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Parenting a Picky Eater
Sunita Pant Bansal
 
“My child refuses to eat fruits or vegetables. How can I get her (or him) to have a balanced diet?” Most of the pre-school teachers get to hear these complaints from the parents of their students.

Nothing seems to get a parent more upset than a picky or a fussy eater. They feel that their child isn’t getting proper nutrition. Most children aged two to five have an uncomfortably short list of foods that they like to eat, and ‘food fights’ between parents and children are a common scene in many households. But then look at the fact that there is a positive side to your child’s eating habits. This is probably one of the first arenas where your child is demonstrating his/her independence and personal taste!

Three-year-old Shalini may grow up to be the next great culinary critic. She knows exactly what the consistency of sambhar must be; while her mother Madhu is happy that her daughter knows how to communicate what she wants, she is less than pleased when she chooses to do so - loudly – in someone else’s house. Soumya’s son has a different issue. He wants to eat the same 5-10 foods over and over. Samir basically lives on cheese sandwiches, parantha-dahi, rajmah and rice. Fruits and vegetables? No, thank you.

While these instances are common, their solutions are much debated. Over the ages parents have tried everything from “You’ll sit there until you finish every bite on your plate” to “What do you want for dinner beta, aloo-parantha or burger?” The answer lies somewhere in between these two extremes.

Revathy, a mother of two school going boys says that I used to bother earlier about my sons being fussy, but I have realized the whole topic is irrelevant. Sangitha, a mother and also a doctor, says that it’s not children but the parents who are fussy. Her husband, Nalin, also a doctor, gave the suggestion that the parents should modify the food to make it more presentable and attractive to the children. Jyothi, a mother of two strapping teenagers, says that let the children be, they outgrow their fusses anyway.

Most parents start working on their children from the time they are born, controlling every moment of their life, dictating what they should eat, wear, study, what instrument to learn to play, what games to participate in…what vocation to take when they grow up… regimenting their lives in such a way that what eventually they get is not a full grown tree but a bonsai!

There seems to be a power struggle when you are saying, “Do it because I’m the parent” and that’s a rationale that won’t work long. But if your child understands the why behind the rules, those values can lay the groundwork for a lifetime of sound food choices, whether you are there to enforce them or not. You should negotiate with your child. Tell your child what is good for him or her, and if they say that don’t like to eat certain things, give them options to choose from. Reason with your children; do not try to order them.

My own experience as a parent of two girls has made me reach a conclusion that we must ask our children to lend a hand in the kitchen with easy tasks. If they participate in helping to make the meal, they are more likely to want to try it. It works with my 8-year-old nephew too!

More often than not, children under five are going to be selective eaters. It’s rare to have a child that will eat anything you put in front of them. Being selective is actually normal. Let’s face it; a ‘selective eater’ sounds much better than a ‘fussy eater’! And despite their limited diet, most children do get their daily nutritional requirements and are growing normally. According to a study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, most children aged 2 to 11 actually get more than 100% of the Recommended Dietary Allowance of most vitamins and minerals. Which means, even if the children aren’t eating a wide variety of foods, and if they are actually doing fine nutritionally, then the parents should not fret. When the child goes through a growth spurt and has a bigger appetite, then that opportunity should be used to introduce new food options to them.

In the meantime, here are some mealtime guidelines to follow:
 
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