Fussy Eating -What’s the fuss all about?
Fussy eating is a behavioral issue where a child is reluctant to accept food. The child either eats only a particular group of food or is fussy about eating as such. This results in consumption of inadequate variety of foods. Such behavior often results in nutritional problems.
Many times it is the perception of the parent or caregiver that their child is a fussy eater. If the child has adequate rate of weight and height gain and is active then there is no issue. In other cases, the growth rate may not be within the prescribed limits for the given age group, this could be either low weight or weight gain above the prescribed limits which could be due to inadequate consumption of a balanced diet.
A fussy eating kid means a lot of stress for the family where mealtime means temper tantrums and frustration. So how do we prevent it from happening?
To prevent it from happening, one needs to understand the setting when this develops.
A fussy eating kid means a lot of stress for the family where mealtime means temper tantrums and frustration. So how do we prevent it from happening? To prevent it from happening, one needs to understand the setting when this develops.
Food is a basic human need and we have an inbuilt system that creates hunger and eating habits within ourselves. Then how come such a basic task transforms into a major concern? Well, the answer lies in the adults and environment around the child. The main reason for fussy eating is the family. A family that fusses over food and forces the child to eat is bound to have a fussy eater.
Our basic perception is that food is the source of wellness and illness. So, we as a family have our own ideas about food. The whole issue starts here. The parent or caregiver’s notion of the quantity and quality of feed becomes the issue. If their notions do not match with the kids appetite, then they start worrying about the kid’s eating habit and the fuss about food begins. For the child, the food bowl becomes a source of threat wherein the parent or caregiver suddenly turns aggressive. This is the starting point.
Also when a child is 6 months to 8 months the child is fed by the mother and offers little resistance and accepts the feed if hungry. However as the child grows, he/she develops a sense of I and others and slowly starts to resists being made to eat by the time. Often the child is busy with some other activity which is interrupted for the sake of feed. This is when the parents/ grand parents start to force the child. For according to them, the very same child was Ok with this procedure just couple of weeks ago. However they fail to realize that the child has a slightly different maturity level where the child interprets the feedings as an intrusion into his/her decision making. This clash of interest leads to a struggle while feeding every time. Each time the child is force fed, the child records it as an unpleasant experience and associates food and the food bowl with the unpleasantness. Thus even though there is hunger, the aversion to food bowl super-seeds the hunger and the child runs away.
So how do we manage a fussy eater at home?
- First as a parent, decide on making an attitude change for yourself. Understand the basics of nutritional eating and start adhering to it. Only if you set an example can you expect the child to follow suit.
- To begin-with, do not force- feed your child.
- The child will initially go on a protest mode and not eat properly. How ever once the child realizes that not eating is not going to bother you, the child will not use it as a weapon against you. So during this period neither pamper nor reprimand the child. Ignoring will solve the issue.
- Strive to make eating an enjoyable family activity wherein you all eat together.
- If the child is grown –up enough, involve the child in meal preparation like getting the ingredients, mixing them or arranging the table etc. This would create a sense of participation and encourage the child to eat.
It would be a good idea to prevent fussy eating from settling in rather than work on managing a fussy eater.
Here are a few suggestions to prevent fussy eating from settling in:
As soon as you start complimentary feed, start feeding a home- made age appropriate diet rather than resorting to commercial baby food. This way you would avoid added sugars and also this would help the baby get accustomed to the families taste preferences Plan a menu that is well balanced.
As early as one year of age, the child can start eating with the family. Avoid exposure to junk food, sugary foods etc, diet introduced early in life impacts the food and taste preferences forever.
- What to give, what time to give, where to give should be your choice. How much to take should be the child’s choice.
- Decide how frequently your child should be offered food. Plan the menu for the day with adequate fiber (fruits and vegetables), appropriate amount of milk in it. Once decided, do not change the menu according to the child’s demands.
- Decide where to give the food. Dining chair or high chair is a good idea. Do not run around the house behind the child to give the food.
- Having decided this, do not decide the amount of food the child should have. For e.g.; if you decide to give idly for breakfast do not make dosa because the child wanted it. However accept that the child might decide to have only half idly or sometimes none. Do not get anxious. The child will have the next meal well if the initial one is not taken well.
- Do not give junks/ snacks in between the planned food.
- All kids should be given a plate and spoon and made to eat with the family from 1 year. They will spill. Very little will go in. But they will observe you and others on the table and develop an interest to eat the variety of food that you consume.
- Variety is the key. Give all seasonal fruits and vegetables. Divide it over all periods of food intake. Make it easily accessible. Set the right example- YOU increase the intake.
Healthy eating is one in which the mind is aware of what goes into the mouth. Scientifically too digestion starts with the look of food- heralding secretion of oral and gastric juice in anticipation of food intake. When the child develops a food habit where he or she is not aware of the quality or the quantity of food, this often leads to inappropriate nutrition. Do not try to distract the child resorting to methods like switching on TV, Computer, stories etc. So let the child focus on the food. If we program this concept early, this becomes the thumb rule for the child even in adulthood. So keep food time exclusive. Probably short if you want to, but surely exclusive.
Here are some factors at play with regard to fussy eating which were included in the questionnaire:
- Age of the child –the younger the child the better it is to train the food habits of the child. So start as early as you start complimentary foods. Condition the child to eat homemade foods.
- When you introduce new food for the child, be patient and try the food for at least a week and introduce age appropriate variety early in the life. But introduce only one food at a time.
- Gender –Gender as such does not make much of a difference early in life, though eating habits tend to differ during adolescence.
- Having a sibling helps. Kids can learn from each other. But remember never to compare and talk to kids about their differences.
- Your impression about food makes huge impact, so remember never to fuss about the food you have and the food you feed your child.
- Never prod, encourage, yell at your fussy eating kid, just ignore their resistance to food and the issue will resolve on its own.
- Give adequate, age appropriate gap between meals for the child to feel the hunger and then eat.
- Let the child focus on food. Do not provide them with any kind of distraction to make them to eat.
- Try eating together as a family as far as possible and start the normal family food by one year of age.
- When you go out for eating, remember it is a pleasurable activity yet make healthy choices about the food you eat. At times it is a good idea to yield to the desires of a child even unhealthy. Make it a point to give those fat laden, sugary choices only outside home whereby the kid is conditioned that unhealthy food choices can only be occasional and outside the home.
Frequently Asked Questions
1. My kid likes only crisp stuff, what are my choices for offering crisp stuff by avoiding deep fried crisps?
One is to microwave the vegetables. This dehydrates the vegetable but does not decrease the fiber content. Minimal oil may improve the taste. But I would prefer to restrict this too to occasional days.
2. Are sweets totally banned? Also I have successfully prevented junk food for my kid, but the kid is ready to go to school and will be exposed to junk food. How do I handle this?
It is not a BAN. What we mean to say is that the food seeking behavior of children is programmed very early in life. When the initial food added on to mother’s milk is low in calories with low sugar and fat, the child seeks such food through life. Thus after 18 months when we expose kids to occasional so called junk food, the child takes only a little of it. Once again this purely depends on the example we make. If our food habit is correct the child automatically sticks to it.
3. My family has both of us going to work and my child is in daycare. How do I inculcate good food habits in the child as I spend only very little time with the kid?
Spend quality time with the child. I wish to borrow the lines of my Guru here- “In family LOVE is spelt as T-I-M-E.” Once you are a part of the child’s life then he/she looks upon you as a role model. All you need to do is make sure you eat right and make sure you child shares the table with you when you eat.
4. I see sudden phases of dislike for food in my child. The dislike may be for some food group or food per se. I am perplexed, but am comforted as soon as my child returns to original appetite. How and why does this happen?
Basically this happens to all of us. When I was in hostel during my MBBS I used to crib a lot about my hostel food. All my hostel inmates did. Hence my parents felt that the food was miserable. Once my father happened to visit me and I took him to the mess. He had the food and felt that the menu and the quality of food were good. The reason was the same menu was being served week after week and that had bored me. Same is the case with kids. When we give them the same pattern of food they seem to loose interest. After a few days, they ultimately get back to the original form after the gap. So my advice is variety.
5. If I feed, my child eats whatever I feed, but if left to eat on own, eats only curd rice. How do I handle this? I want the child to start eating on own, yet eat a good variety of food. My kid is already 4.
All kids should be given a plate and spoon and made to eat with the family from 1 year. They will spill. Very little will go in, but they will observe you and others on the table and develop an interest to eat the variety of food that you consume. So the answer is stop feeding the child.