Ways To Improve Your Child's Eating Habits

Is your child a fussy eater? Are mealtimes a struggle? Read on to understand why your child has a negative attitude towards food. Also learn some ways to help improve her eating habits.

By Sujata Dewaji

Ways To Improve Your Child's Eating Habits
A toddler relishing a strawberry

Most mothers have a tale of woe to share with all and sundry: They spend a lot of time thinking, planning and cooking nutritious meals and placing it in front of their child, only to see the child screw up his nose, and look the other way. And the kind of food children gladly eat are noodles, pizza, burger, chips and other types of junk food.

Why do children adopt a negative attitude towards food?

Children adopt a negative attitude towards food when they are fed using the following ways:

Distracting the child: 

Picture this scenario. The mother or the caregiver wants to finish feeding the child. She has other household chores to attend to. She takes her child to the balcony to show him the outside world - the cars, the vendors, the crows, the moon and the stars. No sooner does the child part his lips in wonder, a ball of food is stuffed into his mouth.

Bribing:

The child is fed by being bribed with chocolate or permission to watch TV at the end of the meal, and getting her used to a compulsory treat.

Praising: 

The child is overly praised after a meal, which makes him think that he must eat to make his mother happy.

Threatening: 

The child is given a threat that if she does not finish her food soon, her dad will be told about it. Sometimes parents say threatening things like, “The boo-boo man will come if you do not finish your food.”

Being rigid about mealtimes and quantity of food: 

The child is forced to have his meal at the dotted hour, despite him snacking fifteen minutes earlier. He is expected to eat a certain quantity of food that has been served to him.

Making negative remarks on child’s eating habits: 

Children get upset when family members say, “She is such a fussy eater,” “She is so thin,” and “He likes only junk food,” thus worsening the situation. The dining room becomes a battleground, a reverse tug of war between the parent and child. The parent pushes the plate towards the child, the plate is pushed right back to the parent and a battle of wills ensues.

What happens when the child is forced to eat?

Yes, a parent has only good intentions when it comes to feeding the child, but then, pressurising her to eat can have adverse effects on the child.

Force-feeding leads to eating disorders. When the child has no control over his eating habits, he will not learn to be in tune with his body’s needs. He will not recognise hunger, or how much food he requires and when to stop eating. This could lead to eating disorders in the future.

Force-feeding affects digestion and nutrition. Nutritionists say that unpleasant experiences related to food lead to stress during mealtimes. Stress and anxiety affect digestion and hamper the assimilation of nutrients.

Thus, the child acquires a negative attitude towards food. If he dislikes something, he throws it in the dustbin or outside the balcony, or surreptitiously passes it on to his pets. He will then sweetly say that he has finished eating all that was there on his plate. The child does not ever learn the benefits of eating a balanced meal.

The parental mindset:

Many of the problems relating to children’s eating habits arise from the basic mindset that parents have about children and food.

For instance, Sonia thinks that a child does not recognise hunger and will not ask for food.

Deepak cannot understand how a child can gauge how much he wants to eat; so he feels the child should not be allowed to serve himself.

Ashok believes that children prefer junk food to healthy foods.

Sarita is emphatic that children should eat whatever is cooked at home and not be given choices; else they will never learn to eat whatever is available.

Mothers could do well, to remember that once upon a time, their precious infant when hungry, cried to be suckled and that the baby would be kept aside only when she stopped feeding. The mother never knew how much milk the baby consumed but trusted that the little one knew how much she needed for sustenance. So why should it be any different now that she is older and is on solid food? Don’t we trust her anymore? We need to be aware of our own beliefs and observe if these are creating disharmony between us and our children.

How can you help the child to be in charge of his food habits?

Start early: 

When your infant is about 8 to 9 months old, give her finger foods or table foods that she can pick up and eat by herself. Let the baby decide for herself when she is done. Do not force every last spoon in. Even if she skips a meal, it is alright. She will make up for it during the next mealtime. Remember, babies are born survivors, they will not starve themselves.

Involve your child in meal planning: 

Yes, involve them. For instance, the next time you buy groceries from the market, let your child take great pride in picking carrots and beans and putting them in the basket. Keeping in mind the age of your child and what he can do, you can involve him in appropriate duties. He can help you in planning the menu, preparing the meal and laying the dishes on the table.

Eat meals together: 

Have at least one meal together as a family. Let your child sit in her own high-chair/chair and eat. Encourage the child to scoop her food and serve herself in small amounts with additional helpings if needed. This will make her understand better in terms of how much food she needs to consume. Instead of a bribe, praise or threat, encourage the child by saying, “Looks like you enjoyed your dinner.”

Allow healthy snacking in between meals: 

Eating small meals frequently during the day is the way to good health. Keep healthy snacks and finger foods readily available and give children free access to these food cabinets.

Keep junk food away: 

You cannot restrict your child from eating junk food if you keep them at home. If you decide to store them at home, your child will binge on them as she has easy access to forbidden food. Instead, allow her an occasional treat of her favourite food.

Explore alternative foods: 

If your child throws up at the sight of milk, try to serve other dairy products like curd, raita, custard, paneer, pudding, milkshake and other such healthy options.

Make eating a standalone activity:

Eating in front of the TV is a bad habit for children and adults. A child must be fully tuned to what he is eating. He should know when his stomach is full and when to stop, or this could lead to eating disorders later in life. The child also gets addicted to eating this way and will refuse to eat without watching his favourite serial. Break the habit, even if it takes some time.

Be a role model:

As parents, you can set an example by eating a balanced and healthy diet. The child who watches the parent enjoy a meal is less likely to be picky. A study of parent and child food preferences found that toddlers tend to like or reject the same fruits and vegetables their parents like or dislike.

Trust the child:

By letting go, the child will take responsibility for her eating. Then she will learn that food has to be eaten for good health and will eat enough to satisfy her needs.

Be patient:

 We need to ensure that a variety of good, nutritious food is served to our children. It may take several attempts to introduce new foods to a child, but keep in mind that eating preferences change. Patience is the key and experimentation is the watchword.

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