Welcome to the selective hunger of childhood— when a mere four or five bites may suffice for a meal and when dirt from the floor and paint from the wall is more fun than ploughing through porridge. To all those parenting books that regularly say a child will get hungry, just make sure there’s nutritious food around, most parents will reply: if only it were so simple.
Two mothers on the opposite sides of the line make a case for their style of feeding and tell us why it works for them.
Sonya Dutta Choudhury
mother of Divya, 11, Aleya, 9, and Analie, 6
‘In my house, policing rules’
“I’m hungry for chocolates,” says my six-year-old, “but I’m full for rice and dal. Here...here (pointing to approximately her appendix) is the special compartment in my stomach for chocolates.”
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This is the kind of dinner table conversation I have to deal with over and over again. Which is why I, as mother of three picky eaters, disagree with the collective wisdom of all the parenting books that say: “Put it before them…give them choices…gently remind them of the nutritional properties…but do not insist, do not force children to eat that last bite.”
Gently remind? Ha! Who thought that was ever going to work? Try telling a child that she might want to eat beetroot or a bowl of spinach instead of snacking on crispies and candies? Which child in her right mind will opt for beetroot?
In my house, policing rules. If you don’t finish that breakfast of fruit and oatmeal porridge, you don’t leave for school—never mind if I have to write a late note to the school teacher, and the entire class knows why you’re late. If you don’t finish your aloo paratha, no caramel custard will follow. And if you leave the yolk of your egg, it will be dished up again, cold and congealed, at milk time. Toddler days were just as totalitarian. Of course, one played all the food games—guess how many spoons of dal to go, spoonfuls of khichree sneaked in between the more popular helpings of curd, watch the crow, how he flies (and shovel in on the side). But really, the reason these games worked was that the bottom line clearly was: food was something you had to finish.
Maybe, some?day, we’ll all sit at a table, sip our fruit juices and make conversation above our crackling lettuce salad. But till then, you HAVE to eat whatever is served on your plate. Heil Mommy! And Daddy! We agree to take the blame if you grow up healthy.
mother of Zoya, 5
‘My child lets me know when she is hungry’
My sister, Mira, was very finicky about food with her daughter Geetanjali. I think her daughter’s first memories must be that of her mother chasing her around the room with a big spoon. No amount of cajoling, pleading or threats would get that girl to finish every morsel of her breakfast, lunch, evening snack and dinner.
I had decided before my daughter Zoya was born that I would follow the advice from books—feed on demand. In fact, even the paediatrician I consulted said the same thing—“Leave your child alone; a day without food will not harm her; she will ask for food when she is hungry.”
Of course, my in-laws, mother and sister are horrified that I am not punctual about Zoya’s food habits or that I do not insist that she finishes everything on her plate. There is no fixed timetable for Zoya and my five-year-old decides the quantity she wants to eat, and it works for us. However, she does not decide “what” she gets to eat. I draw a line at demands for junk food.
Sure, I have had a few bad weeks when Zoya does not want to eat anything for the entire day, and yes, I have panicked like any other mother—but the frequency of these episodes has come down. Over the years, her weight and height growth have been consistent, and I like to think that she enjoys mealtimes rather than dreads them.
The expert view
A child should be allowed to eat when and how much he wants, within reasonable limits, of course. Do not enforce rigid mealtimes which are non-negotiable, but at the same time, don’t get into the habit of waking up at 2am daily to fix a meal for your baby who is not being breastfed. Force-feeding a child will eventually lead to obesity, so please let the child decide how much he/she wants to eat rather than joining the clean-your-plate club. Get in the habit of offering smaller portions to your child. That way, chances of wasting food are less. A rigid meal timetable for a child goes against nature. It is best if a child eats when he is hungry and not otherwise.
Dr Rajesh N. Kumar, a New Delhi-based paediatrician affiliated to the Apollo Hospitals, spoke to Seema Chowdhry