Fussy kid? Here's help
Jimmy flatly refuses to eat his greens. What can you do to avoid turning mealtimes into battlefields?
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Refusal to eat certain foods
Parents often seek solutions to what they can do when their toddler refuses to eat certain foods, like solids instead of pureed foods, and certain types of food, like rice or vegetables, or if the child demands the same type of food at each meal. These disturbances in eating patterns are called ‘food jags’ and are particularly common in older toddlers.

a) Refusal to eat solids
When a child has been weaned onto porridges and pureed foods, the transition to eating solids can be difficult. Some toddlers just do not seem to want to take the next step in their education when it comes to eating solids. This can be due to a number of factors:

  • Inability to chew and/or swallow large pieces of food
  • Underdeveloped fine motor skills that are required to handle self-feeding
  • Reversion to an earlier stage of development caused by illness or trauma

If your toddler refuses to try solid foods or to feed herself, it may be a good idea to have her checked by a medical doctor or paediatrician to eliminate any problems with chewing or swallowing.

Toddlers also need plenty of time and a relaxed happy atmosphere to try out new skills. Offer her a rusk or rice cake or a small piece of peeled apple or banana and let her do whatever she wants with the food.

Give her a demonstration of how you eat solid food, how they should be chewed and how you swallow them - children learn by example, and eating is no exception. Most important of all is not to pressurise the child in such a way that she gets anxious and associates eating solids with an insurmountable problem, which elicits tension or anger in her parents. Young children react best to positive affirmation. So praise her attempts when she tries eating by herself and clean up the mess without getting angry if you want her to become a skilled and confident eater.

Children who have been ill or exposed to physical or emotional trauma often revert to an earlier developmental stage. Thus a toddler, who has been eating solids for a while, may seek comfort in ‘baby foods’ and milk during, and after traumatic events, like an operation or loss of a parent or caregiver, or even moving house. This is a temporary phase and once the child has overcome the trauma, she will return to eating solids with a bit of gentle encouragement.

b) Refusal to eat certain types of solids
Some toddlers take a long time to develop a liking for certain foods, depending on their texture, taste and colour. Don’t stress if this happens, as many foods are acquired tastes which quite a few adults do not master. Small children may not like the feeling of rice grains or peas in their mouths when they eat, so just leave these foods out of your child's diet for a while. The foods can be re-introduced at regular intervals until the child eventually accepts them.

And then there is the "The Battle of the Vegetables”. Many readers complain that their toddlers refuse to eat vegetables. If your child does not want to eat some of the more strongly flavoured vegetables such as broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, turnips, radishes etc., relax and leave these vegetables out of the child’s diet until his taste has matured.

The beneficial nutrients found in vegetables are also plentiful in fruit that are generally more acceptable to small children. So give her a variety of fruit, and the vegetables that she accepts, to provide her with the necessary protective nutrients, but don’t make a big issue of eating vegetables as this can lead to life-long aversions.

c) Demanding the same foods at every meal
This type of ‘food jag’ can also be due to an underlying problem such as illness or emotional insecurity. It is often also a manifestation of rebellion when a child is forced to eat foods she does not like or cannot handle. Sit back and think what happened just before this behaviour started. Did the child experience anything unpleasant or stressful? Did you introduce a food she did not like and did you insist that it should be eaten? If you can identify the trigger that has caused this behaviour, you will probably be able to guide the child back to eating a variety of foods.

Manipulation of parents
Infants and toddlers are masters at manipulating their parents by means of refusal to eat or by exhibiting strange eating behaviour. And such manipulations work every time, unless you as a parent are aware of what your child is busy doing to you, her siblings and the family as a whole. You need to look for a reason - Is the child feeling insecure? Does she feel she is not getting enough attention and love from a family member? Is she bored with her food? Has she got an underlying problem and is calling for help by misbehaving at mealtimes?

If you can identify the cause and eliminate it, your child will probably stop being a mealtime terror. In some cases the situation may require outside intervention by a child psychologist to sort out the family dynamics, which trigger this type of behaviour.

Total refusal to eat
If a child refuses to eat for longer than a day and is not physically ill, this is cause for concern. Childhood anorexia is a very real danger that one must keep in mind. It can occur when a small child feels that she is in an impossible situation (sibling rivalry, child abuse, emotional problems, etc) and then tries to ‘escape’ by refusing to eat. Such children are at risk of developing full-blown anorexia and need the help of a dietician and a child psychologist. Seek professional help as soon as possible. – (Dr I.V. van Heerden, DietDoc)

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