The most common request from parents in the clinic is to prescribe something to make the child eat. This implies a misunderstanding among the vast majority of parents that food refusal in toddlers is a disease that can be fixed with a medicine.
On the contrary, it is helpful to think of this as a power struggle issue by children, which will help in addressing the problem effectively. The following 10 tips might be helpful.
In our culture, we often use food as an expression of love, and hence we resort to feeding children when they are developmentally capable of self-feeding. Unfortunately, this clash with children needs to assert their power as a person and creates a struggle. Children might come to associate eating with anxiety and frustration because of force-feeding, and this might suppress their natural appetite. Self-feeding should be encouraged from the age of 9 months, and love should be expressed through play and social interaction. One might learn from the example of birds and animals whose babies never have a problem with food refusal!
Offer food about the same time every day with about a four hours gap between the meals. Milk and fruits can be given at the same time after a meal. Offer only water between the meals, and avoid snacking on packed and processed foods, juices and milk between the meals. Snacking between the meals and frequent eating will reduce the overall food intake.
Children are very receptive to new foods between 6-12 months of age, if offered in appropriate consistency safe for swallowing. Encourage them to eat foods of different colors, shapes, aroma and texture. It may take several exposures of certain food, before they try and eat them. Serve them along with their favorites or with dips.
After the first year, children can consume the same foods, as everyone else in the family with minor adjustment for spices and texture. Take care to avoid foods they can choke on like nuts, seeds, grapes and apple skin. Like most behaviors, children learn eating habits by imitating parents at home and peers at school. Encourage them to eat along with other family members, and stay at the table for the designated meal time, even if they are not eating.
Try cutting foods into attractive shapes they can manage to hold with their hands. Children often explore their food with hands before putting in their mouth. Serve small portions in a bigger plate. and repeat servings as they complete.
repeat breakfast dishes for lunch or dinner, and serve food with their favorite dips/sauce.
Take your child along to the grocery store for shopping vegetables and fruits. Don’t buy anything that you don’t want your child to eat at home. It is difficult to refuse them unhealthy snacks, if your child knows they are available at home. Teach them to eat fruits as snacks instead.
Eat a variety of healthy foods yourself, and let your child learn by imitation. Praise them for trying new foods, and be patient if they are taking time to eat new foods. It may take up to 15 offerings of new food before they can accept and try.
If they have difficulty eating vegetables, try mashed or grated vegetables in their favorite foods. You can also try and make a sandwich, stuffed paratha or a chapati roll with vegetables. Remember to vary the menu and include vegetables of different colours.
Don’t distract your child with screen activities during eating. Your child might refuse to eat without screen, which is the beginning of screen addiction. This will take your child’s focus from eating and media advertisements will have the wrong influence on your child’s dietary choices. This will eventually cause dependency on sugary and non-nutritious foods that are responsible for childhood obesity.
Don’t offer sweets and ice cream as a reward to your child. It gives them the impression that these foods are better than others. You might select one or two days a week for dessert or special treats, when you go out for shopping or movies.
Remember your child’s eating habits are unlikely to change within days, but every small step you take will have a good influence on their long-term eating habits.
If you are worried, they might have food allergies or eating disorders with oral hypersensitivity and swallowing difficulty, consult your doctor to evaluate for these.