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Understanding Psychology Of Fussy Eaters

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I observed a phenomenal change in my son when he started attending pre-school. The most distinct was the improvement in his communication skills. While everybody was excited to see that change, I was at loss of words. Because now his demands were more categorical. Till 2.5 years of age, he didn’t even know what junk food meant but by 3 years, he knew all the brands and subsequent varieties of wafers, chocolates, candies, and puffs.

Every day he refused to eat the home cooked food and insisted on some junk food. Grandparents were his easiest targets and I always got to hear – “Once in a while is ok. See he is crying so much.” And a few weeks later, it became his habit. He would deny healthy food and demanded junk food only.

Grandparents said – “Chalo Kuch to khaa Raha hai na.” This was definitely the most dreaded phase – Fussy Eating. And most of the times it is not just about the taste of food but a psychological mind game that kids play. Kids know how to arm twist the parents and grandparents to get junk food and escape healthy food. So here are a few steps I employed to counter and win the battle of minds:

1. Don’t replace the meal with junk food: If your kid ate just a couple of spoons in dinner, then save his leftover food. Don’t offer him a late night snack. Offer him the same dinner again and gradually your kid will understand that he won’t be offered junk food if he stops eating meals at home. Even if he wants to eat pasta, noodles or wafers, offer it as a snack only, that too in limited quantity.

2. Don’t Say Vegetables Are Healthy: We always personify wafers as ‘yummy’ and green vegetables as ‘healthy’. While ‘yummy’ is tangible and the kid understands the tastes, I am not sure if the kid understands the importance of being healthy. Also, overemphasis on the word ‘healthy’, which the kid doesn’t really understand, develops a phobia and kids start fearing them. So start personifying vegetables as tasty and colorful.

3. Make your own junk food: Packaged food like carbonated drinks, candies are stuffed with calories with almost zero nutrient value. Instead, I offer home cooked potato wafers in an empty packet of wafers, orange juice in tetra packs, pediasure ice-cream in cones, shakes in cold drink bottles, mix veg patty in burger, etc. I prefer making food exciting at home and presenting it as straight out of the supermarket shelves.

4. Stop addressing your child as a fussy eater: Incessant use of the word ‘fussy eater’ before your kid, reinforces his choices. Kids believe that they are being glorified before everyone as fussy eaters when you clearly mean otherwise. Parents often tend to discuss the fussy eating habits with the doctor, relatives, and friends in front of the kids saying, “Yeh to Kuch Nahi khata. Sirf noodles and wafers chahiye isko.” It is like hammering the kid’s brain with the fact that ‘He is a fussy eater’ which subconsciously gets absorbed and the kids are further motivated to be one. Stop reinstating your kid’s fussy eating habits and never ever discuss it in front of your kid.

5. Don’t be obsessed with a clean plate: In most of the homes, mealtime is no less than a battlefield. “Beta one more spoon, please. You got to finish 1 roti and a bowl of vegetables.” We often hear parents saying this to their kid and stuffing their mouths to somehow feed them the requisite quantity of food. Most of the parents have a benchmark that in a day their kid should eat at least 2 chapattis, 1 bowl of dal, 2 cups of vegetables, so on and so forth. If a kid wants to eat just half a chapatti, let him enjoy that. Don’t force the other half to him. As adults even we have days when we don’t feel like having a plate full of meal. Respect your child’s intuition and let him eat just tummy full and not plate full.

6. Threatening or bribing – None works: If you think that bribing a kid with some candy or their favorite video game would make them love the food in the long term, then you are wrong. This would just become a continuous process and their demands will keep increasing exponentially. It is just not a sustainable solution. Threatening the kid, on the other hand, will develop fear in their hearts. You should be strict with your child but don’t threaten him saying – “I will kick you out of the house if you don’t eat your lunch. If you don’t eat your dinner, then the spiderman will come and take you away. I will throw away your favorite toy.” Please don’t resort to these methods. It would be emotionally detrimental in the long term.

7. Repeat Offerings: If your kid refuses to eat a banana the first time, you stop offering it to him. Even if someone else offers, you say, “He doesn’t like a banana.” Preferences keep changing for all of us. So offer it after some days and he might be willing to take a bite or two.

8. Serve in Small Portions: Kids get overwhelmed on the sight of piled up plate. Kids get scared thinking, “OMG. I have to eat so much… How will my small tummy finish this off?” This makes the kid reject the whole plate. Also while offering small quantities, you save the food from being wasted.

Apart from these, there are few kids who express extreme and prolonged reactions to food. Some refuse to outgrow pickiness. Consult a doctor to figure out if the child has some sensory or reflex disorders which are limiting the number and texture of foods he can tolerate. Fussy eating is usually a phase between 2-5 years of age. By understanding your child’s psychology and acting on it timely, make sure it doesn’t become a habit.

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