Friday, July 20, 2012

Is your child a fussy eater?

Is your child fussy about food, a picky eater?

Why do some children seem to fuss so much about eating, and why do some children sail through meals?  I am no expert, but I am a good listener ;)  This is a result of my observations, experiences and conversations with parents.  And I have a wealth of references because this is such a common complaint.

So I'm going to list out what could be going awry, and what you could do to set things right.

I started off thinking about this subject with one thought.  No child in our family has ever been fussy about food.  If I think about it, I can remember me and my sister, all my cousins, everybody, happily tucking into food all the time without any ado whatsoever. 

1) Limit junk food, increase physical activity.  No matter what you cook and how well you cook, the child cannot possibly eat if he is not hungry.  Really cut down on junk food, and make sure the child gets plenty of fresh air and exercise.  At about the age of three, it was quite remarkable the difference in Puttachi's appetite, the day when she went to the park and the day she didn't.  (They sleep well too - double advantage.)

2) Plan meals according to the child's temperament at that stage. Every child has its own eating preferences and patterns, and it differs at every age too.  Puttachi went through a phase where she couldn't eat much at one go.  So I gave her a little food, say saaru-anna and palya at one sitting, and then after a couple of hours, curds and rice.  (I didn't make anything else, mind you.  Just split the same meal into two.)  Also, do make a note of what the child has eaten before offering her the next meal.  You really can't expect a child to eat a full dinner at eight if she has had a tall glass of milk at seven.

3) Don't force food in, let the child go hungry a few times. :)  Don't force the child into eating anything.  If the child stops eating, just stop offering.  If the child is throwing a tantrum or showing disinterest, stop.  Let them starve. They'll come back the next meal and eat well.  Even if this goes on for a few days, it is okay.  The child is not going to suffer from starvation.

3a) Don't supplement a half-eaten  meal with junk food.  I know some parents who give the child bread or cake or biscuits if the child doesn't eat a full meal just to "fill the child's tummy."  Avoid that.  If you must, give her a fruit. 

4) Children go through cycles of eating less and more.  It could be growth spurts, it could be a rise or slump in physical activities - it could be many things, but children sometimes just don't need so much.  So if they suddenly stop eating for a few days, relax.  They'll make up for it.   Even we as adults sometimes don't feel like eating a particular meal.  Children also go through such periods.  Respect that, and leave them alone.  And as early as possible, get them to take decisions about how much they want to eat.

5) Other caregivers - It is easy for you as a parent to decide that the child can starve for half a day, and be done with it.  But if someone else is in charge of feeding your child on a regular basis, they are answerable to you, and they will not be comfortable about letting the child rise from the meal with a less-than-full stomach.  Even if you are cool with it, it is natural to feel that it is their responsibility to make sure the child has a full meal.  I know, because I feel that way even when Puttachi's friend is eating at our place.  So they might tend to pamper the child a bit, go that extra mile to ensure that he eats a full meal.   Not eating curds?  Add a spoonful of sugar.  Still not eating?  Add one more spoonful of sugar.  Finally, the child gets so used to sweet curds that he won't eat unless his bowl has three spoons of sugar, and that is how fussiness takes root.  So let these people know that is is okay if the child doesn't eat full meals from time to time.

5) Make mealtimes pleasant - If the child associates mealtime with a parent who is forcing, cajoling, fretting, worrying - making her eat even if she doesn't want it - mealtimes will always become a chore.  Come on, food is wonderful.  Teach the child to enjoy it!

6) Same food for everybody from the beginning - As soon as the child is ready to eat regular food, make the same kind of food for everybody in the family if that is possible.  That might mean going low on the spice for a while, until the child scales up.  Avoid all those problems of setting aside a little bland dal and vegetables to mix with the rest of the spicy food.  My laziness worked for me in this case.  Ever since Puttachi was 1.5 years old, all of us ate the same food.  I gradually hiked up the spice levels as she grew.  For me, it was lesser work.  For Puttachi, this made it clear that there was no special treatment for her.

7) Fussy adult, fussy child. -  I have noticed that if there is a fussy adult at home, the probability of there being a fussy child is higher.  When the adult sets forth his choices and refuses to eat this and that, the child gets the concept that it is possible to refuse to eat such and such a thing.   I can understand, it will be very difficult to get an adult to change his eating habits, but the least you can do is to get the adult to stop announcing his preferences.  If he doesn't like brinjal, let him not eat it when it is being made.  If you are forced to make another vegetable for him, let it not come to the child's notice.  Very difficult, I know.  But I do feel that this is a great contributing factor.

I can't think of anybody in my family who is a fussy adult.  We eat anything and everything that is put before us.  That doesn't mean our taste buds have calcified.  We also have our preferences, likes and dislikes.  But when we are presented with something to eat, we just, well, eat it.

8) No choices - This is an extension of the previous point.  Don't give the child any choices.  Bring in the "eat it or leave it"  rule.  Nobody gets a choice at our home.  Whether you like it or not, you have to eat it.  There is no question at all about making something else for a person who doesn't like a particular dish.  Eat it, or starve.  Yeah, I know, I am very strict that way.  But it works.

Children are very self-centered people.  If they see that you are willing to bow down to their whims, then they will definitely make you dance around.  Don't give them that option at all.  We have a lot of conversations at the school gate nowadays about food, because Puttachi's class has started taking packed food to school from this year on.  I have seen, universally - all those mothers who say that their child doesn't eat anything and so they give them three different dishes to choose from in their lunch box - those are the kids who come back without having eaten anything.  And the mothers who state categorically that our children have no choice - eat it or leave it -  our children are the ones that come back with empty boxes.

9) Positive language - When you present a child with a new dish or a new vegetable, and you are not sure if the child will like it, offer it without comment.  Or if you must comment, say something positive.  "Here's something new, I have a feeling you might like this."  I have seen many mothers offer a new dish with, "See, aunty has made this - I don't know if you will like it.  Eat and tell me if you like it, I will give you  more."  The child immediately is on an alert.  And even that little negativity that creeps in gives the child the power, yes, the power to refuse and assert herself. 

10) No crutches - Don't ever devise a crutch for the child to make her eat.  Many children eat when the television is on, and that becomes a crutch.  One child I knew ate only when he was put in a tub of water.  One child, only when she watched advertisements.  One child, only when a particular album of nursery rhymes were played.  Why, Puttachi also was hooked on to stories for a long time, and wouldn't eat unless I told her a story.  When that stimulus goes missing, or if conditions are not absolutely right, the child doesn't eat at all.  As far as possible, get rid of any such dependencies.

11) Don't complain or keep saying that the child doesn't eat anything.  Not in front of the child, not in front of anybody.  This constant reinforcement especially if done in the child's hearing, immediately works to make the child not eat anything.   I have seen one child cured of its fussiness by the mother consciously changing her complaining tone to one of positivity, saying, "Oh yes, my son eats his meals.  No problem."  instead of "Ayyoooo he doesn't eat annnnnything!"

Constantly worrying about a child not eating also gives the child a sense of importance.  Why will he want to do away with all that attention?  ;)

12) Start early. The older the child is, the more difficult it is to get her to change her eating habits.  So start good, positive eating habits as early as you can. 

Edited to add this point: 13) Putting ideas into the child's head.  One of the mothers at the school gate was saying, "Poor kids, so sad, their food would have become cold by the time they eat it in the afternoon."  Yeah, obviously, but so what?  Haven't most of us grown up eating cold lunches?  Don't millions of kids all over the world eat cold lunches?   The mother will say this in front of the child and the child will find a new reason to refuse food.  Don't do this - children adapt and adjust very easily.  Don't put ideas into their heads, and create problems for yourself!

I am sure you have heard many elders say, "In our time, children were not like this, they just ate whatever was put before them."  That was simply because the children were left alone.  If they didn't eat, they would starve until the next meal.  (No junk food to carry them through either!)  So they probably fended for themselves, and of course, there were many children and they all just ate together and got the meals out of the way so that they could go and play.

So, in short, I would say - no special treatment, no fuss, no pampering.  And it is okay to let them go hungry once in a while.  Children are resilient creatures.  They will make up.  Relax.  It is good for you too! :)

Any other suggestions/observations?  Something else that has worked with you?  Anything that you think is wrong with my reasoning?  Please share!


Radhika said...

Am in total agreement with your post Shruthi. No choice in food, eat else go hungry might seem hard to practice but makes sense.

Sanjay M said...

great post - very timely for us :)

jyotika said...

well choices works best!!and yes they do eat better as they grow up.bigger tummy=more food!

Sowmya said...

Thanks for post Shruthi, Came in about the right time for me!!

Noodlehead said...

really good post! same rules at chez moi too :) What really helped me was that I started solids for Bratina with fruit and veggie puree. Till date she loves the same fruit and veggies! Also when she started rice,it was mostly our meal all mashed up. For school lunch, I pack a regular meal (rice, sambar, veggies or roti sabji). It's more work for me but I want her to know that this is what constitutes a meal and surprisingly after the initial few weeks she actually finishes it! Of course, on lazy days I pack idlis or dosas but end up feeling very guilty :( And yes, I firmly believe that a child will not eat till s/he is hungry and it's a actually a good policy!

On this note, I have to tell u about this bizarre thing I heard at school. This was in the first week, when all we were discussing was lunch for the kids. One parent was telling another one how she sends biscuits for her child in the box because "how can he eat only roti sabji, he needs something else also na". I don't know if she meant dessert, and if she did, I wonder why a biscuit? Fruit seems like a better option!

Abhipraya said...

Amazing that I see this now! Practically everyone I know is talking about this right now! couldn't agree more on let the child starve and caregiver's point!

Always a enlightening to come here :)

rajk said...

Hi Shruthi,
Agree with most of your points. Especially notable for me right now is the "Crutches" one. My little one either wants the TV on or her books read to her while she eats. Totally my fault, I admit.
But re pt. no. 9, with my older one, it's actually quite the opposite: reverse psychology works. If I tell him, "I don't think you're going to like it, but eat it anyway, please." He'll be like, "No, I like it!" While if it is, "Try this, it's your favourite, You'll like it." He'll go,"It's ok, but next time don't make this."
And re. "aunty sent this", when we were kids, we would devour anything that came from somebody else; so much so that mom had kept a few "aunty" bowls in which she used to serve us dishes made by her but said they were from the neighbour "aunty". :-)

Chitra said...

Excellent post! Wish I could forward this to some ladies I know without offending them :P!

Wanderer said...

Also to make sure the child eats at meal times, don't give her other snacks near the meal time. Of course this can't be followed all the time, but when at home, it can be followed. Thats what my mom did to ensure we had healthy food in healthy portions.
Wonderful post as usual. I'll be copying these down somewhere to make use in future :)

parijata said...

Whoa Shruthi, I am really glad you are putting up these posts.

My problem is peculiar. My 7-year old son loves talking - so much that he forgets to eat during break time. And we have had to cut down the amount of food sent in his boxes (they have a snack break and a lunch break) and try to force-feed him in the morning before going to school.

The fact that he is one of the shortest children in the class is not comforting, either :(

S.D. said...

Hey Shruthi, Your post is a very popular topic these days in everybody's home. Your points are really a solution except 3 and 8, i guess.What I want to say is--if you become adamant in not offering food for 3-4 days may be he/she will find an another way out to his/her hunger(possibly outside junk food). gone are those days when children used to say sorry to their parents ..what say?

Veena Shivanna said...

Shruthi, Very nicely written and important for me. Habits die hard and it becomes important to put the right ones at the early stage. Thank you for the detailed note.

Bhavana said...

Thanks for the wonderful post Shruthi. This serves as a guide to me to train my 11 month old daughter.
Yes, completely agree with you on "No Junk food" and "No Crutches" and "Its ok if the child skips a meal".

I have seen children who are hooked on to TV while eating food and they feel its a necessity..well, elders at home do that too..
and Junk food in lunch box to school...french fries, cakes what not..just because the kid wont eat normal stuff..Schools dont restrict the kind of food the child eats, do they?
I shudder seeing such things..and I also see that they know of the variety of choices of junk food from their peers in school..what is to be done about it? "Today X bought Lotte choco pie in school, I want it for lunch tomorrow, else I will not eat". I really get scared at such demands from a child.
If they are already into such tantrums its difficult to train them..Yes start early is right..but what about the fact that when the child sees a slightly older child, a cousin or a peer in school eat junk?


parijata said...

Bhavana, thankfully in my kids' school, junk / store-bought food is strictly not allowed. Even then, some kids got (still get) instant noodles in their boxes, and I had a hard time explaining why I did not do the same thing!

After my son learnt to read, things have become a little easier - I bought him a book called "Why we should bother to keep fit". One day, probably a week after reading it, he actually refused to eat breakfast at the nearby fast-food, but came home and demanded oatmeal!

I can't wait to get my younger one to start reading! Then I can leave much of my lecturing to books :D
There, Shruti, I am lazier than thou!

Nursery Milton Keynes News said...

I am mother of 2 daughters. With my first daughter who is now 8 years I did not have any problem in feeding. I was able to train her in bottle as I joined duty after 4 months. But my second daughter who is now 5 months is driving me mad. I have to forcibly feed her even in milk. She does not take milk in bottle so everything I have to force her only. Is it OK. I am worried. Her weight gain is also not very good. Please advice

Anonymous said...

This post is EXACTLY how I think about feeding my kids! I ended up reading some of your other blogs as well. You must be a wonderful parent!!

Swati Sharma said...

Hi Shruthi!! I am a great fan of your write-ups and have been following your blog for about 3 months now, though this is my first comment! And it is an honour for me to be able to mention you and your blog on my blog, which is just another newbie in the blogland. You have been a huge inspiration and I hope you somehow find time to come up to my blog and oblige! Here's the link to the post I just mentioned you in :

Anonymous said...

Amazing the visit was worth…

Swaram said...

Had been reading u from the time I started blogging probably. Somehow, I missed reading in between. Glad to be back now and read so many posts at one go.
I can't believe Puttachi is 5 already! Belated but best wishes from my side too. God bless u all.

Shruthi said...

Radhika, good to hear that. Hard to practice only if you are not used to it :) After that, as you said, it makes total sense!

Sanjay, hope it helps!

Jyotika, absolutely!

Sowmya, all the best!

Noodlehead, lol at feeling guilty. Don't, I think you are doing a fab job :) And thanks for the note on that thing you heard - putting ideas into children's heads - reminded me of another point, and I updated the post with it. The things you learn at the school gate, huh? :D

Abhipraya, I know, everybody is always talking about this! :D And oh, I'm flattered that you think so!

RajK, thanks for your input! I get that, the little rebel :) And LOL LOL at aunty sent this! :D

Chitra, if you don't risk offending them, they'll keep on boring everybody with the same stories ;)

Wanderer, exactly, absolutely, totally ;)

Parijata, "same pinch." That is the same problem I have with Puttachi. Either talking, or dreaming. Sigh!

SD, two things - I don't mean - don't offer food for 3-4 days. Please do offer. But if they fuss, take it away, don't force.
Two, I am talking about little kids here, not kids who have pocket money to buy things outside. And if those kids are the kind who have enough pocket money to spend on junk, and if they don't have enough sense than to eat junk, then I think the parent has a greater problem on their hands than of the child being a fussy eater.

Veena, thanks for providing the motivation for this post.

Bhavana, some schools do check the lunchboxes. Puttachi's school does, she tells me about how her teacher told one child not to eat junk, and another child that she has to eat her healthy box before she ate the box with chips.
And peer pressure, I am working on a post on this - this is really bothering me nowadays. I'll put my thoughts out in that post.

Parijata, LOL! But that is so sensible of your son, good for him!

Nursery Milton Keynes News, please consult your child's paediatrician. I would prefer not to say anything about a child that young.

Anon at 9 24, glad you think so :) I do make an effort :)

Swati, I'm glad I served as an inspiration for you to blog! All the best, keep at it :) You are right, it is a wonderful repository for memories ;)

Swaram, thank you, and welcome back!

Anonymous said...

thanks for sharing..

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