There is nothing as heart breaking as seeing your child refusing to eat. And especially more when the child is too small to communicate effectively, thus making it even more difficult for the parents to understand the reason behind the refusal.
Lets get this straight. Your child won’t starve himself endlessly! Ever! Unless there is some kind of serious medical reason involved, no sane human can do this to his own body. So the first step to having a well fed and healthy baby is to stop worrying so much about why/how/when/what if and all those millions of fears that come to your mind when your child refuses food. The reasons could be varied and a lot of factors should be taken into consideration before simply concluding that your child is just not a good eater or that he hates eating in general. Let us look at some of the common behaviors that you see in children indicating their disinterest in eating.
The most common one is shutting their mouths tightly and looking away as soon as they see a spoon or hand approaching towards their mouth. I personally dealt with this a lot when my daughter was around 7-8 months old. I fell into the trap of distracting her by making funny faces or sounds or showing her some interesting things around the room and putting the food in her mouth as soon as I got a chance. This worked for about a couple of days after which she got my trick and started spitting the food all over. I made a variety of purees and I knew she did not hate the food since one day she would eat it with so much interest and finish the whole bowl within a few minutes without having to entertain her. And she would be spitting the same food all over the very next day. But I couldn’t somehow understand how she could be full with a whole bowl on one day and with just a couple of spoons on the other. I was so focussed on making her eat that I forgot to take the most important point in consideration here which was that my baby was still breastfeeding. Which meant that there was no way for me to determine how much milk she had had on a particular day. It was as simple as that. So all you moms out there who have babies who still have milk as their primary source of nutrition, be it breastmilk or formula, just trust your child when he/she refuses more food. Maybe they are still full from all the milk that they had earlier. This is particularly true for babies under one year old when they derive most of their nutrition from milk and are just starting to explore the world of solid foods. For older kids shutting their mouth after seeing food simply means that they are not hungry. Yes, you heard it right. If a child is really hungry he will be interested and eat whatever is being served. Whether he eats it all or not is another story and again a lot of factors play a role here, one of the most common being the taste. We often see parents offering relatively bland foods to their children, especially the ones under 3 years of age. There is absolutely no need to this. Of course it is not advisable to offer overly spicy or sugary foods to your young ones but that doesn’t mean you deprive them of any taste all together. Remember that children have taste buds too and just like adults they eat with their mouth, nose and eyes too. Offer them tasty and colorful meals and you will surely see a difference in their eating habits.
Another very common complaint that many parents have is that their child ate well up to a certain age and then suddenly turned into a fussy eater. So what went wrong here? There could be a couple of reasons. Firstly, is your child almost one or even older and are you still feeding him everything in the form of a puree? Or mashing up all his food? If yes, you need to stop doing this and start offering finger foods right away. Purees are perfect only when introducing your child to solids which is around 6 months for most children. Once they get comfortable with this the food needs to be thickened slowly to a point where things need not be pureed or mashed up any more. Many parents prefer to wait till their child gets their teeth to be able to chew the food properly. This is a completely wrong notion and you surely don’t want your child waiting that long to enjoy all the delicacies. The thumb rule here is : if you can easily mash something between your fingers your child can eat it too, whether or not he has any teeth. Just try and offer the food that you eat in a form that your baby can pick up with his own hands and eat. Start this as early as nine months and you wont have to cook separate baby food ever again! Now, for older kids you can try offering something else along with the meal that you have prepared to add a little variety on the plate. It can be something as simple as plain yoghurt or some dip or even salad. Children love to mix and match different foods and adding just a little side on the plate can be a game changer. Another thing worth trying is presenting the same food in a different form. As an example, lets say you made tortilla with some veggies for lunch but your toddler just chooses to eat his favorite veggies or just the tortilla and refuses to eat the rest. You can simply grind everything together into small pieces so that everything mixes well and just make little pea sized balls out of this which your child can pick up on his own and eat. The child is not born knowing the correct way to eat tortilla or any other food for that matter and needs to be taught. A single bite of tortilla on its own doesn’t taste as good as opposed to eating it together with the veggies and sauce. Parents need to actively participate in the mealtime by making sure the child learns how very dish is supposed to be eaten. Help the kid in picking up the food and teaching him how to put it in his mouth but try to avoid the temptation to feed them everything with your own hands. Children love to eat with their own hands and it makes them feel independent and proud of themselves. Don’t take away this pride by constantly trying to take charge of their eating. Of course its not possible for children to eat everything with their own hands, especially for children under two. But let them try! This way they will know why mommy/ daddy is trying to feed soup with her own hands and they will happily let you do so as opposed to not letting them even touch the spoon and annoying them further by forcing it in their mouths. While you feed them something they can’t eat on their own as yet, give them something else they can easily pick up themselves. This way they won’t feel left out and eating becomes a fun activity. There is bound to be a big mess after every meal..and whoever wants their child to eat independently should be prepared to clean it..as many times as the child eats! There is no ‘clean’ way to teach your child to eat on their own. But you will be surprised by the way a child can improve in just a few days. Its just like any other thing and needs practice. After all who doesn’t want a child who eats on his own?
Another very important reason for refusing to eat could be the timing. Just try to offer the same food at a later time, say 20-30 mins after you have tried once. You might be surprised by the way the child can respond just by changing their feeding time. This made a huge difference to the amount of food my daughter took when she was around one year old. She was a very good eater and loved to try different things but suddenly started refusing every single thing. This continued for a couple of days and I just pushed the timing by half an hour on the third day. And to my surprise she ended up eating much more than she normally would. So thats another very important thing to keep in mind and is true for children of almost all age groups. Even adults don’t eat at the exact same time every single day and it is natural for us to eat our meals around a specific time. No-one can claim that they have their lunch at 11.30 am every single day of their lives right? It could range from 11.15 to maybe 12 noon depending on how your day is going. Some days we don’t feel that hungry and so we wait till we get the natural urge to eat. So why force our children to eat when we think it is time for them to have some food? Maybe they have not played enough to be that hungry or maybe they have played a lot more than other days and are hungry before their usual time. Just watch out for cues from your child and set the table accordingly. Children usually start getting fussy and irritated and if they are old enough they might even start making trips to the kitchen or point towards food or the countertop indicating that they want to eat. A great tip to make your child say that he/she is hungry is to say the word out loud which you want them to say when they want something to eat. My daughter for example started saying ‘nomnom’ when she was about one year old and started lingering in the kitchen when ever she wanted to eat. This could be because whenever we fed her we used to start with saying ‘nomnom’ many times over and try to make her associate her eating time with this word. That made things very easy for both her and us. It is also helpful to have a word for after they are done eating. Just follow the same strategy and soon your child will be able to tell you when he is ‘done’. The bottom line is to get the timing right and not worry if your child even delays eating by an hour or more. Feeding times also heavily depend on the nap and sleep timings of the child which keep changing at particular intervals. It could even mean that he/she wants a new routine or is probably going through some developmental phase and needs more or less food than the usual and all this would eventually affect their daily meal timings. Trust me you will save yourself tons of time and frustration just by not forcing your child to eat at a predetermined time.
An increasing number of parents of toddlers or even older children complain that their child eats only and only if he is watching something on the TV/laptop/tablet/phone. The moment the screen is taken away he will stop eating. You can even find videos of parents hiding the food from the child and feeding it to the child after waiting for the child to get completely engrossed in the screen and then feeding it to them without their knowledge. Its a common sight in restaurants to find a child on your neighboring table glued to the parents’ phone while eating. Can anyone really blame the child for this? Parents often give in to this in a moment of hopelessness and feel that it is better to give the child their phone just this one time but this eventually ends up turning into a daily ritual. Its the easy way out and saves all the efforts needed in making the child eat plus the parent gets to feed the child with their own hands which means there is no mess either thus saving the clean up time. Moreover, in many cases the child ends up eating whatever is given since he is too busy looking at the colorful screen to notice what is being fed. Eating is not a bad activity that it needs to be done in a secretive manner without your child knowing about it. Nor is it something so boring that cannot have your child’s attention without luring him with a screen. And unfortunately there is no easy way to get rid of this habit. Just stop doing it altogether! It would be difficult initially. It could even mean your child would refuse to eat and skip his meals. Don’t worry it won’t last as long as you might think. Your child wont starve himself remember? Introduce your child to sitting and eating in a particular place right from the beginning. Try to keep a constant routine at mealtimes. If possible keep their feeding nook away from the play area so that the child knows that its not the time to play. And if the child is really hungry he will certainly prefer eating over playing. Part with your phone and other electronic devices during this time and let your child enjoy the process of eating. It is no doubt difficult to keep a child focussed on eating for the whole time. You can make it interesting by talking about the food on the plate, the different colors, ask the child if he liked the taste, talk about his day, try singing his favorite songs, or maybe read his favorite book. If you find it difficult to entertain the kid while you help him eat, just make him sit by a window and let him entertain himself by looking out. Or even better if you can have a meal outside once in a while. Let the child participate actively in the eating process by giving him a spoon and a bowl with some of the food even if he is not able to eat by himself. If all this fails just lay the food on the plate and let your child move around. If he is hungry he will come back and eat from the plate. There are some clear signs that tell you that your child is done eating and it is time to stop. For example, many kids start throwing the food away or start playing with it or want to run away as soon as they are done. Don’t try to stop them now and just respect their instincts. Imagine how would you feel if someone tried to force feed you after you were done eating or when you when you were not hungry. You certainly don’t want to be the one doing it to your own child. Your duty is just to decide what goes on your child’s plate. How much the child eats should be left entirely to the child. Its not rocket science!
One last thing I can suggest is making sure you give your child enough activity and playtime which will help him burn calories and make them really hungry. You will hardly ever see a child not asking for anything to eat after coming back home after a power packed hour at the park. This is the right time to offer a wholesome meal as opposed to smaller snacks. Try to fine-tune the timing of your child’s playtime and meal-times such in a way that they can have their lunch or dinner after the long and tiring play. Snacks can wait for the other not so tiring times during the day.
All the problems that we have seen so far are increasingly faced by today’s generation of parents. How often do you hear your parents or grandparents complaining about the days when their child refused any food and gave them a tough time figuring out what to feed them? And the only reason is that our parents never made a big deal about this aspect of their child’s life (not that they didn’t care) and this is exactly why they never faced this problem at all. They treated eating as a normal activity just like playing and went with the child’s cues. Another reason could be the unavailability of such a variety of ready to eat baby meals and snacks in the earlier times. They simply fed the child what they ate and that was about it. We have access to a lot of information compared to the older generation and as a consequence end up setting unrealistic expectations from ourselves and our children. Watching a video on youtube or on a parents WhatsApp or Facebook group that shows a child of the same age as yours sitting in his own highchair and eating a three course meal with his own hands! Oh what a well-behaved child! Why doesn’t ours eat like that? And there it begins..trying to expect a certain behavior from your child with regards to his meals and the whole drama that happens around it daily, which mostly ends in frustration and anger on both the parents and child’s end and the parents eventually concluding that their kid doesn’t like food in general or doesn’t like what they cook or maybe he is just a bad eater or lets just say he will do better later on in life just like everyone else. Don’t let yourself be drawn into these meaningless conclusions. Are you doing everything on your part like the parent in the WhatsApp video to make your child enjoy his food? Are you force feeding your child and making eating a horrible time that he starts hating all together? Are you taking efforts to introduce your child to new foods and tastes as he grows? Think about all these things before you jump to any conclusions and start complaining about your child’s mealtime failures.
Most mothers try and eat the best and healthiest foods they can during pregnancy for the well being of their baby. So why can’t everyone continue doing that later as well? Is good nutrition not as important for an infant or toddler as for a fetus? Your child needs a wholesome and nutritious diet..every single day. Don’t wait for that perfect day. Make it happen now by going to the root of the problem. Don’t give in to feeding your child only what he/she likes. Introduce your child to different foods and tastes right from the day he starts eating solid foods. It is important not to fall into the trap of offering too many salty and sugary snacks like veggie puffs or biscuits and all the low nutrition foods like these. Or prepackaged baby/kid foods for that matter. It is very addicting. Once you know your child loves a particular brand of food you would fall into the trap of just offering it whenever he refuses home-cooked food. And before you know it that would be the only thing your child would eat. Pre-cooked meals and baby foods that are manufactured commercially are made with a lot of research as to what will appeal to a child’s tastebuds. Very few children would refuse a packaged food as opposed to its homemade counterpart due to the simple reason that there are no taste enhancers in the homemade version. And however nutritious the label on the food package might appear, the bottom line is…it is not fresh! Thats more than enough for you to stop feeding your child these foods and introduce them to the good old home-cooked food. No outside food can ever match the taste of a mother’s hands. Of course there will be days when you will need these pre made meals like when you are traveling on a long journey or on days when you are running out of home made snacks or when you are too sick to cook. But be sure to get back on track as soon as you can.
Try to save the time you spend chasing your children with a plate full of food which he is not interested in. Instead use this precious time to enjoy it with them as much as you can. After all every parent would prefer to have happy memories of their little one’s childhood over some difficult times filled with struggles about something as natural and basic as eating! Remember, you are laying the foundation for the food choices your child will make in the future..help him make a wise decision.