Almost all parents recognise the importance of a healthy diet and want their children to have nourishing meals. But most parents complain about their children’s eating habits. While exchanging notes with other parents, the topic of food remains pre-dominant. Kids and food remains a battle-time for most parents!
One of the most common complaints of most parents is that their child doesn’t eat any food. Feeding a child is considered a chore that tires most parents. One of my friends who runs a pre-primary school tells me that parents call her up to say, “Please ensure that the child eats her/his food, because they won’t do that at home.”
Pray, why don’t children eat? Can they survive without eating? The answer is simple, “No.” All children (like all adults) need food to survive. Food provides the physical body with energy; and human body (Annamaya Kosh) needs energy to function. But there are many factors to consider before we begin to panic regarding our children’s eating habits and make ‘eating’ a chore to avoid.
Every stage of your child’s life has a bearing on the child’s relationship with food. Read on to know how to change the relationship between your kids and food!
Food and pregnancy
Children’s relationship with food begins when they are in their mother’s womb. The pregnant mother’s thoughts about food affect the unborn child. Mothers who eat well during pregnancy, nourishing their bodies – and that of the developing fetus – make the fetus welcome meal-timings. Our ancient stories carry several examples where the fetus has developed faculties for hearing and memory. In recent times, this breakthrough book, “Origins”, by Annie Murphie Paul talks about how the baby’s journey through the womb shapes the rest of its life.
At this stage:
The mother should avoid foods that are difficult to metabolise (chemicals, hormone-laden food, overtly stimulating foods). The foetus finds such foods difficult to metabolise.
The mother should consciously eat foods that lovingly nourish your life- giving body.
Food and the Infant
After leaving the womb, the baby’s first food comes from the mother’s breast. Breast-feeding not only provides physical nourishment to the child but also makes them bond with their mother. Thus food and nourishment get linked with love and bonding.
At this stage:
- Make your breast-feeding routine a conscious, intimate and loving affair with your baby. Maintain unwavering eye-contact and talk to your baby. The baby will often return your smiles and respond by cooing. It makes the child feel loved and cherished. Such a child will always connect food with mother’s love and relish it.
- Avoid other distractions like TV, phone, laptop, going over an argument, etc. This leaves the baby feeling unloved and under-nourished. The child will grow up considering eating to be a chore.
Food and the Baby
A time comes when the babies have to be weaned from their mother’s breast (something that they love) and fed ‘food’.
At this stage:
- Do not force-feed the baby.
- Do not introduce too many new tastes simultaneously. Babies resist this by purging/vomiting food they don’t like.
- Observe their likes / dislikes by feeding them small “test” quantities make the baby feel “understood”. This feeling makes them trust their mother /caretaker and affects their relationship with food.
- Being fully ‘present’ with the babies, while they are eating is an important responsibility of a parent.
Food and the Toddler
By the time a child becomes a toddler, s/he learns to express autonomy and wants to make choices. Toddlers also like to imitate other people in their environment – and get affected by their thoughts. At the same time, complex, multi-step instructions confuse them.
At this stage:
- Keeping all the above in mind, offer various food-choices to their toddlers.
- Introduce regular mealtimes and create a rhythm that makes children anticipate meal times, without creating too much fuss around it. Regular meals allow the child’s body to prepare for mealtime, secreting the juices, which help in digesting the food. It also reduces the need for discipline and negotiation around food.
- Create a consistent and calm environment at mealtimes that your baby can trust. Do not constantly surprise the baby with new foods at odd times. Such surprises overwhelm them and their appetite.
- Make mealtimes seem like ‘happy times’. For eg. Happily announce mealtimes and move to the dining area singing along some merry ‘food’ song that you may jointly create. The song can be about thanking everyone who may have helped in the entire process of bringing food to the table, right from the farmer who sowed the seed to the person who cooked and served the food. If you are not the singing type, you may create a story around this theme. Such a song/ story helps children appreciate their food and gets them interested in eating.
- Create the ritual of blessing the meal before eating to create warm celebration around food.
- Ask the toddler to help with the setting of the dining table and also of clearing it after finishing the meals.
- Regularly offer them fresh vegetables, fruits and grains. This will help them acquire healthy eating habits.
- Ask them questions regarding their favourite foods and listen intently to their answers. Encourage them to talk about their likes and dislikes.
- Set some food boundaries with a firmness and consistency. These boundaries will provide a good foundation for food-discipline throughout their life.
- Do not explain and give reason for everything at this stage of their life, for giving more information than needed can overwhelm and confuse a toddler. Just avoid complex reasons and apologies. Instead, demonstrate the action that you want the child to perform.
- Honour your child’s individuality. Solicit and acknowledge the child’s opinion on matters that involve them – like eating food. For example if you notice your child pick up some food again and again, say “That must be your favourite food.” This acknowledgement will help the child make more sophisticated decisions with confidence as they grow up.
- While shopping, ask your toddler to select a fruit or vegetable from a choice of two. While deciding the menu, let the child choose between two dishes, for example, enquire whether your child would rather eat potatoes or tomatoes.
Food and the Kindergartener
Children at this stage are completely connected to their body’s intelligence. They listen to their appetite; eat when they are hungry and stop eating when they are satiated. They cannot eat even a bite more than what is required by their body.
Feeding pre-schoolers remains a challenge until parents understand the concept of body intelligence.
At this stage:
- Offer a variety of foods to your children, encouraging them to eat everything at least once before allowing their body to select what it needs. Encourage them to connect with their body’s intrinsic intelligence. Teach them that nature’s wisdom is available in every cell of the body and if we pay attention to this wisdom, we naturally eat a healthy and balanced diet. Also tell them that energy and information packed inside natural foods gets converted into the intelligence of our body.
- Teach your children to pay special attention to the flavours, aromas and colours of various foods. Serve foods that are derived from a union of natural sunlight, fertile earth, clean air, and clean water, for such food nourishes body, mind and soul.
- Ensure that all meals are freshly prepared and lightly cooked. Some foods may be eaten raw.
- Introduce all six basic flavours: salty, sweet, bitter, sour, pungent, and astringent and at least five of seven rainbow colours: violet, indigo, blue, green, yellow, orange and red, in daily diet.
- Include grains, vegetables, fruits, edible flowers, seaweeds, spices, seeds, nuts, lentils, beans, and cold pressed seed/nut oil. This small effort will not only add variety and expand the visual palette of your diet, but also make it delicious and nutritionally balanced.
- Avoid the convenience trap of distracting the child with the TV or the phone to make them ‘finish’ what’s on their plate. Since how we eat is as important as what we eat, inculcate the habit of eating with awareness.
- Ensure that children eat in a pleasant environment, in happy emotional state. Be careful of the conversation that you engage in during meals and keep it polite and pleasant.
- Talk about all that is involved in bringing the food to the table and show gratitude to the farmer who sowed the seeds, the natural elements such as sunshine, rain, clouds, air, soil, insects, worms, birds, and bees; the entire ecosystem, people involved in harvesting and transporting, wholesale food market and retail chains, the person who bought the food, cooked it, and served it; in other words all that is involved in the web of life and bringing the food to the table.This will teach children to marvel at how much is involved in the creation of food.
Follow these simple rules and watch your child not only love their food, but also respect the food they eat. Kids and food will no longer be a mystery!