If there is one common problem most mother’s face, it is fussy eating. This kind of eating behaviour is discussed constantly on mommy forums and groups. We all want our children to eat healthy and have good eating habits. What can be done to encourage healthy eating habits in our children?
Let’s get to the bottom of this. We need to start by understanding eating behaviours. Why is it that an infant who loved a varied diet suddenly turned into a fussy eater?
Most researchers pin this down to a protectionist behaviour in toddlers. Around one year of age they finally begin to understand what they eat and can exert a level of control on how much they can eat. This brings with it a certain level of self protection and guard against different flavours and textures. They crave sameness and consistency. This mechanism helps them feel safe and protected in a period where they are rapidly developing new skills such as speech, walking, running, climbing, certain new cognitive skills etc.
Picky eating is also looked at as a protective natural instinct from an evolutionary standpoint. Toddlers being explorers used to roam free and were exposed to different plants and herbs some of which could be poisionous. This protective instinct helped them from accidently eating a poisonous plant.
Another important aspect to consider as per the American Academy of Pediatrics is that physical growth slows down in the toddler years as compared to the first year of life. This means reduced consumption of food which the care giver can mistake as fussy eating.
Understanding portion sizes is therefore key as toddlers do not need as much food as adults as their stomachs are only the size of their clenched fist. (Dosman & Andrews, 2012). This article shows an exact depiction of what toddler portion sizes looks like.
Picky eating therefore is common due to biological and developmental reasons, as children from ages one to three are exerting their control. This is an important fact to note so that you don’t blame yourself as a parent or blame your child as being naughty, controlling, tantrum throwing and disinterested in food. When you know its a part of development you can begin to take necessary steps anticipating this behaviour.
Setting food preferences and positive parental modelling
You may wonder why I am focussing so much on the infant and toddler years. This is because experiences with food and food preferences are formed in infancy and early childhood.
Did you know breastfeeding is known to expose infant to a variety of flavours from maternal diet? Infants have a preference for sweet and salty taste, but through the mother’s milk they may be exposed to newer and different flavours. This helps promote acceptance of these flavours when introduced later through solid foods.
Children’s preferences are also influenced based on availability, continuous exposure and thus familiarity to foods. Positive parental modelling is also shown to lead children to select healthier foods for life. If you don’t make the correct changes at this stage then it becomes harder to change certain preset eating habits later.
Strategies to change your fussy eater into a healthy eater
- Breastfeeding has shown to help in development of a child’s response to internal hunger and satiety cues, and the development of self-regulatory abilities during feeding. This should be carried forward in the weaning stages as well. Baby led weaning is a great way to follow on the path of a more child led way of weaning. But if you are going the traditional weaning route, no problem, respond to your child’s hunger cues at the table. If they are disinterested in a feeding session, stop the session. No point in making it a control game at the table. It is also suggested to introduce lumpy foods early on (before 9 months of age). This will help baby get used to textures from the onset.
- A responsive “do as I do” approach has a positive effect on children’s consumption patterns than the unresponsive “do as I say” approach to parenting. Parental modeling of healthy eating behaviours is the first step in solving the fussy eaters drama. Do you eat as a family at the table? Does your child see you eat vegetables and enjoy them too? What do you snack on in front of your child, biscuits? Ice cream? Are you eating a lot of take-out and serving your child special healthy meals while he watches you eat take-out? A lot will be revealed about the family eating patterns in the answers to these questions. Again you don’t want to be banning these food items either (that may backfire later in life too!), but please know what moderation looks like. Children want to be like their parents, if you are happy eating broccoli then they will be too! Make family style dining a tradition at the dinner table. Talk about food you are eating and where it came from at dinner.
- Prepare a different variety of the same vegetable. Keeps things interesting and the kids love trying new flavours. One day add broccoli in a pasta dish, the next in a salad then another day steamed as a side.
- Create abundance of whole unprocessed foods in the house. When there is abundance picking the healthy option is easy. Stock your house with fruits and vegetables instead of fruit juices, fruit roll ups and other such packaged foods. Teach your child how to eat food in the form nature presented it.
- Praise them when they try new foods or eat independently. Positive feedback encourages them to try it again.
- Are you are doing everything right, yet your child won’t eat? Consistency helps in this case. Keep offering foods they don’t touch on the plate as a part of their meals. Research shows it takes upto 10 exposures before they choose to eat it. Most parent’s give up before that. I get it, we don’t like seeing food go to waste, but think of it as an effort to set a lifetime of eating habits. My son is not a fan of dal, regardless I always offer it on his plate. He went months without touching it and then all of a sudden he was drinking it like soup! At present he eats it some days and won’t touch it some other days. But dal is always served to him on his plate.
- Don’t stress. I read a line somewhere that stayed with me. “Unless they are ill, a young child will never voluntarily starve themselves.” As parents we worry so much about the quantity of food our kids eat instead of focussing on their overall acitivty levels. Are they energetic? Children tend to graze on food constantly, it may look like they aren’t eating anything but those tiny meals throughout the day add up. Keep an eye on their growth charts and as long as they are growing as per the charts relax and let them be.
- Another often used tactic is to cajole children to eat their food and reward with a sweet treat if they do. This does more harm than good. What you teach your child instead is to look at sweet food as special food. This ends up creating a soft spot towards sweet foods as comfort foods that helped them cope with high stress scenarios. It is also teaching them to finish everything on the plate without listening to their inner hunger cues. This sets a pattern towards unhealthy eating habits for life. Instead focus on creating a positive environment around food and not cajoling and rewarding with sweet treats.
- Messy play is a great way to get your child to be comfortable with textures. It is very important to get messy at the table and during play. Embrace the mess!
- Get your children excited about food. Cook together, go to the market and read books around different foods. All this helps at the table too. It encourages them to eat their food as they feel a part of the process of making it.
- Offer variety from an early age. Offer color on the plate. Make food look appealing, its not just cutting food in cute shapes, sometimes the different foods and colors also look appealing on a plate. You don’t have to cook something elaborate every time.
- If they don’t like one type of food, make alternatives around it. Example: doesn’t like dal, make dal soup, lentil fritters, quinoa and lentils cakes; while consistently serving dal too.
- I mentioned this earlier, be aware about portion sizes for toddlers. Many traditional weaning practices are still modeled around food scarcity and under nutrition model of yesteryears. These were problems in the past, the scenario has changed today to a more food abundant stage. So the traditional practices of serving large portion sizes of energy dense foods can lead to problems like obesity and other diseases. Assess food intake over a week rather than daily along with overall energy levels of the child.
- Our role as adults should focus on education, teaching children to listen to their own bodies, facilitating an interaction with healthy food and fun learning experiences around food. The adult decides what to serve the child and, based on what is served, the child will decide what and how much to eat (Horodynski & Stommel, 2005).
To summarize for you, consistently serve healthy foods to your children alongside building a positive environment for them to learn about their foods.
What strategies worked for you with your fussy eater? Let me know in the comments below.
Scaglioni, S., Arrizza, C., Vecchi, F. and Tedeschi, S. (2011). Determinants of children’s eating behavior. The American Journal Of Clinical Nutrition, 94, pp.Suppl 2006S-2011S.
Brown, R. and Ogden, J. (2004). Children’s eating behaviour and attitudes: a study of the modelling and control theories of parental influence. Health Education Research, 19(3), pp.261-271.
Birch, D., Savage, J. and Ventura, A. (2007). Influences on the Development of Children’s Eating Behaviours: From Infancy to Adolescence. Can J Diet Pract Res, 68(1), pp.s1-s56.
Horodynski, M. and Stommel, M. (2005). Nutrition education aimed at toddlers: An interventiontion study. Pediatric Nursing, 31. Pediatric Nursing, 31.
Dosman, C.and Andrews, D. (2012). Anticipatory guidance for cognitive and social-emotional development: birth to five years. Pediatrics and Child Health, 17, 75-80.