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I know you’re worried, day and night, every single day. You only have one thought bothering you - Why don’t I eat anything? Why do I keep refusing the food you give me? Why don’t I grow like other kids my age? I know you’re trying hard to make me eat at least a few bites of that carrot or a few spoons of that new dish you made for the first time.
I see you sometimes shout at me in anger, sometimes smile at me with love as you hold the spoon to my mouth. And sometimes, I see tears in your eyes too as you finally give up. I know you’re tired and just want me to fill my tummy so that you and I can both go to sleep. But mom, you never ask me why I don’t eat anything that you say is healthy and good for me.
So, I thought today I should let you know why I don’t feel like eating some things. Why I like chocolates, cookies and juice over carrots, broccoli and apples. No, it’s not because I want to purposely annoy, upset or trouble you. I love you Mummy but I feel that you don’t understand what goes on in my mind; what I feel about eating certain foods. So here goes:
Mom, I’m still new to several food items, all of which taste different. I only came to this world two years ago. How can you expect me to get familiar, like and even accept all the food that you offer? I need some time, Ma, because maybe I’m scared. Scared of trying out new tastes. I naturally feel more comfortable with sweet stuff just like everyone else (even adults).
I think you forget that I have a very, very small tummy. Even when I eat what you give, I don’t think you’re ever satisfied because you always feel I’ve eaten “just this much”. The result: you keep complaining how picky or fussy I am about food. But the truth is, Mom, I ate what you cooked but my tummy got full halfway through.
You keep insisting to finish until the last bite on the plate and that’s when I turn my face away or make faces, again what you misinterpret as creating a fuss at mealtime. I see you and Dad take just as much food on your plate as you wish to eat. Why am I not allowed to choose “how much” I want to eat? Some days I might feel more hungry and on others, I may not have the same appetite.
Also Mom, I really want to play games with you during mealtime. Not the same “spoon coming like a plane” ones that you play to feed me forcefully when I don’t feel like eating. I want to play some more enjoyable games, Ma. Maybe cut the food into different shapes and ask me which is which, or make my favorite animal/cartoon character on the plate with the veggies and fruits? Ask me to eat all the body parts of the figure until the last bite. I’d really love that, Mom.
I see that you don’t eat so many veggies yourself and I often hear you say to Dad that you don’t like them much. Does it mean that the particular vegetable isn’t as healthy because, Mom, you always tell me to eat everything, saying that every fruit and vegetable has some nutritional value. If you choose not to eat something, why can’t I have some preferences, Ma?
You keep telling everyone proudly that I am on you; I look like you. Could it be that my food choices are also like yours?
Did it ever strike you that maybe I’m not really hungry at the time you feed me? Maybe your and my meal times don’t match just as yet. When I feel hungry and ask for something, you offer me a snack - a biscuit, cracker, cake, whatever that’s easy for you to give while you’re still preparing the meal and which I, of course, love. When the food is ready, you want me to sit with everyone and eat. But I am not hungry then, Mom, because the snack filled me (again, small tummy).
I also want variety, Ma, just like Dad and you. I see that you prepare a different spread every evening while I get to eat the same old stuff day after day - mashed potatoes, soup, chapatti (the only variation being bread, on some days). Can I also have other yummy foods, Ma, just like you both? You eat Noodles and don’t give it to me saying it isn’t good for me. But then why do you eat it?
Very often, you offer me chocolate as a prize on the condition that I finish food until the last bite. I ask for it and you keep delaying it. And then I lose patience and start crying. I refuse to eat food because I want the chocolate at that very moment. But you hide it away and even punish me, promising not to give it to me at all now because I didn’t obey and finish the meal. You know I love chocolate and I want it so badly so how do you think I can stay without getting it for so long?
I hope at least now you’d understand that I too want to be like you, Mom - having some personal preferences. Is it asking for too much? I also hope that you won’t be angry or upset with me at reading this.
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Alas! If only toddlers could write and express their innate feelings (like this one above), we’d be able to exactly know why our children generally refuse to eat - a condition we blindly label as ‘fussy or picky eating’. While “fussy eaters” do exist, undoubtedly, pediatricians and nutrition experts suggest that sometimes there’s more to picky eating than meets the eye.
I came across a very interesting research lately. It talked about the ‘power struggle’ between parents and toddlers at the dining table. The expression caught my attention. Power struggle with a toddler? Yes. The research discussed a theory titled “Division of Responsibility in Feeding”, developed and coined by a dietitian and feeding expert, Ellyn Satter.
The theory asks all parents to clearly demarcate roles for themselves as well as children in the arena of eating:
Parents should be responsible for and assume complete control over what food is made available to the child (both meals and snacks), at what time, and at what place.
Children should be encouraged to decide whether or not they want to eat and also how much.
Impressive, I thought. Having read this, my ideas about my own picky toddler changed considerably. Here are a few other unexplored ideas which I wasn’t aware of and which I’d like to share here.
What You Didn’t Know About Picky Eating
According to doctors, nearly every child between the age of 1-3 tends to create a fuss during mealtime. This trend is indeed very common; however, the important thing to remember here is that just like any other habit adopted and forgotten by children, this too usually passes over time.
As kids get to the age of 3, they start becoming more open to the idea of experimenting and, in some cases, even accepting newer foods and tastes. This means that moms will triumph eventually; they just need to be patient and persevering. Don’t just give up as yet. It’s just a phase but a few tactical approaches can help you sail through this quite easily.
Keep offering healthy food to your child, even if they reject it the first time. Research says that kids tend to refuse new foods at least 10-20 times before finally coming around to even trying them. Perhaps the familiarity factor plays its part here? Just as kids love to be around familiar faces, the same holds true for what they feel comfortable putting in their mouths.
Allow children the freedom to decide how much they want to eat. This would let them learn how to identify hunger and to indicate when they’re full. This is very important in the later years. Some kids fail to realize and tell moms when exactly they feel hungry and how much. In this case, they end up being overfed; may even throw up or face indigestion problems.
Respect your child’s appetite. There are days when we too don’t feel hungry (perhaps after a heavy last meal or snack) and may prefer skipping the next one. It’s okay to let your child do this too, once in a while. Most important, remember that the child would never starve. When they feel hungry, they’d literally push you to the kitchen to fetch something. Then why run behind them to finish those last bites?
While “fussy eaters” do exist, experts suggest that sometimes there’s more to picky eating than meets the eye.
A toddler’s tummy is literally the size of a clenched fist. This is the reason they eat little and this is also why they keep eating more frequently during the day (don’t expect them to take 3 full meals a day).
A toddler’s meal needs aren’t the same as those of a baby. The latter feels hungry more often but as the child turns 2, they get more interested in running, jumping and playing than to sit at one place and eat (because of limited attention span). This is where creative mealtime ideas come into play. Discover or create short game ideas to get your child to enjoy and even look forward to mealtime.
Avoid offering dessert as a bribe. Even if done with good intention, it usually backfires. The child would, most naturally, persistently ask for the dessert first. If refused, the behavior is more likely to get aggressive and the refusal to eat food even stronger. Besides, the child would also get the wrong notion that the food, which is actually healthy, is just a “task to be completed” to get to the unhealthy sweet (reward).
There’s a need to end the ‘power struggle’ between parents and toddlers at the dining table.
Variety is the spice of life, even that of your little one’s. The best way to introduce and slowly get them to start eating new foods is to offer a mix of what “they like to eat” and what “you want them to eat”. In the first few attempts, the child may naturally finish the food of their choice quickly, not even touch the rest. But keep trying and slowly, perhaps a few weeks or even months after, they might just surprise you.
Get creative. Try making a sandwich with your kid’s favorite veggies (all finely chopped/mashed). Add a thin layer of butter, cheese or any other favorite spread/topping that he/she likes. Or, stuff the veggies that the kid usually doesn’t eat into a chapatti or parantha. Keep trying new stuff; get ideas online or ask friends around.
Because kids love familiarity, chances are your child might feel more comfortable eating at a particular time or even place. Respect that. They can’t say it but they may not be happy eating outside of their own home, for example.
Or, if you’re at a friend’s place and it’s past the child’s set meal time, they’d usually not want to eat anything after. They might indicate hunger at their normal time. If food isn’t ready by then, you’d probably offer a quick snack and they’re full. Again, because they aren’t “familiar” with the new setting, they might just find it easier to fill up on the snack and not eat anything else at all.
Picky eating isn’t uncommon in children. Nearly all of us have or are experiencing this tricky phase. But now we also know what goes on in the tiny mind of our little one. Perhaps we can help them overcome this equally difficult stage and grow into healthy adults. Children are full of surprises and you never know when your picky eater would surprise you!
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