Strategies to Deal with Picky Eaters
Raising a picky eater is every mother’s nightmare that she hopes to dodge, but picky eating generally develops due to a number of reasons. Some children gradually learn from what they see, that is a fussy parent’s eating habits or some children may have genuine heightened sense of smell, taste and texture.
Often picky eating is a result of parents over-coaxing or force feeding at mealtimes, using food as a method of bargaining or even punishing, or being restrictive of certain food groups/types.
While it is essential to first identify the root cause of picky eating, parents should always remember that their role during mealtimes includes:
Providing the child with the food while focusing on what is served and where it is served. However, it is the child who must be allowed to decide whether he/she wishes to eat and how much they wish to eat. On days when the child is relatively refusing meals, this could be a difficult principle for parents to follow, but in the long run, it proves to be a beneficial practice to make mealtimes a positive and happy experience.
Tips to deal with picky eating and raise a happy eater:
1. Remember to never categorise foods. There are no good or bad foods. It is important to form positive associations with every food group and allow children to explore varied flavours and textures. Prohibiting a certain food will lead to the child feeling a sense of unattainability, hence if the same food is made available it may lead to overindulgence and overeating.
2. Never limit the foods that the baby is offered to only their favourite foods. This will then lead to the child exploring only a handful of food groups, further fuelling their habit of picky eating. It often takes as many as 15 offerings of the same food group before a child learns to try it.
3. After the age of 1 year, milk/beverages should not be offered as a replacement for meals. Limit total milk consumption to not more than 24 ounces/day. A child who is aware of milk being available as an alternative to meals offered will often reject foods served at meal times. On the other hand, milk may keep them fuller leaving them with no interest to eat during meal times.
4. Follow a set pattern so that children know a meal is coming up next. It is a good idea to offer meals at a gap of 2–3-hour intervals split across five to six times a day. Try and stick to the same time of the day for each of these meals, and if the child were to skip a particular meal offer the next meal as per the set pattern rather than trying to force-feed them.
5. Serve small quantities to the child on the main plate while having second helpings available to offer, once the initial serving is consumed, rather than serving the entire meal in one go. Allow the child to decide the quantity of the meal according to their hunger. This allows the child to regulate and understand their hunger cues, making the meal a positive experience.
6. Respect the child’s food quirks. Some children have a strong reluctance to wet foods and prefer their different food groups to be well separated. Use a sectioned plate if need be, to prevent the mixing of foods. Some children prefer not to use their bare hands, instead, they prefer cutlery to eat the same foods, respect their choice and
abide by it. Often children may want foods to be served in a certain manner, a roti folded into a three-fold triangle rather than a half-folded semi-circle, or a sandwich cut into a rectangle than a triangle.
7. Avoid giving too many options in the same meal or changing the meal altogether. Often picky eaters draw comfort from the fact that a tantrum will help them avoid the offered meal and will result in an alternate meal being provided instead. This then forms a set pattern in their meal times resulting in negative food associations.
Hence, avoid giving into a change of meal- instead offer the next meal when it is supposed to be given as per the set pattern.
8. Make meals a pleasant and interactive time. Avoid extreme reactions of happiness or displeasure during meal times. Prevent any distractions such as games, screen time, storytelling etc during meal times so that the child can focus on their food and learn to regulate their hunger cues instead. Setting a clean and happy eating environment is as important as the meal being served to the child and will help prevent negative eating behaviours.