Long before I became a parent myself, I was mortified looking at parents and their children engaged in constant mealtime battles. My heart ached for the parents and seeing the kids uninterested in food was mind-boggling. Fast forward to a few years later when I was expecting my first child, sure enough, I was reading about healthy food habits, even before my baby was born. Surely it could be helpful to learn about some good food habits pretty early on. Did it help? Yes. Did I stress over my child’s eating anyway? Definitely yes. Despite keeping all the knowledge I had gathered in mind, I still ended up with some battles and frustration. Learning not to stress over your child’s eating takes practice. I’m getting there and it’s been absolutely worth it.
Raising a healthy eater involves some effort. Being consistent, patient and getting your child involved surely helps. Children's’ appetites keep changing, especially after the initial phase of rapid growth in the first two years. They might experience an increase as they go through growth spurts, while an illness or congestion might cause a severe decrease. Also, as toddlers reach developmental milestones, they might want to assert their independence or test boundaries. They might be more interested in playing and running around than sitting for a meal or also be picky about their food. So at all times, we must understand that our kids are not going to eat the same way, the same quantity nor with the same enthusiasm.
A book that greatly helped me in setting some rules around food, was “French Children Don’t Throw Food" by Pamela Druckerman. Not only was it an insightful read about a different approach towards food but I must admit, some if not all of the food habits mentioned in the book have stayed with me. I definitely can’t boast that my children eat everything I offer them, simply because they don’t. Neither do they stay off junk completely. But what we do have are mostly fairly enjoyable mealtimes and a balance of most kinds of food. On most days, we get in our veggies and fruits and on other days, we eat fries for lunch and ice cream for dinner. Experience has rightfully taught me that forbidding a category of food completely only makes it more attractive to kids (and adults too).
It is helpful to remind ourselves that we can’t expect children to eat every bite of food on their plate every single time. Most pediatricians will tell you that if your child’s height and weight are in the range of what’s expected for their age, there shouldn’t be a reason for you to worry about their food intake. It’s a fact you have to remind yourself at every meal, that we can’t expect our child to have a consistent appetite or eat in the same dedicated fashion every day. I’m no expert on food habits or healthy eating but here are a few things I’ve learnt along the way.
Make smart choices about what they are snacking on. Fruits are always a great choice and yes cookies are popular. Whatever you choose, apart from scheduled snack times, avoid letting kids nibble on food all the time. If it’s too close to their mealtime, avoid the snack or if you must, offer a small snack. Keeping a consistent gap of time between their meal and snack time helps them have a better appetite for a meal. It’s as simple as building their appetite and they are more likely to eat better when they are hungry than when their tummies are full after a heavy snack. Sticking to the same meal times every day also makes children feel hungry at the same time every day.
Becoming familiar and gaining knowledge about food is good for kids. There are so many ways to allow children to learn more about food. When it is safe, take them grocery shopping with you. Let them be a part of selecting fruits and veggies for the week. Let them watch and assist you in the kitchen. They can crack and beat an egg, coat some veggies in a batter or wash fruits, rice, veggies in a colander, and put toppings on homemade pizza. You can gradually move to teaching them how to make a simple sandwich or a glass of fresh lime juice. There’s something kids love about eating food that they’ve helped to cook.
Mealtimes offer a precious opportunity to connect with your child and as a family. Turn off the TV, get everyone to sit at the table as this naturally eliminates distractions. It’s a great time to talk about your plans for the day or how your day went. Engage with your child and keep any arguments at bay. Let your child look forward to mealtimes as a time to connect and enjoy with you. If mealtimes constantly turn into battles, neither parents nor children will look forward to it as much.
Get creative in making food for your child. Pay attention to what your child likes and try to introduce new tastes and foods using these favourites. And for the ones your child isn’t excited about, get innovative. How about broccoli sauce on their pasta or oats and bananas in their pancakes. There are tons of fun ideas to introduce foods to your child. If your child refuses milk, offer them other sources of calcium like curd or cottage cheese. I’ve been guilty of offering them patties made with cauliflower, cheesecake made with pumpkin and muffins made with carrots. All kid-approved, I kid you not.
Make an effort to offer a variety of foods to your child. Variety in taste, texture, colour. Steamed veggies may not have the same excitement as roasted ones with a drizzle of cheese. Maybe they’ll fuss over a new food. The trick is to get them to have a bite and refuse it if they don’t like it. Do not insist on finishing it. Praise them for trying something new and leave it at that. Getting them to just taste even a single bite of new food means you are going in the right direction. And if they don’t like it the first time you introduce it at the table, try again, a few days later. The more familiar they become with an item of food, the less intimidating it will seem to them.
Mealtimes battles are no fun and definitely don’t serve the purpose, so I agree we might as well practice keeping our calm and enjoy our time together. It takes a little time and a lot of reminding ourselves but eating together must be a time we look forward to and enjoy. I once read in a book “As a parent, your job is to give your child the opportunity to eat healthy food. Your child decides how much they want to eat or if they want to eat at all”. I'm learning to agree with that. It is the only part we have to play in our child’s eating habits, giving them the opportunity.
Make plenty of healthy food available in the house and keep them at eye level. Keep the sugary drinks and processed foods out of sight and offer them as occasional treats. Let your child learn to understand their hunger cues and enjoy a variety of foods. If you are concerned about your child’s growth and eating, talk to your paediatrician who can put your worries to rest.