How you approach eating may have an impact on the feeding patterns of your young children.

You have spent hours preparing your son’s lunch. Well balanced, colourful, packed with nutrients and vitamins ― it’s a meal you are sure he will tuck into with gusto.

Then imagine your surprise and disappointment when he looks at it, turns his nose up and refuses to take a bite. Welcome to the real world of feeding toddlers. When this happened to stay-at-home mum Serene Lee, she made her 2-year old son Rayson a peanut butter sandwich ― this was pretty much all what he wanted to eat actually.

Serene says she has tried all sorts of ways to get her son to eat a varied diet. “I used bribery, tried to force-feed him and did the running-after-the-kid routine, hoping to get a few spoonfuls of food into his mouth. On hindsight, I think I was just making Rayson’s eating habits worse.”

Parents have a major role in shaping their children's approach to eating ― how they behave hugely influences what kids will or will not eat.

Her little boy is a picky eater. Dr Martha Liu, a paediatrician at SBCC Baby & Child Clinic, explains that this is behaviour displayed by children who only eat a limited amount of food, have strong food preferences, restricted intake and/or are unwilling to try new foods.

Nutritionist Daniel Ker from The Nutrition Place, explains that many factors are linked to fussy eating. “It could be biological, for example young children are more sensitive to, and therefore have a greater dislike of, bitter-tasting food or they could suffer from neophobia, a fear of or aversion to new foods.

At the same time, the relationship between parent and child, as well as the parent’s expectations and personal perceptions in terms of the child’s food intake also play a part.”

It is clear that parents play a major role in shaping their children's approach to eating ― how they behave hugely influences what kids will or will not eat. To make mealtimes less of a battleground, we show you some of the common feeding missteps parents make and the strategies to adopt instead.

# 1. Not letting kids heed their own hunger and satiety cues

Most parents try to control their children’s food intake, usually pressuring them to finish up all of their food on the plate, all of the time. This results in meal times being stressful and unpleasant experiences for both parties.
What to do instead: Ker says children have the ability to regulate their food intake to meet their own body requirements, by increasing or decreasing their intake at subsequent meals. This means parents do not have to force them to eat more or less at each sitting. Instead, let the children practise self-regulation ― whether and how much to eat while the adults decide on the what, when and where to feed.

#2 Asking kids to leave the kitchen

The kitchen is usually seen as a dangerous place, what with the presence of sharp knives and scissors as well as boiling kettles and soup pots. It’s understandable why parents prefer their children to stay out of it.
What to do instead: Ker notes that it’s actually good to allow kids in the kitchen and to get them involved in food preparation, just make sure to follow safety and hygiene rules. He says, “Introducing healthy foods to the children in a fun and educational manner can help them to form positive associations with such foods, and they might be more willing to accept and even enjoy the healthy foods they have prepared themselves.”

#3 Being picky about food yourself or dieting in front of the kids

If parents themselves have food preferences, there is a high chance children will emulate their eating patterns. In the same way, parents who are on diets and restricting their food intakes should be aware that their kids are watching and might be encouraged to do likewise.
What to do instead: It is important for parents to be good role models, Ker advises. They should dine together with the kids to model good eating behaviours, including the willingness to try and enjoy a variety of healthy foods, so that their children can learn such habits too.

#4 Giving up too soon

Just because a child refuses your offer of a new food, it doesn’t mean you don’t offer it ever again. The key is to keep trying.
What to do instead: In young children, it could take many attempts over several months before they consider accepting a new food. It pays to persevere. Ker says that researchers have found that infants and toddlers may need as many as 8 or more exposures to a particular food before they gained acceptance of that food, a fact many parents were not aware of.

Parents should dine together with the kids to model good eating behaviours, including the willingness to try and enjoy a variety of healthy foods

#5 Insist that food be bland and fat-free

Dr Liu says one misconception parents have about feeding kids is to limit them to plain steamed or boiled foods, cooked without any oil, believing it’s healthier for them.
What to do instead: To improve a food’s appeal, she suggests, “Rather than boiling everything in a soup, as long as healthy oil is used, such as olive, canola, rice bran, sunflower, sesame, peanut or corn, parents can add some oil to pan-fry or stir-fry foods.” Nutritionists also point out that adding a little butter, cheese or brown sugar to dress up a vegetable dish helps boost chances of a child willing to try it out.

#6 Replace meals with snacks and juice

Some parents give in to children’s demands for cookies, crackers and juice, thinking that it’s better to feed them something rather than let the little tykes go hungry. But if children graze all day on these options, it becomes a habit and they will still refuse to eat proper food at meal times.
What to do instead: It’s not necessary to refuse kids snacks and drinks altogether. Just make snack time a ritual ― offer a few healthy choices and limit them to specific times of the day. Dr Liu says, “For children above 1 year of age, 100 per cent fruit juice can be given as half of the fruit recommendations. But it is still best to give fresh fruit as it contains fibre, which is important for regular bowel movements, satiety and weight control.”

In the absence of any underlying medical or behavioural conditions, there is a good chance Rayson will outgrow his picky-eating phase. Still, Ho plans to use some of the strategies suggested above to improve his current eating habits.

However, she’s also keen to know if she can do anything to lessen the chances that her newborn baby might turn into a fussy eater, too. The experts offer these tips:

1. Offer the appropriate amounts and types of food for the child’s age group.

2. Have a fixed routine and structure such as eating together at the table as a family.

3. Avoid distractions (no TV, gadgets, toys or books) during mealtimes.

4. Keep the child strapped in a booster or high chair until the age of 3 to prevent him from getting down and running away at mealtimes.

5. Encourage the child to feed independently.

6. Always have one preferred dish among the variety of food.

7. Introduce new foods regularly.

8. Change presentation of food from time to time to avoid repetition.

9. Maintain a calm and positive atmosphere during mealtimes.

10. Do not become angry, use threats, punishments or bribes.

Photos: iStock

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