This is one aspect of life that holds paramount importance for every parent. No matter what our lifestyle, eating habits or food preferences have been, the minute a couple is expecting to have a baby, the whole focus shifts to eating healthy, nutritious food.
So far so good, but this topic becomes alarmingly important when the precious child turns into a toddler and starts fussing about eating food.
A picky eater as per the Urban dictionary is defined as – A person that is adverse to a wide variety of foods; additionally, picky eaters often display an unwillingness to try new foods or any food that contains even a small amount of a food they do not like.
A fussy eater is one (as per the Urban dictionary) who: Someone that’s so picky about their food and is always complaining about it. A lot of times these people only want the food that they want and wouldn’t want to eat whatever they got.
Having had the differences charted out, right from the age when Pari switched to eating solids, I knew, I have a fussy eater at hand. As paediatricians like to put it, all children in their early years are fussy eaters because they’re in a stage of experimenting with new tastes, flavours, textures and more of the various food groups with their taste buds growing. Armed with this knowledge but backed by the history of coming from a family that has never seen a fussy eater (in its immediate relations) I knew I must be prepared for a major battle at the dining table in the days to come.
“I am a better person when I have less on my plate.” ― Elizabeth Gilbert
When you hail from a family that has never seen kids or adults being picky about what to eat, you run the humongous advantage of ordering any food, any time without worrying about it being accepted by the family. But the things turned dramatically as Pari grew up. I could be seen fretting, sweating, worrying and going nuts trying to make my toddler eat a morsel.
Yes, it was that scary right from the start.
To begin with, Pari has had an aversion to sweets. She doesn’t like them. At all.
Before you try to say “What’s the big deal?” think twice. Everything in this world designed to feed a baby is actually sweet. Cookies, toffees, jams, sauces, spreads, cakes, ice-creams, puddings, fruit juices, milkshakes, even children’s medicines and the list is endless.
The second tough bit was Pari had inherited my strong sense of smell. She can smell food and 80% of the times can correctly identify what it is made up of. So trying to act clever hiding nutritious foods or the one she doesn’t like requires one to be really smarty pants (that I clearly am not).
The third difficulty was she despises fats. You try to grease her roti with ghee or butter she won’t let you bring it near her. You try to add cheese to her food, a flake or two is great, but the minute you feel encouraged, in Pari’s eyes you’ve gone overboard and there she refuses to touch it.
The fourth and the biggest bummer is Pari has zero inkling towards food. She eats only to survive, if she had the choice to go on with life without food, she’d happily opt for it.
“Part of the secret of success in life is to eat what you like and let the food fight it out inside.” ― Mark Twain
With these clear set of issues, when Pari was around 7 to 8 months old, I was crazy worried as to what to feed her to get to eat solids because she seemed to be surviving only on milk and I knew it well that won’t suffice as she grew up.
That’s when my paediatrician told me that since my child clearly didn’t like the usual stuff kids loved, I must help her find her favourites by letting her taste as many varieties of foods as I possibly can and keep noting what works and what does not.
The task was uphill because I am a die-hard foodie. I love food and more so cooking food. It makes my heart bleed when I fail to prepare a bowl of food that my child could enjoy and would polish off without fuss any day. But, giving up has never been an option.
During the course of helping Pari discover foods that were both nutritious and were the ones she readily ate (that are still countable on the fingers of my one hand) I learnt the following valuable lessons:
1. Being a fussy eater is normal in young children but being a non-eater is a real challenge: This meant that when Pari didn’t like what all was cooked and served during mealtimes, she happily chose to stay hungry (much to my angst). No parent in this world can watch their children go to sleep on an empty stomach no matter what the circumstances. This was when I started giving in to her requests for eating fried chicken. I am well-aware that eating fried foods is not a healthy option. But eating it around twice to thrice a week when the child clearly hasn’t been eating anything much, didn’t leave me with much thought or choices.
2. Milk can’t be a staple diet for a child older than a year: When Pari was younger than two years, she refused to eat any solid foods beyond tasting a morsel here and there, I used to keep her fed on milk. But clearly, plain milk was not sufficient for the growth and development of a spirited child who looked at sleeping as a waste of time. The outcome was her milk feeds were too frequent and so were the episodes of her going cranky (cause of hunger).
3. Fresh fruits and vegetables are precious parts of a healthy diet: We read and hear this often but never before it meant so much to me as it does now. Right from the start, Pari loved her fresh fruits, vegetables and nuts. This was the only time when she never hesitated in eating something sweet, though Mango was something she happily avoided because of its sweetness (I know you almost choked at that one…. relax…. you’re not alone).
4. Fruit juices are not the ultimate healthy drinks for children: As is usually thought, fruit juices aren’t always the healthiest drinks (unless prepared fresh every time) and if your child isn’t particularly fond of them (like Pari) trying coconut water and fresh buttermilk, they can be really healthy, tasty and satisfying.
5. Force feeding is a strict no-no: When Pari was around a year old, under familial pressure my mother had urged me to force feed Pari because clearly, she was not eating enough for her age. That was the only time, this topic was discussed in my family when my father and I together put our foot down on “We’re never going to force feed Pari, let her enjoy her food or not eat it.”. This has stood strong till date.
6. Listen to the body: Every individual is unique and so are their body requirements. If you’d chart out Pari’s eating plan all through the day, you’d feel she eats the amount of food probably a two-year-old would find inadequate. But, on this issue, my child’s paediatrician had once said “Pari is very active and is a fast learner. Her body weight and height too are well within the normal range with no signs of any deficiencies. This implies, she is eating the right amount of food that she needs at this stage.” These words have been the guiding light that has helped me stay sane and not be influenced by the parents of my child’s friends who have kids almost 1.5 times to double her weight. Mind you, Pari is nowhere a skinny child and if you met her anytime (except meal times) you’d never get an inkling on her food habits.
7. Let a child decide what they want to eat and when should they stop: This is one rule, I made after I became a parent much to my parent’s horror. I have always been the person who never gets up from the dining table (at home or anywhere else) without polishing off her plate. Still, I do not stand by the belief that for a child for whom the food was served by the parent, she should be forced to eat beyond what she thinks her tummy can take. While practising this one rule, I always ask Pari before serving to make her comply and eat as much or as little she has had me serve her. On 70 % occasions, she eats 90% food on her plate and that in my eyes is good enough. Though I encourage her to taste everything that has been cooked. Even if it means eating just a bite.
8. Mealtimes are family times with no distraction allowed: Eating with the TV on is one thing I despise but am unable to avoid especially during dinnertime. Still, emphasis on eating meals together as the family, having fun, chatting away helps alleviate stress a fussy eater can so often build up in a parent. I try my best to ignore looking disturbed when Pari refuses to eat her food, eating my own meal to show her that she won’t get any attention for throwing up a fuss. We never (except when Pari is sick) oblige to her special food demands. Everyone gets to eat the same food.
9. Junk food is not banned but is not encouraged: Ever since Pari stepped into school, her exposure to the junk food has been tremendous. I do not blame it on peer pressure because it is, in fact, the era of the fast food. But my family is an odd one out. Though we enjoy our pizzas, pasta, burgers and fries I love to make them all myself. However, we are strict about the frequency of eating junk and also about our soda intake. Pari’s grandparents and I drink perhaps a litre of cola drinks per annum. So on that front, we are leading Pari by example to enjoy home-cooked meals more and only occasionally eating out.
I’ll stop at that because I have come to feel, perhaps I can write a whole book on this topic.
In a nutshell, I am clear that I am not at war trying to feed my child by hook or crook. I am ready to play on, patiently waiting for my child to fall in love with food of her own choice. Because love can’t be forced and falling in love with food is one of the best feelings ever.
Are you a picky eater or have a child who is?
What strategies do you employ to help your child eat healthily?
What are the areas where you struggle with making your child eat healthy foods?
* This post is part of the April A to Z Challenge 2016. My theme is Parenting.
Please find my other posts here.