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Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Parenthesis: The art of getting your child to eat better

Like every new mother, I quickly realised that when you are dealing with an emotionally manipulative midget who controls the strings of your heart, you are going to cave in at every opportunity.

Written by Akhila Das Blah | New Delhi |
Updated: July 3, 2018 1:38:46 pm

Get your child to eat healthy!

When I was expecting my first child, I foolishly told myself that I wouldn’t be one of those mothers running behind their child at a playground, trying to get him to eat his lunch. I promised myself that I would never use the help of a screen to help him digest his food better.  Like every new mother, I quickly realised that when you are dealing with an emotionally manipulative midget who controls the strings of your heart, you are going to cave in at every opportunity. In a desperate effort to get your child to eat, you will allow him to dictate what kind of food he is willing to eat. It took me many years and three children to figure out different ways to get them to eat better.

Start Early. Eating food is a sensorial experience. Babies and toddlers experience the world through their senses. Apart from taste, they need to see, touch and feel the food they are fed. Encourage your toddler to feed himself. Give him bite sized pieces that he can pick up and eat himself.  It’s a messy affair, but think long term. By holding, squashing and mashing food with his hands, he will get used to different types of food – the way it looks, smells and feels. If you are worried about the actual quantity of food consumed, cook a little extra. If most of what’s on his plate has ended up on the floor, you can feed him from the extra portion to compensate.

Let him see and touch the whole food. Most babies and toddlers only see the mashed or puréed version of the fruits and vegetables. As they get older, if they have seen the whole food, they are far more likely to recognise the food and willing to taste it as food that has been eaten before.

Eat meals together. As parents, we tend to feed our little ones first before tending to our own needs. Sitting down to meals together, even if your child is very young, cements his understanding of meal times. By giving him his own plate and allowing him to watch you eat, you are setting an example of how to interact with food.

Avoid cooking separate food for your child. Food should be cooked for the whole family and eaten by the whole family. As your baby becomes a toddler, slowly start introducing spices into his meal. Gradually increase the level of spices until he is eating the same food cooked for the family.

Introduce new foods. Children take time to develop a taste for certain types of food. But if food is re-introduced often enough, it becomes familiar to them. So, if your child refuses to eat his beans today, don’t stop making beans at home. Make it another day and keep making it at intervals until he gets used to the taste.

Encourage but do not force your child to eat. If every meal ends with your child in tears, it establishes a negative emotion to the process. As  parents, we tend to get caught up in our daily food battles. Take a step back and look at the bigger picture. Our goal is to instill healthy food habits and empower our children to make nutritious  choices as they grow. Realise that what your child eats over a period of time is what matters, rather than what he eats at this meal. Create a positive association with food for your child. Allow him the occasional indulgence, the feeling of having won a battle, as long as you win the war. He is far likelier to accept the healthy food if he has occasional access to junk food as well.

Avoid bribing your child in order to get him to eat. Alternatively, provide him with healthy options at the table and let him choose. My children are often given a choice between rice or rotis but have to finish their vegetables. Do not encourage negotiations at meal time. Getting involved in lengthy negotiations to eat  food, only teaches the child that if he negotiates enough, he will be allowed to get away without eating or eating junk food.

Instead, as he grows older, explain to him the importance of a nutritious diet  and involve him in meal planning. Children like to know that they have a say in the decision making process. Having a weekly meal plan allows you to organise your week a bit better and ensures that during the course of the week, your child has gotten sufficient servings of all food groups.

Serve him child sized portions that he can actually finish. As parents, we overestimate how much a child should eat. If he is still hungry, he can ask for an extra helping. This teaches him to listen to his body. By forcing large portions on a child, we run the risk of dulling their natural intuition of food signals, resulting in childhood obesity. Allowing him to serve himself and choose amongst the healthy options provided, empowers him to make healthier choices in the long run.

Set fixed meal and snack timings.  Children tend to eat small amounts at regular intervals. If your child is not hungry and wants to skip a meal, simply offer him food at the next slot. Do not allow your child to snack on demand as it often leads him to being full just before a meal. Keep your snacks healthy as well. Serve fruits and vegetables instead of junk food. Remember that you are in charge of purchasing groceries. A child cannot go to the store on his own. If chips are readily available at home for his consumption, it is because you put it there. If your child says he is hungry and wants chips, say “We don’t have chips.” Offer two healthy alternatives instead and let him choose.

Cook together. Involving children in the kitchen is a great way to spend some quality time together. It has the added benefit of getting your child interested in different types of food. Cooking shows like MasterChef have made food fun and attractive. Get your child excited to eat food by encouraging him to work on his plating technique. Be sneaky sometimes. You can easily sneak in some vegetables and fruits into his diet through smoothies, soups and stuffed parathas.

Changing your child’s food habits can be a long and arduous process. But, these small and simple changes will go a long way towards making mealtimes both nutritious and enjoyable. Bon Appetit!

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