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Book excerpt: Is your child a picky eater? Here’s how to get them to eat healthy

Celebrity nutritionist Pooja Makhija’s new book, Eat. Delete. Junior, is a handbook on child nutrition. In this excerpt, she suggests nutritional guidelines for two to five-year-olds.

books Updated: Jul 20, 2017 11:50 IST
(Photo courtesy: poojamakhija.com)

I. Change the Message

Once upon a time in a kingdom far, far away, a little prince or princess <insert correct gender here> was sitting at the table. His mummy prepared a yummy dinner for him and asked him to be a good boy. ‘Finish all your food,’ she lovingly told him as she patted his head. ‘Don’t leave the carrot <insert aspirational food here> alone. It gets lonely. You don’t want anyone to be lonely, do you?’ The good boy that he was, he listened to his mummy, finished the lonely carrot so quickly that his plate was shining like the moon. And because he listened to mummy, he never ever ignored the lonely vegetables again and lived a long healthy life <insert life aspiration here>. And he lived happily ever after. The End.

One of the more effective ways to get through to toddlers and the odd adult, the story has been used by clever parents all over the world as a device to get their children to do what they want them to do: eat their veggies, clean their plates and do their little baby chores like picking up their toys. Invariably, the reward for doing so has some sort of existential benefit and marks the child’s place in the world as one that has somehow become better because of said eating or cleaning.

Dramatic though the above may be, I have often been even more dramatic in my quest to get my children to eat healthy food, but more on that later.

As your children continue to flourish under your care, they take in everything they see. And whether you are aware of it or not, you are sending out signals about your relationship with food with every single utterance you make. You can lay the foundation for better nutritional habits by changing the conversation around food: the message, the tone and the intent. In ‘The Lonely Carrot’, the focus was to ensure that the child not only ate healthy but he also cleaned his plate, and that is the story which needs to change. Whatever your parenting style may be, whether it is indirectly weaving your message in a tale or barking direct orders like a benevolent military general: You may need to focus on shifting the narrative around nutrition from unhealthy relationships to healthy relationships.

Something as innocuous as insisting that your child eat his veggies so he can go out and play immediately makes eating vegetables a form of punishment. Dessert then, by association, becomes a ‘better food’. What are the other ways in which we unintentionally promote unhealthy nutritional relationships? Ooh, ooh! Pick me! Pick me! I can answer that. Thank you. For one, we do it through our daily instructions to our children. And here are a few ways we can change that:

Before you get all combative on me, I just wanted to point out that these examples are not a comment on your parenting, so try not to take it personally if you recognise yourself in them. If these seem to be ringing way too many bells, it probably just means that you have been raised to believe these things. And your parents before you. And their parents before them. Your own relationship with food is a complex and tricky one and can sometimes be tied to beliefs so old that it may seem intrinsically part of you. Don’t worry about the ringing bells. Just stop the clanging and break the cycle.

And yes, it is easier said than done. But change starts with you.

The dialogues are just examples of the signals you send out. Choose different vehicles such as stories, songs or the media – like cartoons or puppet shows – which support healthy nutritional choices and the message you want to send to your child. The moral of all these stories is that you have to: Keep pushing the same messages through different means.

II. Set an Example

The saddest part of being a parent is that it forces you to be a better person. Well, what if you don’t want to be a better person? What if you like yourself just the way you are? A regular adult, with all flaws and bad habits, ungainly, with jagged edges. But alas, if we have children, bad habits like sitting all day in our pyjamas on Sunday is not to be. We have to get up and do something. We need to set an example because children at such tender ages pick up more than just colds. They are not only learning to talk but also need to learn to speak the language of nutrition. And you will have to talk the talk. Chat up a storm if you have to.

Eating with Your Child

At the age of two, your child has now probably graduated from a high chair to a booster seat. This would be a fantastic time to make him eat with the family at the big table. This will not only help him continue to develop his nutritional and social skills, but can also provide you with an excellent chance to set behaviours which your child can imitate. To that end, you can:

Focus. Turn off the TV, switch off the cell phone – pretend to, at least – and focus on the meal you are having with your family. Being distracted while eating not only leads to consuming more than you need, but it also means you are losing opportunities – no matter how small – to bond with your family and teaching your child to do the same. As your child grows older and gets wrapped up in his life, mealtimes will probably be one of the few focused opportunities in the day to communicate with him. If you treat mealtimes as sacred, he will learn to as well.

Experiment. Try new things and let your child watch you as you try exotic fruits and vegetables. Or even something non-exotic that you have been meaning to try, like eggs. Let him see you enjoy the nutritional wonders of kale, quinoa or spinach. Ideally, let him not see you spit it out if you don’t.

Share. Bring new foods to the table and share. Let your child eat what you are eating, barring, of course, any foods that children of that age are not allowed to eat. Break a piece of dim sum or tofu and give it to your child to taste. Pique his interest. Seeing you share will also encourage him to share his food with others.

Engage. Engage your child in the cooking process. Making him mummy/daddy’s little helper by enlisting his help in preparing small snacks and meals can really encourage him to get more excited about food and the process of preparing a meal, especially if he fusses while eating. He can, in this way, eat something he made with his own wittle hands. Also, ask your child to help with cleaning, wiping, setting the table and so on, thus setting the stage for responsibility and community eating.

Make it Happy. As much as possible, try and make mealtimes positive and stress-free. Involve the little one in your conversations, even if it is to ask them what they really think of climate change; maybe they have got a bone to pick with the world too. Encourage older children to not make faces at the table if something they don’t like is being served. Encourage the adults too, for that matter. Associating mealtimes with happiness and the relative absence of stress could really go a long way towards developing a positive association with mealtimes and, therefore, food.

Excerpted with permission from Eat. Delete. Junior: Child Nutrition for 0-15 years, Pooja Makhija with Gayatri Pahlajani, HarperCollins.

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