One can’t emphasize enough how important it is for a child to eat a healthy and balanced diet during their growing stage. Physical, mental, emotional, social, and cognitive development are the five broad areas of development that require special attention. One of the most important ways to contribute to your child’s overall growth and development is to nourish both the mind and the body. This is achievable with the right combination of food, physical activity and mental exercises.
However, this becomes a little tricky if your child is a fussy or picky eater. One of the common misconceptions we have when it comes to healthy eating is that healthy food can’t be tasty. A glass of milk appears to be less appetising than a cheeseburger and chocolate pastry. Green seasonal veggies pale in comparison to a bucket of fried chicken with a side of peri peri fries. We adults who are aware of the nutritional values of food find it difficult to resist the urge to binge eat junk food. In that case, how do we convince our young kids to eat healthy and clean from an earlier age? How can we ensure that our picky child always eats well and benefits from all food groups?
Covid-19 has been a much needed wake up call for many of us to take our health and fitness seriously. The health crisis has been absolutely jarring and that has caused people to pay attention to what they eat and their overall health status. As the world gradually opens up, we will find ourselves in the company of an increasing number of people. Our children will return to school full-time, and unlike adults who can be vaccinated, they will have no additional layer of protection other than their own immune system. Hence, extra has to be taken of their health and the food they eat.
To do so, we don’t have to look far because our Indian diet is already well-balanced and provides us with all of the necessary nutrients. We just need to find an innovative yet delicious way of serving them to our picky munchkins. In case your child has specific allergies and dietary needs, it is always wise to consult with their pediatrician or consulting doctor and draw out a meal plan for them. A child nutritionist can assist you in developing a customised diet chart that takes into account your child’s needs and wants.
In this blog, let us look at different ways of encouraging a picky child to eat a healthy and balanced diet –
- Respect their hunger pangs, or lack of them
Children need to be treated as an adult during their mealtime. They will develop a negative relationship with food if we always nag and pressurise them to finish their food. Instead we should respect their eating habits and encourage them to decide how much they can and cannot eat. This won’t be a linear journey, one day you will see that your kid asked you for an extra serving of the mixed veggies you prepared for them and another day they will tell you that they are full even when they have hardly touched anything. Whatever it is, we need to let them call the shots. However, if you are really worried that they are not getting enough nutrients then it is always a good idea to speak to a professional.
- Practice portion control in case of both meals and snacks
The idea should be to get them to eat a healthy and balanced diet. The right amount of it. Even if it’s home cooked food and is safe to eat, overeating does not necessarily mean that you are providing their body with extra energy and nutrients. Portion control is another aspect of perpetuating overall growth and development in our kids. Be it the snacks that you give them between their meals or the meals itself, be mindful of how much amount you should serve them. If they drink a full glass of milk with some nuts as their evening snack then they won’t be able to eat their dinner properly. That will leave a huge gap between their last meal and the breakfast they will eat the next morning. Hence, portion control is the key. Even when its their favourite dish or is one of the few things that they actually enjoy eating.
- Refrain from providing your kid with an alternate/second food option
Research suggests that a child has to try a specific food item for almost 10 times to actually like it. Which means that parents have to have immense patience with their child’s eating habits. This will be especially challenging when your child is already a picky eater. This could be frustrating after a full day of juggling between work and household chores. It is natural that we would try to offer our child a different option if they keep pushing around their food or just explicitly state that they don’t like what has been served to them. We may not always be in the mood to negotiate and might just want to finish up dinner and go to bed. However, this will become a part of your child’s behaviour. They will know that their mum or dad will give them something else if they say they don’t like their food. This pattern will only spoil their relationship with food and will give rise to a power dynamic which itself is unhealthy.
What we can do instead is include ingredients that they generally enjoy eating in the meal and encourage them to try out this new combination that you have prepared with their favourite vegetable. This trick can also be used when you are trying to introduce a new vegetable or fruit into their diet. Pair something new with something they really enjoy eating.
- Eat together with your child
In Indian households, feeding your child first and then the rest of the family eating together is a common practice. Mothers in particular are expected to feed their child first and then eat their own food. This can be exhausting and make eating an unpleasant chore. The child and the mother both are denied the opportunity to enjoy their food. Instead, every member of the family including the child should be served food together and everyone should have a proper sit-down meal. Eating should be turned into a joyous, family affair. This way the child gets to enjoy their meal with their entire family, it will keep them entertained and they won’t fuss over the food that has been served to them. When they see that everyone in the family is eating the same food, they will feel included and see themselves as one of the adults.
- Set good examples for your kids
Children till a certain age try to emulate their parents and the other adults around them. They nurture a desire to dress, eat and behave like them. They will take after your habits and make it a part of their own personality. So, now is a good time to set good examples for your kids. If you exhibit healthy eating habits then there is a good possibility that your child will follow suit. Make sure that you don’t snack on unhealthy junk food around your children, skip your meals or waste food. Strike a conversation with your kid during dinner time and casually try to impart knowledge about the nutritional value of the veggies that you are eating that night. Ask them what is their favourite fruit or vegetable, what they like about their meal tonight. Teach them to chew their food thoroughly and enjoy their food for their healthy benefits. Another important practice is to cut off any kind of distraction during meal time. It is important to set certain boundaries to encourage healthy eating habits. Do not let your child watch television or use any other gadget while eating. It is an important habit to be instilled from a very young age.
- Incorporate them in meal planning
Children respond better when they are treated as an individual who has their own choices and specific needs just like an adult. Introducing a new vegetable or fruit in their meals and not letting them familiarise themselves with this new ingredient is not the correct way to deal with picky eaters. When someone is particular about what kind of food they enjoy eating they need some time to make themselves accustomed with the taste and texture of the new item. Suddenly integrating it to their food will only make them not trust it and they will not have the confidence to try it out. Food is a necessity for human growth and survival and we should always have a positive relationship with it.
Parents can take two simple steps to ease out this process for their child – (I) take them out for grocery shopping or show them what you bought and (II) involve them in the cooking process. Make this an educational experience. Ask them to choose their own fruits and vegetables while shopping, and introduce them to fruits and vegetables that have a similar texture or taste to their favourites. If they like carrots then parents can introduce them to vegetables like beetroot and cucumber and fix them a healthy salad bowl.
Talk to them about your childhood experiences with food. Talk about what you liked eating when you were their age and ask them if they would like to try it.
- Pick your words along with the food wisely
We can leave a long lasting impression on our children with our words and actions. We should be always careful how we speak about them to others in their presence. This may impact their self image and shape the kind of relationship they have with themselves. It’s a no-no to refer to your child as a fussy or picky eater. Parents should not reprimand their kids if they are slow eaters or do not like to eat most things. Instead of blaming our children, we need to find a solution. It is important that we deal with it sensitively. We live in a day and age where useful resources are in abundance and we can and should always seek professional help when it feels like things are spinning out of control or simply because we want to do better for our children and provide them with the best care.
Similarly, one should also be careful with how they choose to describe different food items. Referring to chocolates and pastries as tasty but referring to green veggies, fruits and nuts as healthy sends the signal that healthy food items are not tasty. As a result, the child may place some of the items deemed “tasty” on a pedestal above items deemed “healthy.”