Very often, we hear a young child being dismissed as a 'fussy easter' and I don't quite agree with the label. Children are actually little people with food preferences just like adults. However, unlike an adult, a child often doesn't have much of a choice in what gets served at mealtime. This makes your pint sized 'fussy eater' only as fussy or not as an adult who likes or dislikes certain kinds of food.
Our relationship with food is probably going to be our longest for practically as long as we live. The foundations of this relationship start right here as children. This is what we do in our home to help our two year old establish a healthy relationship with food. Think about it. So many of our childhood memories involve food. Gathering around with family and food on a summer night for an impromptu terrace picnic. The time you cousin and you burnt a pan making caramelised bananas. Mangoes, jackfruit and vathal drying on patti's terrace.
As someone who has worked with the body and fitness in a professional capacity for over a decade, I have realised that a healthy relationship with food is integral to any positive lifestyle or 'getting healthy' commitment as an adult.
1) Involve your child in the kitchen. Make grocery shopping a family activity and help your child identify and buy vegetables and groceries for the week. Whenever possible, discuss your meal plan with your child. Now, the idea of 'discussing' what to cook for the week with a two year old may sounds a bit silly but it actually is not. My two year old, for instance, has been involved in the kitchen from when he was much younger and now has a say in what he would like to cook and eat. Children have an inherently intelligent relationship with food so we really don't need to do much more than help them along. This also makes a great learning experience for your child.
2) Do not 'hide' vegetables. No child is born with an inherent hatred of spinach and a preference for potatoes. Now, the question is, do we like our greens and gourds as much as we like our potatoes? If a child senses that adults around regard certain vegetables as tedious and less enjoyable than others then the child might find it easier to believe so too. If I think blanched spinach is a bore to eat and would much rather be eating deep fried green plantains, as an adult I can rationalise the need to eat spinach because its 'good for me', A child, on the other hand cannot really understand the implications of 'it's good for you'. Lets not forget that potatoes and green plantain are essentially good vegetables too.
So, the next time you are cooking with a vegetable that is not a huge favourite with your child, do not grate it into her idly or paratha to hide it. Instead, show her the vegetable and cook up a simple and tasty recipe that you can all enjoy. She may refuse it the first few times but she will eventually come around. Children are wonderfully adaptable and open to new experiences way more than adults are.
You don't need to tell you child that eating spinach will make her grow tall and strong. We all need food to grow and we learn that eventually but our relationship with food, as we grow up, is seldom that simple. It is often complex and emotional. So, how about, aubergines are something that I love eating and hope you will too. This is how I liked eating it when I was your age. Shall we make it this way?
3) Don't use treats as bribes. If you do this then I will give you a cookie. As a parent of a young child, it is almost everyday that I have to stop myself from doing just this. Toddler doesn't want to get ready and go out. I have an impatient cab driver waiting downstairs. What do I do? Tell toddler that I will buy him an ice cream if he will just wear those damn shorts and leave the house. Simple, right? We all do what it takes to live our lives.
Now, think about the last time you bought yourself a sugary treat because you had a bad day at work or the toddler drove you mad. Was there any guilt involved in the eating of it? If you answered yes, then you may want to do it a bit differently with your child.
There should not be guilt involved in food! Food is important. By using food as a quick fix to stop a meltdown or reward 'desirable' behaviour what we are essentially establishing is the beginning of the 'I deserve that pizza after the horrible day I have had' relationship. It should be, I really feel like eating some processed cheesy pizza today, I am going to eat it and I am going to ENJOY every bite of it. No guilt and no question of do I deserve it or not. Do I know it's unhealthy? Yes! Am I going to eat it every day? Hopefully not.
This is what we do. Toddler knows that a store bought cookie or chocolate is a treat. We eat a cookie just like that with no weight of 'good' or 'bad' behaviour attached to it and we enjoy the cookie because its not everyday that we eat one. Because the cookie is not a bribe the toddler also knows to not expect a treat every time he uses his newly developing powers of reasoning and persuasion.
4) Try to avoid distraction feeding. Oh, the temptation of playing something on the tv or on a computer and quickly shovelling food into the toddlers slack mouth is so strong. You know how we so often sit in front of the tv and eat without quite realising how much or what we are eating? It is essentially the same thing. Think about it.
One of the major problems we have as adults is portion control. Most of us end jus eating way more than what we need to and don't quite stop when we feel just right and full. We are, from a very young age, taught to ignore our own hunger cues. When we 'make' a child eat when she is not hungry or to force feed the whole bowl of food (which is almost always a bit more than what she actually needs), what we are doing is to teach her to ignore her body.
Children are very intelligent when it comes to the body. They know how much to eat. Its is this constant reinforcement that 'I know how much you need to eat' that teaches the child to ignore her natural body cues in favour of conditioning. Do we really know better? Do we know listen to our own body cues? Do we eat too much because its so tempting and we could not stop with just one? Yes. A child who knows that the adult respects her body and her presences does not usually overeat, even when it comes to favourite foods.
Yesterday, my two year old wanted ice cream for breakfast. He is usually a very clever child when it comes to food choices and we decided that he must have his own reasons for wanting ice cream for breakfast. We let him have a small bowl full after which he asked for his usual unsweetened ragi cereal. In the afternoon, pre lunch, he wanted some more ice cream. We were on Skype with my parents and I was about to go the 'you had some for breakfast and you care eating too much sugar!' route when my mother pointed out that he never asks for ice cream twice in a day so just offer him some and see what he does. I decided to listen to the mothership and offered him another bowl. He was overjoyed, ate exactly one spoonful and asked me to put it back in the freezer for later. Its been over a day and he hasn't asked again. We went out in the evening and we got gelato. He barely had a spoonful. So tell me again, who is the more intelligent person in the story? The toddler, obviously.
Your child may teach you a thing or two about good eating if you just give her the chance to. Don't tell her to not waste anything food that has been served to her. Instead, help her serve herself small portions that she can comfortably finish and that she can always come back for seconds or thirds of she is still hungry. It is ok for her to want to eat a full bowl of food on one day and just four spoonfuls on another. Don't we all have days when we want to eat a full meal and days when we just want a light bite for lunch?
5) The 'junk' food rule. As a parent to a young child, one of my biggest nutrition based learnings has been to try to stop referring to certain foods as 'junk'. The idea of calling something junk somehow makes it more exciting and I will talk about that in a tiny bit. Instead, I find it more rewarding for us and for the child to talk about food in terms of what is important for the body to grow and what is not necessarily healthy but enjoyable in reasonable amounts.
As adults, so many of us 'stress eat'. This tendency goes back to a feeling of guilt and reward that most have grown up associating with food. When we use a treat as a bribe we are reiterate the idea of the 'forbidden food' which automatically assumes proportions of deliciousness that were prior unknown to mankind as opposed to the box of ice cream that is in the freezer and can be had at any old time. We don't eat something because we 'deserve' to eat it. In a country where a good portion of the population can barely afford a meal, everybody 'deserves' to eat.
This is the treat rule in our home. If it is in the house and child sees it and asks for it, he can have it. This means that we literally cannot buy to stock food that we don't want our child eating. Good bye, Lays, Pringles and all such packaged food! Can you see how much good this holding the whole family accountable for our food choices can do our eating practices? Even our chocolate fix has come down to very dark chocolate which we all enjoy small pieces of every now and than. This is quite fair, isn't it? If as adults we cannot hold ourselves responsible for making 'healthy' choices when it comes to food how can we expect a child to do so? This way, a treat is a treat that is enjoyed by the whole family.