Raising a troop of fussy eaters? Here’s how to cope and stay sane.
As working parents, you and your spouse rely on convenient takeaways most days of the week to feed the entire family. Perhaps mealtimes are a daily struggle to get your child to clean everything off from their plates, or at least, most of it. Your child seems to be sustaining on mere (forced-fed) mouthfuls, making you constantly wonder if her daily nutritional needs are being adequately met. Then you are amazed how your kid can even sustain Energizer Bunny levels. Before bed, you mull over whether your kids are fed or famished for the day. And so it continues…
By now, you’re probably getting the drift where all this is headed. Indeed, if you relate to anything in the previous paragraph, then welcome to the club, where kids who are fussy over food regularly turn the dining table into a battlefield!
These choosy chompers, however, can be placed into two camps: picky eaters and problem feeders, with notable characteristics and differences that identify them both:
Is more receptive to touching and tasting new food(s) after 10 or more times of exposure.
Usually consumes 30 foods or less, which are confined to just one food group (eg. carbohydrates), or a few preferred foods in each category (eg. May eat only fish from the Meat & Others group, and refuse dairy and soy).
Has a tendency to keep eating a particular food, meal after meal, for several straight weeks (“food jag”). May stop for a while, but will resume eating that specific item after an average of two weeks.
Is more resistant to change and variety. Tends to need a fixed routine during meals and may react strongly to new food(s) “disrupting” this predictability.
May stick to just one taste and texture (eg. only smooth and sweet foods) and reject other flavours and textures.
Will exhibit the repetitive behaviour of food jag, but once they quit that specific food, it is unlikely they will eat it again, despite their initial tolerance or acceptance. Over time the number of foods eaten will be reduced to an extremely restricted range.
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Problem eaters, however, are saddled with the more severe aspects of fussy eating, and often require the intervention of such professionals as occupational or speech therapist, psychologist, nutritionist or paediatrician to address the underlying problem. If left unchecked, problem feeding may lead to malnutrition and a possible stunting of social growth, as eating is such an integral but often overlooked part of building interpersonal relationships.
It’s natural to be concerned about whether your children are eating enough to be optimally nourished, and that they’re not forcing themselves to go hungry. Try not to judge your child’s nutritional intake based on just a day of two of almost non-eating. A more accurate assessment of their diet would be on a weekly basis, as kids often eat in spurts. While your child may not have a balanced diet every single day, most children’s diets will usually fall within their recommended eating guidelines.
In the meantime, you can include a daily multivitamin into your child’s diet to ensure his nutritional needs are met. Also schedule regular visits to the paediatrician to monitor your child’s growth and developmental progress.
Despite these best efforts, the fundamental rule is that healthy eating habits should be inculcated and encouraged from young and at the dining table, although it can sometimes feel like an uphill task. The idea is to slowly reverse the bad eating habits of your average picky young eater (while problem feeders may require more extensive therapy and counselling as earlier mentioned, good eating practices can still be promoted and reinforced at home).
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Here is some advice to get you started:
Don’t Frown on Snacking
If your child eats poorly during meals, regularly scheduled snack times can actually help supplement their diet, especially if healthy snacks are offered. Some ideas include graham crackers, cheese, yoghurt, bread sticks or fresh fruit. Don’t worry about snacks ruining your child’s appetite even if they are consumed an hour or so before dinner as kids have a small stomach. Empty calories or overly salty or sweet snacks such as chips, candy and sodas should be avoided.
Involve Your Kids
Bring your child along when you are grocery shopping and use this as an opportunity to explain healthier food choices and even allow them to make the right selections. Give them small tasks to do during meal prep to give them a bigger sense of responsibility and ownership in what they are eating, knowing that it takes time and effort.
Make it Attractive
Use your imagination to create a visually appealing meal; one that has a variety of foods with different colours and textures. You can even cut them up into unusual shapes with cookie cutters.
“Playing” with Food
“Playing” with food needn’t be a bad thing as long as you’ve set rules and boundaries (not at the dining table, for example!). Instead, take this as a useful way to expose them to new and different ingredients by allowing them to “interact” with the food through smell and touch (not necessarily taste but it’s a great leap forward if they eventually do!).
Don’t Have Expectations
The most important thing to remember in all of these suggestions is to not expect your child to eat anything. This is especially so for children who are already picky eaters or problem feeders, as forcing them to eat may only add to an already stressful situation. Instead, try offering the new food, and if it is refused or tried but disliked, move on to alternatives that will provide the same nutrients. Or continue to add a tried-and-true favourite food of your child’s when serving something new, as this approach may be met with less resistance.
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If you’re new to planning weekly menus, hit the Internet or the library for inspiration, or ask other families what they do for meals and snacks. Sometimes professional guidance is in order too, to provide informative and reliable perspectives to deal with what may seem like the toughest challenge initially. “The hardest thing for a parent sometimes is not to pester your kids into making better decisions, so utilise the help of a dietitian trained to work with children if needed,” suggests registered dietician and nutritionist Danielle VenHuizen. “You also need to plug the knowledge gaps you have around shopping for and preparing healthy meals. This is where a preliminary visit with a dietitian can also come in handy just to get an idea of what a healthy diet for your family might look like,” VenHuizhen adds.
Food for Thought
The fact that your child is a fussy eater should in no way be an accurate reflection of your true parenting abilities. Besides, there are other parenting issues that should be taken much more seriously than a few foods your child refuses to eat. Despite their resistance or aversion towards certain foods, most kids will still grow healthily, but parents should seek the counsel of medical professionals to address any other specific concerns regarding their child’s development.
The next time you find yourself on a guilt trip, remember this advice from dietician Danielle VenHuizen who acknowledges that, yes, while “you are responsible for what your child eats, they are responsible for how much and whether” they want to. For now, just live mealtime to mealtime and take advantage of the time spent eating together with your child to foster closer bonding.
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