6 Ways To Help Your Child Develop Healthy Eating Habits
From little ones who refuse to sit down to eat to those who would rather play with their vegetables, feeding children is often an uphill task. Start here with our easy expert-backed suggestions that can make mealtimes a pleasant experience for everyone involved.
A study in Appetite, 2017 finds that a child eats in response to both happy and sad emotions—more for sadness. These tendencies increase with age, as a part of social behaviour. This behaviour starts sometime during the preschool period. They begin to ignore their bodily cues, and listen to what their social environment tells them, says the paper. “Parents can play an important role in regulating such eating behaviours right from early years. A child learns what, when, and how much to eat through direct experiences with food and by observing the eating behaviours of others," says Malvika Sahgal Sinha, New Delhi-based nutritionist.
“The taste buds of a child form at a very young age,” says Thara Shenoy, Chennai-based pediatric feeding therapist. As a parent, you can begin to experiment and teach your child about healthy eating habits right from the day they start to have solid foods on a regular basis, she says. “The initial path may be laden with a dilemma if or not your child is getting appropriate nutrition, but as long as you know your child is meeting the early childhood development milestones, rest assured they are thriving,” she adds. Here’s how you can help your child develop healthy eating habits and a positive relationship with food.
1. Don’t be fixated on the clean your plate rule.
The clean your plate rule puts too much pressure on the child to finish everything on their plate, irrespective of their appetite. “Focus on quality, not on quantity,” says Shenoy. This helps a child develop a positive relationship with food.
Sinha adds that while a parent should decide on what to offer a child to eat, a child should be left to decide how much they want to eat. This helps the child to develop an understanding of fullness and teaches the child to be aware of signs that signal fullness.
If you feel that your child has barely eaten anything on the plate, allow them to explore their hunger and ask them to come back to finish the plate when they are hungry after some time.
2. No sweet treats for finishing a bowl of greens.
Reward systems can be counterproductive. Kids may perceive the end value to be of a greater significance over the items you are trying to feed them. This negative association with the food can hinder mindful eating. “Worse, it interferes with their natural ability to read hunger cues. It encourages them to eat when they're not hungry inorder to get the reward,” says Sinha. “Establish healthy boundaries between healthy and unhealthy eating. Explain to them that they can have palatable foods such as cookies, ice cream, chips or brownies, however, in a limit. Also, offering otherwise off-limits food such as chocolates and sweets as a reward gives a mixed message to children,” says Shenoy.
3. Avoid the “just 2 more bites” pitfall.
“Society runs on the norm that a chubby child is a healthy child, prompting the parents to go overboard,'' says Sinha. “Instead of overfeeding, let a child decide on what his stomach can take and digest,” she suggests. Overfeeding can result in acid reflux, stomach aches or excessive flatulence in children, finds the journal Drugs in Context, 2019.
4. Stand your ground
Does your toddler want to eat only potatoes and rice? When a child becomes fixated on one type of food, as a parent, you may feel compelled to provide that every day in order to ensure that the child eats something. But, you miss a chance to introduce new and healthy foods.
“Remember that most of your child’s food preferences won’t last long if you don’t entertain their demands,” says Sinha. Be a little stern there, she advises.
5. Let your child choose what they want to eat from the plate
Handling food by touching it is a sensory experience. Many young children do well with eating when they can explore food with their hands first. So, allow the child to have positive sensory associations with food and do not stop the child from picking at their food. These help manage their eating behaviours and develop their food preferences.
6. Eat your meals together.
From holding the cutlery to understanding portion sizes, a child can learn a lot from observing adults. “Be a role model. Children try to imitate you. As long as you eat mindfully and don’t use gadgets, your kid will try to imitate the same,” says Sinha.
“Also, offering separate meals for your kids isn’t such a good idea when dining together,” adds Shenoy. “Most kids don’t like this and they may see your food as a treat”, she says.
M. Sachidananda 13 May 2022