It’s the most common complaint you’ll hear from worried parents of little ones: ‘My child is such a poor eater’. Force, cajoling, tricks and treats are tried to manoeuvre meals down unwilling throats – in the name of love and good nutrition. And, as all parents know, these methods backfire – making the child an even more picky eater.
Fussy eating can be classified as “food fads” or “food refusal”. Food fads are obsessive preferences for particular foods over a long period of time; they are a normal occurrence in a child’s development and should not be given undue importance.
“Food refusal” is the term used when the child is disinclined to eat at all.
Does a problem really exist? As a paediatrician says, “More often than not, it’s not a problem of a fussy eater, but of a fussy parent. Time and again, a mother will call to complain that her child just won’t eat enough or what she “should” eat. And then, on the day of the appointment, the paediatrician sees a plump little cherub waddling into the clinic.” So, the problem often lies with parental anxiety stemming from pre-conceived notions that the child should eat a particular amount just because another child may be eating that much, for example.
The gene connection. All the above is not to say that picky eaters do not exist, or that parents are always to blame. In fact, recent research has concluded that there’s a whole suite of genes that code for taste preferences. Researchers have looked at the differences in parent-reported eating behaviour of identical twins (who share 100 % of their DNA) and non-identical twins to estimate the effect that genetics has on eating attitudes. They found that, in the case of food fussiness, 46 % of cases may be down to genetic influences, and in the case of food “neophobia” (the unwillingness to try new foods), fully 58 % of children could be victims of their genes.
So, while DNA does not fully explain picky eating, what it does suggest is that fussy eating and a refusal to try new foods are both heavily influenced by a child's genetic makeup, and are not just a result of upbringing.
But, despite this strong genetic basis, the researchers stress that children's eating behaviour can be changed. And the way to effect that change, they conclude, is through “"parent-led eating behaviour change programmes.”
Your starting point. Food refusal – which is when a child refuses to eat at all – may have a gamut of causes, including medical, emotional, wrong handling by a parent or wrong parental attitudes towards food reflected by the child.
It’s not normal for a growing child to refuse to eat food over a long period of time. First on your list should therefore be to determine whether the child is unwell. The possibilities include:
» Chronic constipation. This is one of the two most common health conditions that can cause children to go off food.
» Acid reflux. This is the second big culprit. Although acid reflux is common in babies, it can also impact much older kids (even if they weren’t diagnosed as infants). Many times, this remains an overlooked condition because children don’t complain that their stomach is hurting. In fact, many of them don’t even realize it because they have felt that way for so long, or simply because they are too young to put what they are feeling into words.
» Food allergies can cause rashes, vomiting, abdominal pain and nausea, leading in turn to a refusal to eat.
» Dysphagia – a difficulty with swallowing foods, where swallowing is often painful.
» Anorexia nervosa. Although generally considered a problem that occurs during the teen years, this eating disorder has been identified in children as young as six or seven.
» An underlying medical condition. Many diseases that affect the kidneys, liver or the entire body can cause a loss of appetite in children.
Emotional problems can also lead to food refusal. Fussing at meal times could be an attention-getting tactic by a child who does not feel he is appreciated or loved, or that his parents are too busy with their own lives. The arrival of a new baby and the resulting shift in attention and priorities by the parents, might also cause the older child to use mealtimes as a way of seeking attention.
Understand – and acknowledge – his instincts. The fear of eating new foods is one which humans developed as they evolved. It’s an instinctive defence against eating potentially unsafe foods. Many toddlers display mild food neophobia from time to time. It can be something as simple as him refusing a broken biscuit because it doesn’t look like his usual biscuit. In fact, it can be reassuring to know that this instinctive fear stops your toddler from eating anything and everything he comes across! And the good news is that most children begin to grow out of neophobia in their third or fourth year.
Respect his personhood. Picky eating may also be your toddler’s way of showing his independence as he learns to feed himself. He may be looking to see how far he can push the limits of your authority by trying to assert control over what he does and doesn't eat. This is one reason why pressuring your toddler to eat may backfire. So try not to get frustrated when he suddenly refuses his favourite foods. Don’t try to force him to finish a certain amount, or a particular food. Respect his appetite. and remove the plate without comment.
Too many shoulds and shouldn’ts. Sometimes, mishandling of the situation at mealtimes can actually be the cause of a child’s fussiness. Examples include too much emphasis on the kind of food a child “should” eat, or on the state of the child’s physique. In a joint family set-up, there might be too many people telling the parent what to do; or because the kid is a “precious” child by virtue of being a much-awaited arrival, or by virtue of being a boy in a family of many girls. In such cases, it pays for the parents to stonewall the pressure by being firm with their child, and also to be a little detached at mealtimes – not uncaring, but deliberately detached, so that the clever little monkey does not take advantage of her parent’s over-anxious looks at the table. Once in a way, food refusal should be ignored. Remove the plate without comment. and don’t offer any food till the next mealtime. Don’t worry: she won’t starve. She will most likely listen to her hunger pangs when the next mealtime comes around.
No interference should be brooked from other family members in the disciplining process, and parents should be supportive of each other in this respect.
Stay flexible. There is no nutritional rule that says your child has to eat everything you’ve put on his plate... or else. Leave it to the child to decide when he’s had enough. You may like the plate finger-lickin’ clean, but if there are fifty grains of rice left and your child indicates he is full, take his word for it – unless you want a lot of resistance and gagging and even throwing up from him.
No one likes being told what to do – not even children. Some research has found that mothers who subtly influence their children’s eating raise more open-minded eaters than those who openly control them. The kind of subtle strategies the successful mothers used included limiting the number of unhealthy snacks they bought, while keeping healthy snacks within easy reach. Between ages 2 and 5, their children’s eating habits improved, compared to those of other children whose parents didn’t use this strategy.
‘Ya can’t fool me, mom’. When parents play cutesy games with food in an effort to get those morsels down, children get wise to their tricks and deceptions more quickly than parents realize. By around age 3, for example, most children realize that parents can misrepresent food. This is when they grow wise to counterfeit “yum, yum” sounds and spoons posing as airplanes.
A little reward now and then is fine, but bribery should not become a habit. It can backfire. For instance, if you habitually offer vegetables as a stepping-stone to dessert, your child will most likely end up viewing eating vegetables as a chore and a bore.
Eat as a family, with your toddler whenever you can. Try to offer him the same food (or some of the same foods) that the rest of the family is having. A child’s imitation instinct is very strong. So, if he sees you (and other family members) eating it and relishing it, he may be happier to give it a try.
Introduce new foods gently. Offer your toddler just one new food at a time, and try not to make a big fuss about it. Give him a taste before putting a bigger serving on his plate. That way he won’t feel overwhelmed, and it won’t seem like a waste of food to you.
Bear in mind that you may need to offer a new food between 10 to 15 times before your toddler is willing to try it. If he becomes reluctant to have a particular food, stop offering it for a while. You can always try again when he’s a little older.
A snack now and then doesn’t hurt. But moderation is the key. Keep wholesome snacks within easy reach for your child – a small portion of diced fruits in a non-breakable bowl, home-made sandwich wedges, cucumber and / or carrot slivers, dried fruits and nuts, yoghurt cups, mini idlis (given a nutrition boost by being prepped with veggies, for instance). Offering a variety of healthy snacks and letting her make her choices is one way of keeping track of what goes into your little one’s tummy without becoming a control freak about it.
Be reasonable. If you’ve given your child a pizza treat a half-hour ago at a fast-food outlet, don’t expect her to be hungry enough to come to table just because it’s her mealtime. You wouldn’t be able to eat a full meal on top of a heavy snack, so how can you expect that your child will? Avoid giving her a heavy snack just before lunch or dinner.
Presentation matters. The more colourful and interesting-looking the meal, the more positive will be the child’ response. So, stock up on some cookie cutters with which you can make different shapes of sandwiches, cutlets and even rotis. Food colours (check that they are approved) are another way to make food look more tempting to your little one. Most important is that innovative personal touch of creativity which can turn even those top-rankers on a child’s hate-list (e.g., spinach, carrots) into a lip-smacking dish.
Watch what you say... and what you do. If you flaunt wisecracks about carrots being for the rabbits, if you guzzle colas and stuff yourself with wafers while lolling before the TV set, don’t, in fairness, expect your child to go ga-ga over salads or to prefer a proper meal instead of farsan or marshmallows.
The key is to combine flexibility with firmness. The worst thing you can do is to do nothing at all. Once kids settle into picky eating, it’s really hard to change that. In other words, picky kids become picky adults.
(The author is a former editor of 'Health & Nutrition' magazine, and now works as a counseling therapist)