If you are lucky, you’ll be blessed with a child who’ll eat everything. However, many parents do have to handle picky eaters ― a child who is fearful or very selective about what goes into their mouth.
For blogger and entrepreneur Michelle Hon, the challenge for this mum of three came when her children were old enough to understand differences between various types of food. “When I started them on solids at 6 months, they ate everything including puréed vegetables that have a stronger taste, like garlic, onion, spring onion and coriander.”
“Then, when they became older, suddenly ‘vegetables are yucky’,” she recalls. “I think they picked it up from online videos and their preschool friends. When they watched their cousins picking out vegetables, they declared that they, too didn’t like vegetables. Younger siblings can be influenced by older ones, too!”
“Healthy eating is not just about eating the right foods. It is about a healthy relationship with food ― food that comes from a range of sources, and when enjoyed and eaten in moderation, is healthy.”
Even the professionals aren’t immune from dealing with kids who are picky about what they eat. Notes clinical dietitian Jaclyn Reutens, a mother of two toddlers, “While I practise good habits, I still face challenges from time to time. They say ‘no’ to what you thought was something they enjoyed and refuse to open their mouth. They spit food out. They cry when they see their plate of food.” The list can go on…
She adds, “You have to accept there are some good meals and some terrible meals. Don’t fret over one meal. Parents need to be flexible and the focus should be on inculcating healthy eating overall.”
Agrees Kathy Lowes-Switzer, a registered paediatric dietitian at Body with Soul, an integrated healthcare and wellness practice, “Healthy eating is not just about eating the right foods. It is about a healthy relationship with food ― food that comes from a range of sources, and when enjoyed and eaten in moderation, is healthy.”
Here are tips on how to help junior enjoy a healthy and varied diet:
1. Eat well when you’re pregnant
Research has shown that inculcating good food habits in children actually starts in the womb. In a 2001 study in the journal Paediatrics, babies who tasted high concentrations of carrot in utero and in their mother’s milk happily ate more carrot during weaning. While it certainly doesn’t hurt to eat well when pregnant, all is not lost if you can’t keep certain foods down or have crazy cravings for junk food. A child’s appetite for different foods is shaped by other factors as they grow, including peer pressure and advertising.
2. Set a good example
Teach them the importance of keeping active, eating well and feeling good by doing it yourself. It’s said that children don’t listen to us, they watch and follow us. Reutens points out, “Parents are role models. If you happily eat your vegetables, chances are your kids will, too.”
3. Eat together as a family
Try and have at least one family meal a day. Aim to make this quality time, which means “no watching television while eating”. Reutens advises, “Kids need to be focused on what they are eating to be aware of their hunger cues as well as to enjoy the meal.”
At the end of the day, every child is different. So, refrain from comparing what one child eats from another. Instead, Reutens suggests that you keep the focus on what you are trying to achieve with your child and be consistent.
4. Discuss where food comes from
Start a small veggie patch, Lowes-Switzer suggests. “I know this is hard in Singapore, but even just growing one herb by the window helps. This teaches a child where some of their food comes from ― the idea is to spark interest in touching, tasting and so on.”
5. Spend time in the kitchen together
Get the kids involved in cooking and baking ― most kids like to eat what they have made!
Says Terri-Anne Leske, a mother of three who owns healthy, whole foods-focused Carrotsticks & Cravings café. “It is important that this starts at a young age. My children love to help out in the kitchen and create new recipes with me. It’s my way of teaching them and role modelling that food should be fresh and homemade, and not from a packet.”
The bonus? “My efforts are paying off as my 7-year-old can now make the whole family breakfast on weekends!”
6. Expand their palate
Offer a wide variety of foods ― in terms of different tastes, but also textures, shapes, colour, cuisines and so on ― you’ll create a fun and exciting environment at the dining table. Reutens notes, “The earlier your child is exposed to the wonderful variety of foods available, the chances of fussy eating decreases.”
She recommends that you also include “junk food”. “To manage the curious nature of your child, titbits such as chips, cookies, cakes and sweets should be offered at irregular intervals,so they are not waiting for it. Talk to your child about these being occasional foods as opposed to ‘bad’ foods,” she suggested. “Do not label foods as good or bad. This can create unhealthy associations with food and may lead to disordered eating later on in life.”
“Do not label foods as good or bad. This can create unhealthy associations with food and may lead to disordered eating later on in life.”
7. Teach kids about nutrition
While we might think kids find it difficult to comprehend nutrition at a young age, they might surprise us.
Hon says, “My kids are more willing to try a new food when I tell them how it helps them grow, especially if the benefits are something in the area that they care about. For example, my daughters know that tomatoes are for good, clear skin and my son likes eggs because it gives him muscles.”
One of the easiest ways to teach nutrition is to involve kids at the start of the cycle ― shopping for ingredients. Bring them to the market or supermarket and teach them the name of the food, colour and texture, how it can be cooked and why it is good for them. Let them choose the food, cook it for them, so they can see how it’ll end up on their plate and how it tastes.
8. Never force-feed junior or use food as a bribe
Never ever force-feed a child as this will lead to extended aversive behaviour, cautions Lowes-Switzer.
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