A number of Indian parents say that their children are "poor eaters", "bad eaters" etc. Often this is during the toddler and pre-schooler years. Indian parents tend to use the term to describe primarily two types of behaviours.
- The child refuses to eat his meals and consumes very little
- The child insists on eating the same food or a limited variety of foods and does not try new foods (referred to as "food neophobia")
If you believe your child is a "poor eater", these tips may help you.
Understanding your child's behaviour
Multiple factors could be at work here:
- Your child is asserting her independence
- Your child is developing the ability to manage his appetite
- There could be a genuine eating disorder
Growth, development and energy
First ask yourself the following questions:
- Is my child's physical growth on track?
- Is his development on track?
- Is she her normal self, showing normal energy and cheer?
If all these signs are OK, then you should relax. The "poor eating" you see maybe your perception and it is a phase that will go away. So what should you do? We give below some tips on what you can do in these circumstances.
What should parents do
- Be patient and relax. You may want your child to finish the meal in one go, and quickly. However, she may need multiple meals of smaller portions spread through the day. While this can put pressure on your schedule, if you do it, it will give you greater mental satisfaction.
- Do not criticise the child or discipline him. Labels like "poor eater" will stick to him and it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
- If your child insists on eating particular dishes, treat it casually. Try to mix up other dishes with his favourite ones.
- Do not give your child incentives like chocolates or ice cream to make her eat. You will face two problems - a refusal of food and a stubborn focus on getting the incentive immediately
- If your child does not finish her portions, do not force her. Reduce her portions down so she does not feel the pressure as soon as she sees her food.
- Keep track of what your child is eating over a longer period of time, like a week. Over a week, he may be eating more on some days and less on other days thus balancing things out.
- Get your child involved in picking their foods, from a set of choices you offer. Don't give her open-ended choices.
- Appreciate the child when he makes healthy eating choices.
- Do not give up trying to introduce new foods to your child. Research1 shows that repeatedly offering a certain vegetable increases its intake. The research also found that even though babies showed facial expressions of disliking a vegetable, they continued to eat it. This suggests that parents should focus more on whether the child continues to eat the vegetable rather than on their facial expression.
- Be a role model and eat healthy meals
See our article on Helping our children eat vegetables and fruits. A number of the tips there will also help you introduce new foods.
Health & Medical attention
If however, your child, is showing a deterioration in his growth (his percentile on the charts is falling significantly), or is delayed in reaching development milestones or succumbs to illnesses often or is withdrawn and lackadaisical, see a doctor immediately. The loss of appetite may also be due to other health issues like eating disorders, which a qualified paediatrician should diagnose and treat immediately.
1. Forestell, Catherine A., Mennella, Julie A., "Early Determinants of Fruit and Vegetable Acceptance", Pediatrics 2007 120: 1247-1254