If your child's habit of being a picky eater is not addressed appropriately, it can lead to various health problems as she grows older. For instance, if she likes to eat only cooked white rice and always ignores the chapathis on the table because they need to be chewed on more, it is likely that this preference for soft foods will not help strengthen her teeth! Picky eaters who choose junk foods over nutritious foods can develop nutritional deficiencies. Sometimes, picky eating can become a vexatious behavioural problem.
What makes children picky eaters
Children start eating meals by themselves when they are 3 or 4 years old. This period also marks the start of food battles between mothers and children. Come meal time, parents become watch-guards of the child. The constant nagging to make a child empty his plates, or take a second helping, puts him under pressure to perform. Pressure makes any activity unenjoyable. When the child has to keep trying to match the expectations of his parents, the joy of eating diminishes. Eating becomes a ‘task’ and such children often start gagging or throwing up.
In the end, the child sticks to ‘familiar and safe’ foods, refusing to try out new things. However, she happily eats food brought from outside, or given by the neighbour – where there is no pressure whatsoever by the parent ‘to clean the plate’. (Strangely, moms tend to be very particular when it comes to food cooked by them being thrown away and less fussy when the food is obtained from elsewhere!)
Some children do get a little bored with the same kind of food over a period of time and want a change. They want to see a variety of foods in the form of different cuisines, colours and flavours. Children’s taste buds constantly evolve with age, but this pointer is often missed by mothers, and this makes the child a picky eater.
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Children pick up food fads over a period of time as they get exposed to new and external food environments. TV commercials also play a vital role in this process. When ten flavours of potato chips are available in the market, home-made chips tend to look a little unexciting. Unfortunately, many of these processed, fast foods available outside also have some addictive components that make children renounce the taste of home-cooked food. So, you will probably find that a bag of branded potato chips gets chosen over a plate of fruit. You can allow children to indulge in food fads from time to time, but they should not think that they can get away with it all the time.
Irregular food routine
Children form eating habits when they are 3-4 years old. A proper routine ensures that eating tantrums are completely eliminated. The timings of school lunch and snacks should be taken into consideration. A child trained with a specific food routine will hardly be choosy about foods.
Food communication gap
Do you know that most mothers have a ‘food communication’ gap with their children? This can make children poor eaters. Often, the child’s appetite is over-estimated. We give our children the freedom to say ‘No’ if they are full. But, we do not always pick up these signals at the right time. The golden dictum is that children will never starve. So, never force them to eat, for this, in the long run, can make them picky eaters.
Stress (other causes)
It is pretty bizarre for 3-6-year-olds to have stress. But when children are over-exposed to junk foods/sugary foods, electronic media and less physical activity, it can lead to stress. Picky eating can be an offshoot of a stress-induced problem.
Related content: Dealing with childhood stress made easy
Handling picky eaters
Understand your child’s appetite: If your child isn’t hungry, don’t force him to eat. Likewise, don’t bribe your child to eat certain foods or force him to empty his plate. This can only ignite or reinforce a power struggle over food. In addition, your child will learn to associate mealtime with anxiety and frustration. Serve small portions to avoid overwhelming your child and give him the opportunity to independently ask for more.
Stick to a food routine: Serve meals and snacks at about the same time every day. Provide juice or milk with the food, and offer water between meals and snacks. Allowing your child to eat in between meals can decrease her appetite for meals.
Introduce only one new food at a time: Young children often touch or smell new foods, and may even put tiny bits into their mouths and take them out again. Your child may need repeated exposure to a new food before she takes the first bite. Encourage your child by talking about a food’s colour, shape, flavour and texture, and not about how good it tastes. Serve new foods along with your child’s favourite foods.
Make eating fun: There are yummy ways of serving vegetables using food art skills. Try different fun recipes – for example serving veggies mixed with a favourite chutney (like pudina/coriander chutney) or with bhel puri sweet sauce (made with dates). Offer breakfast foods for dinner. Serve a variety of brightly coloured foods. Try different fun recipes and involve kids in cooking. Read aloud from food-related books to children which tells them about the nutritional value of the food they are eating, so that they feel good about it.
For example, payasam (kheer) that contains almonds, dates and raisins provides calcium, vitamin C and more, and is heart-friendly.
Go shopping for food ingredients with your kids: At the supermarket, ask your child to help you select fruits, vegetables and other healthy foods. At the grocery, teach them to differentiate between fresh and processed foods. Don’t buy anything that you don’t want your child to eat. At home, encourage your child to help you rinse veggies, stir batter, mix dough, set the table, even clean the refrigerator.
Never prepare separate food items for your child: Preparing a separate meal for your child after she rejects the original meal can promote picky eating. Encourage your child to stay at the table for the designated mealtime, even if she doesn’t eat. Keep serving your child healthy choices until they become familiar and preferred.
Set a good example: Do not discuss too much about food choices and tastes, or reject particular foods in front of your children. Eat healthy foods. Children observe their parents’ eating habits and follow suit.
Have food theme get-togethers: Invite your children’s friends for small get-togethers with some healthy food as the theme. Children tend to bond with their peer group and learn from each other. So, you can make them eat without any fuss and slowly they will come out of their food inhibitions.
Have junk food dates: Have a date with junk food for your child. Make it a point to indulge him only on those days. Remember that your child’s eating habits may not change overnight — but the small steps you take each day can help promote a lifetime of healthy eating.
Uma V Raghavan is a Chennai-based consultant nutritionist and diet counsellor for children.