The other day I was whining about my toddler’s exasperating antics in the presence of my friend and I was consoled by her with just one statement – “At least you do not have to worry about food and her eating habits. That is a big thing you know.” Well, I get that a lot, because frankly my daughter is not a fussy eater and most of my friends are aware of this. However, this does not mean that she blissfully gobbles up all her meals every day, but that has never been my expectation. I know that for most parents, a key concern is “Oh! My child does not eat” and I absolutely empathise with their situation.
Personally, food is never a matter of anxiety for me whether at home or outside, because my 2-and-a-half-year-old tiny tot is experimental and usually finds something to her liking in most situations. Partly, I would say I am fortunate but I would like to believe that this is also because of my weaning approach with her since the beginning. I would love to share some tips here which hopefully can help parents to raise children who have a healthy relationship with food. However, let me clarify at the onset that this is not a rulebook. Every child is different and hence, I would urge you to ultimately follow your own instincts when it comes to introducing your child to solids. Whatever I am penning down in this article is just based on my own experience and research – this is how I went about helping my child to embrace food and not be averse to it.
Let go – It may seem beyond the bounds of possibility in the beginning but we really need to learn to let go of our own apprehension and fretfulness if we want our children to associate food with happiness. When I started the process of weaning with my daughter, there were days when she did not ingest even a morsel of food, and I would just let go to normalize the process for her without making it a battle of sorts. I did not want to overwhelm her and wanted to let her take it slow. I let her develop a taste for the various food items offered to her at her own pace.
I would recommend every parent to read the book “My child won’t eat”. It marvelously elucidates how we need to align our own expectations to tackle this “problem” before we expect anything from the kids. In the initial years, children have tiny tummies and hence, they do not require large portions of food. In fact, in the first year, solid food is not the primary source of nutrition (breast milk or formula milk is) and food is just a supplement to fulfill the growing nutritional needs of the child. So by letting go we are not depriving our children of nutrition but are rather helping them by not pushing too hard.
Allow them to self-feed – I think this is the most important factor which aided in getting my child interested in food. She used to self-feed certain kind of foods since the time she started with her intake of solids and because of that, she began to enjoy the process of eating gradually. Most of us think that babies cannot self-feed and worry that they might choke themselves. This is where research comes into play. Making ourselves aware can help curb such concerns related to weaning. The fact is that children without teeth can very well chew soft food as their gums are strong enough for that. We just need to ensure that the finger food or whatever else they are being offered is squashy yet firm and well cooked. Also, we need to understand the difference between gagging and choking. Most of the times kids can handle gagging by themselves and choking can happen even when we feed them mashed or pureed food. The best bet is to equip ourselves to handle such an untoward situation. There is an excellent video on YouTube which explains how to deal with a child who is choking and how to identify it. Also, I know that self-feeding causes so much of mess and it can be such a daunting task to clean it all up. But it all seems worth it today when I witness my toddler relish a meal tidily.
Offer variety – Toddlers are temperamental and get jaded easily with one thing. They can indulge in their favourite food items for days and suddenly can start hating it. Hence, it is important to keep offering variety of foods to them. Even if they reject a food item, keep offering it from time to time. You never know when they would suddenly start obsessing over a new favourite. Their tastes and preferences keep changing. So from fruits to vegetables to different types of cuisines, it helps to get creative with food.
Exposure to different textures – Whether you follow baby led weaning or traditional weaning, exposure to different textures of food is a must since early on. Even if children are not ingesting the food, let them explore. It is essential for them to touch and feel different textures for sensory purpose, and this also ensures that they get used to chewing different kinds of foods which can be a difficult feat to achieve if delayed.
Let them decide and never compare – At times, I do have the urge to nudge my daughter to finish the meal if she has had just a couple of bites. But, I resist because I have realized that giving my daughter the power to decide for herself has been instrumental in not making her loath food. This approach has also encouraged her to recognize her own hunger pangs. It is important to stop pestering our children to finish that one last bite. There is no standard for how much they should eat; at least we, for sure cannot define that standard. Even in case of adults, some of us eat 2 chapatis, some eat 3, and some even 5! Similarly, when it comes to kids, they have their own appetite, and just because a friend’s child eats 2 full chapatis and your child eats only half, it does not mean that one is eating well and the other is not. It is imperative that we respect their understanding of their appetite which does come with time if we allow that.
Think of healthy alternatives in case nothing works to prevent deficiencies – Nutrition is very important especially during the growing years. Hence, it is always good to have some alternatives to fall back on to ensure the child is meeting the age appropriate nutritional requirements. For example, most kids love soups, curd etc. I found my source of wholesome nutrition for my toddler a couple of months back. Her father takes pleasure in having Horlicks which caught her attention one day. She requested for having a taste of it and loved the tang it left in her mouth. That is when I thought of trying Junior Horlicks with her and she absolutely loves it. Junior Horlicks is a nourishing health drink tailor made for toddlers between 2- 6 years. It has essential vitamins and minerals, and contains DHA and choline that helps in brain development and function.
Importance of family meals to emulate behaviour – If your schedule permits, please try to have as many meals together as possible as a family. Generally, kids eat better when they have the company of their loved ones, be it family or friends, as compared to when we are running around and feeding them. Also, they learn to handle food by observing us. This also means that we need to be healthy eaters ourselves to emulate the right behavior for our children. Many a times, I have noticed that if a child is a fussy eater, either of the parent is also one. In our family, everyone is a foodie and we eat everything in moderation. We also include lots of variety of all food groups in our diet and I guess somewhere, watching all this since the beginning has enabled my daughter to appreciate most varieties of food.
Avoid force feeding or distraction feeding – Personally, I have always avoided force feeding and distraction feeding. I believe this should be followed right from the time we start the weaning process. As I mentioned earlier, children do not need to be forced because that might only make them more indisposed to the idea of food. Also, I feel that distraction feeding takes away from the experience of enjoying food. However, I would like to reiterate that this is something which I abide by always. If you feel the method of distraction works for your child, then by all means go ahead with it.
Explain why healthy eating is important – Like I always say, kids are never too small for anything. Communicate with them and explicate why healthy eating is important. Someday, they will get it and probably this will make them more open to the idea of trying out food they have erstwhile disliked.
Whatever hacks we follow, at the end of the day patience is the key. Nothing will happen in just a day and one fine day, things may change due to phases like teething or sickness. There are days when my daughter only wants to gorge on junk food or does not want to consume anything at all. But, I let her be because my love is not proportional to the amount of food I feed her (unlike the thought process of some “well-wishers”). Today, she has a wonderful relationship with food, identifies her hunger cues and knows how much and what she wants to eat. This is what makes me most content.