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Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Developing Lifelong Relationship...

... with Food.

Yes, indeed, with Food!

Ever look back on the wee one's infancy days with nostalgia? How easy it was to just pack a bottle or two of formula or breast milk (just in case privacy turned out to be elusive, like at the supermarket), or even just a bottle or two of mush... ummm... I mean, Stage 1 or Stage 2 foods? (Or even just raagi or oats or rice cereal and a bit of juice or water, plus a spoon)?

While it is true that food is a form of nourishment to keep the body and soul together, as many moms know, it can also become a constant point of contention with our wee ones around toddlerhood.

One of the good advices I got from my mom and close family is to never make the dining table (or highchair) a battleground. Food should not add to the child's anxiety. They already have enough to contend with. If gentle coercion fails, find alternate methods. After all, who said parenting was easy? And why should we expect a child, a tiny little entity discovering the world, to understand why broccoli and spinach is better than French fries and pizza every night? Because I said so is not an acceptable answer :)

Another piece of advice that came in handy for me is to encourage independence by putting the food out in front of the wee ones and allowing them to have control over picking and putting the food in their mouths. Of course, once they have the dexterity and co-ordination, that is... (Rather than running behind them trying to shove food in their mouths with the dreaded "Eat this now or else...").

Although I thought this piece of advice was bogus, it actually seemed to have some validity based on some studies at Pennsylvania State University: don't reward if they eat the good food, and don't punish if they reject the good food. Rather, encourage healthy habits by only providing "allowed" foods at all times and staying reassuringly neutral.

There have been ongoing studies on Children's Eating Behavior. As this article in Journal of Law, Medicine and Ethics endeavors to show:
The first years of life mark a time of rapid development and dietary change, as children transition from an exclusive milk diet to a modified adult diet. During these early years, children's learning about food and eating plays a central role in shaping subsequent food choices, diet quality, and weight status. Parents play a powerful role in children's eating behavior, providing both genes and environment for children. For example, they influence children's developing preferences and eating behaviors by making some foods available rather than others, and by acting as models of eating behavior.
To meet the challenge of promoting healthy weight in children in the current eating environment, parents need guidance regarding alternatives to traditional feeding practices.

Another article I came across (wish I had bookmarked it) quoted that nutritionist Susan Roberts of Tufts University supports the "Rule of 15″ — parents must set down a food at least 15 times before a child will begin to like it. However, this does not mean we offer broccoli 15 times in a row every meal, every day till the child relents.

This particular Rule of 15, or Rule of 10 more like it in my case, has been true with Ana. I usually offer her what we eat. The first few times I offered beetroot she outrightly refused to touch it. And each time, I tried it with different texture and flavor - say, grated, diced, sliced, sautéed with spices, tossed with lemon juice and olive oil and what-not. Eventually, even though I can't go so far as to say she loves it and asks for it all the time, she at least eats the small serving I offer her these days.

By the same token, if after repeated attempts, the food still stands rejected, then, simply accept it and move on. Since babyhood Ana has disliked sweet potato. I've tried different presentations of it and to this day she still will not eat more than the first bite that I manage with, "Try it and tell me if you like it...just one bite, OK?"

And that could be genetics, per the NYT article I read recently. Apparently, a recent study by Dr. Lucy Cooke in American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (AJCN), managed to quantify the genetic and environmental influence on food neophobia in children. And the results do seem to support that dislike for certain new foods could be genetic.

It was interesting to read that food neophobia (fear of new foods) is an essential and possibly a survival skill: after all, we could not have had many cave babies heading out into the forest and putting anything and everything they found along the way into their mouths and live to tell the tale :)

While it is very tempting to mush down the sweet potato and disguise it somehow and pass it off along with another favorite food, and hopefully feel satisfied that it got into her system, it does not help her learn to like the sweet potato, so I prefer not to do it.

If the idea is to get Ana to try new foods and develop a liking for them and thereby establish a lifelong relationship with healthy foods, this strategy of morphing and sneaking it in feels counter-intuitive to me.

But, hey, as a mom, if that happens to be my last resort for my undernourished/underweight baby, I'll have to go for it!

Many days, I know I just need to eat for sustenance, but, my favorite pippali rasam and rice with green beans paruppusili seems unpalatable when served 3 times a day for even just 3 consecutive days.

Not because it is not healthy or tasty. Intellectually, as adults we can fathom that much. But, variety is the spice of life. And we eat with more than just the mouth - visual and olfactory senses complete our meal experience.

So, how can I expect to pick a battle with a mere child over this? She barely grazes most days. And sometimes, she sits with us for dinner and within seconds I can tell she will not eat another morsel but she still sits with us at the table till I clear the food away. Except, I save her portion, just in case... And, true enough, some days, she was just not ready even if the clock said so. And when I offer her the saved portion later, she polishes it off...

Anyway, keeping an eye on overall nutrition (instead of balancing every meal), offering healthy food choices and being consistent about it, accepting the fact that certain of our food presentations are going to be rejected and not taking it personally are a few things I have learnt so far, and am sure there is plenty more to learn as Ana grows up :)

p.s: Broccoli happens to be Ana's favorite - it is just a placeholder in this post for the dreaded/hated toddler food - whatever that might be in your case :D

p.p.s: just thought I'd add a note to clarify: the point is not to deny certain foods (ex: what we call junk, empty calories) but to restrict and find a balance... how can we help the child develop a good relationship with food so they make healthy choices is what I wanted to get across here :) And there is no easy answer - we can only keep teaching ourselves and our children...

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At 10:51 AM, Blogger Sangeeta said...

how i wish you had this wisdom during the days you used to "punish" me with "no-tv-till-u-finish-all-the-veggies-on-your-plate" !!!lucky ana :p

At 3:08 PM, Blogger Sheela said...

oh, poor dearie! i know... wish i had that wisdom in my teens when i "baby-sat" you, sangeet :) Of course, you were not quite the toddler then, and were bossing me like my grandma, so, i guess it was more of a control thing with us ;)

In any case, two decades later, i guess it finally is dawning on me so, am passing on this for you - better make sure my little niece/nephew don't get into a complex love-hate with food from toddlerhood!


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