whatever the child shows a preference for, then making them enjoy a whole repertoire of flavours may turn out to be difficult.

So, change up the menu and offer something different every day. When children see that you are enjoying the food, they are likely to enjoy it, or at least, want to try it to begin with. Talk about the food, its aroma, texture, and colour. Of course, some kids may not be willing to try out something on the first go. Or, they may take a bite and spit it out immediately. But don’t strike the food of the chart yet; keep offering a variety of foods and give it time.

Offer foods you know your child will eat anyway while introducing new foods. Introducing a variety of foods to the kid will ensure that they do not expect the same thing every day.

Continuous exposure

Never offer separate foods to the kids just because they don’t consume something the first time. You are then ensuring that every time they don’t like something, mommy can be expected to make something different to them.

The key here is patience and continuous exposure. Young children need to be exposed to food at least a dozen times before they attempt to try it. When we say exposure, we don’t mean the child has to actually eat the food. Exposure means seeing the food being prepared (maybe even helping in the preparation), looking at it as it’s set on the table, listening to people in the family talk about the food and more.

They may initially just look at it, roll it between their fingers and play with it, lick it or put it down immediately after a bite. Keep serving new foods at the table along with the familiar ones your child loves. Your child may eventually try out the food and put it on his “like” list.

When the kid does not want to touch food, take it away from the table without putting them down or making them feel bad. This is very important! If the child is still showing reluctance to try out food even after multiple tries, you could say something positive like, “ I see you are trying to like your greens.” If you force them to eat it right on their first attempt, it will put them off the next time you try to give them the same. Don’t make too much about them not eating it.

Family mealtimes

Rather than hovering around the child and “getting” him to eat the food, make at least one meal time a family mealtime. Your kid can help with setting the table and the dishes, serving the food and clearing up after a meal. This makes mealtimes a lot more stress-free and pleasant for the entire family.

Drinks and snacks

Rather than giving them three big meals: breakfast, lunch, and dinner, give a couple of snacks throughout the day. Even if they didn’t eat enough during a meal, they can compensate for it when snacking. You can make snacks healthy or offer a mini-meal as a snack.

As an after-school snack, you could offer fruit, a glass of milk, or even a bowl of chickpeas or sprouts. Even if they refuse the sprouts, they make take the fruit and that’s alright. Don’t fuss too much about the quantity of the snack or what snack they are consuming. The kids will surely lick them clean if they are hungry!

Speaking of drinks, a word of caution to the parents. When too many juices or milk is offered to the kids, they will fill up on the drinks and eat much less than you would like. Parents may initially feel happy that the kid is drinking healthy, so they don’t worry too much about serving juices and milk the entire day. As far as the kid is concerned, it is much easy to just gulp down a glass of milk or juice and then get to playing!

Suddenly there is a problem - the child is filling up on milk and juices and not eating enough at mealtime. Cut down on the number of drinks between meals and if the kid is feeling thirsty in between, water is your best bet.

Check your vocabulary around food and eating

Be mindful of how you speak about food in front of the toddler. If you classify foods as good foods and junk foods and demonize junk foods, they are likely to feel bad that they are even asking for those let alone consuming them. Never set up junk food as something they can enjoy ONLY after they finish up the greens and broccoli for lunch. What happens is they will end up thinking as the first as something they have to get through before they are rewarded with dessert - that brownie.

So, if the rule is just one sweet per day or week or whatever is the rule you set at home, ensure you follow up with it. If the kid had one after lunch, then none as an after-school snack. Reinforce it to the kid and trust them to follow through with it! Otherwise, if you forbid candy or other stuff completely when they finally get them, they are likely to overindulge.

What you could do is tell them gently about why certain foods are nutritious and some are less so. The less nutritious ones are stuff that can be consumed occasionally. Again, take care not to give these “junk food” as “treats” for doing something good. It will take away from the intrinsic reward of doing it in the first place.

They may even start saying they do not like certain foods to avoid eating them. When kids say that, it sticks in our mind too that they do not like the food when the actual reason may be that they prefer to have the dessert first, they may not have been hungry in the first place, or they may have had a difficult day or they are simply too tired to eat.

Never refer to your kid being a fussy eater when they are around or when you are communicating with others. That could backfire big time as they will start believing it and exhibit more of such icky eating behaviours.

If your child’s friend is someone who eats his vegetables with relish, you can ask them around and both your kid and his friend can eat together. If they see how much their friend is enjoying something, he may be willing to try it too. But don’t keep praising the other child for being so “good” as to finish his vegetables.

Eating or a behavioural problem?

That tantrum at mealtime could be a food problem or a behavioural problem. Is your child refusing to eat his breakfast because he is starting daycare and knows he is going to be dropped as soon as he was done eating? Then this is a behavioural issue and needed to be treated as such. Try to soothe him if he is screaming or throwing a tantrum and once he is calmer, get him to start eating.

Set Routines

Toddlers and preschoolers thrive on routine. Offer meals and snacks at the same time every day. If this is followed up every day, then your kid will come to the dining table for his meal or snack hungry and expecting food.  

Make food fun!

Make food “look” a little more interesting. Rotis or puris cut in shapes of ships, alphabets, fish are more interesting. Idlis stuffed with carrots look more appealing and colourful than plain white idlis. Slice up vegetables and serve them up in spaghetti or why not try stuffed vegetable rotis or vegetable sandwiches with their favourite dip or sauce?

Keep distractions away

When the child is eating while he is playing with his, he may not even notice what or how much he is eating. When you switch on the television, the same ensues. Imagine the advertisements in between all targeted at kids of people enjoying all sorts of drool-worthy sweets, candies, and snacks. Suddenly the meal you prepared at home may not seem so appealing!

If your child is a fussy or picky eater, things are not going to change overnight. Putting pressure on them, punishing them, rewarding them, tricking them into eating, forcing or distraction-feeding them isn’t going to work! Make mealtimes more pleasant and happy, and you will see your child enjoying the meal a lot more. We hope these tips will help you in taking those baby steps in promoting healthy eating habits in your little ones.



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