Food is eaten by living things to provide energy and nutrition. Food contains the nutrition that people and animals need to be healthy. Nutrients are substances that provide energy for activity, growth, and all functions of the body such as breathing, digesting food and keeping warm, materials for the growth and repair of the body, and for keeping the immune system healthy. The consumption of food is normally enjoyable to humans. But the little humans, i.e. young children might express otherwise. Our little ones might refuse to eat anything other than chips and cookies. Or rather play than eat anything at all.

Many parents worry about what their children eat and don’t eat. Managing children’s nutrition can be a daunting task, frustrating at times. But we need not give up. If your child’s nutrition is a sore topic in your household, you’re not alone.

Parents control various aspects of food like what food would be available and when and where meals and snacks are eaten, but kids determine how much they want to eat or whether to eat at all.

Picky eating can be a common behavior during the early years.

Experts say that if a picky eater isn’t getting enough good nutrition because of being too selective, in individual cases, picky eating may lead to both short- and long-term nutrient deficiencies and other problems. It is important for kids to develop a healthy relationship with food at a young age and parental anxiety will not help here, say experts.

To help our little ones develop this relationship until our children’s food preferences mature, we can consider a few strategies to avoid mealtime battles and help the picky eaters in our families eat a balanced diet.

It’s better to learn by example, always be positive when offering food and show children how much you like a food when you’re asking them to eat it, experts say.

The battle may start because of the green beans, but most of the time for the picky eaters, it’s not the green beans, the peas, or even the dessert, that’s causing the trouble, a lot of the time it becomes a control struggle.

At times the child might react to a specific taste or the way a food looks, experts point out. But even in these instances, the refusal to try that food is an expression of fear or many other feelings. Control and being able to control their food environment could be the primary problem.

As toddlers, it becomes a kid’s instinct to learn control — how to move and control their body and all of its functions. Choosing what foods to put on their plate and choosing whether or not to swallow that food is another ripe area they can control, experts, say.

But there could be enormous pressure on parents to feed children adequately and nutritiously, so they want to control their kids ’ eating. As a result, parents walk into the feeding dynamic unsure and nervous. Kids sense the pressure and gauge that mealtime is something parents care about, and the power struggle begins.

Kids learn and develop taste preferences during early childhood. A child’s favorite food one day may hit the floor the next, or a snubbed food might suddenly become the one they can’t get enough of. For weeks, they may eat 1 or 2 preferred foods – and nothing else. But as they grow, kids’ judgment of foods gets more fluid and become stabilized, say experts.

When we give the child a particular food for the first time it can be termed as exposure to food. At times when kids are exposed to such food for the first time, they’re probably going to be a little bit unsure at first. That’s okay, say, experts. And just because they don’t eat it one time, we need not stop serving it. Kids need more occasions of exposure to a variety of foods. Exposure can also be looking at a food in the serving dish, listening to a parent talk about eating it, helping prepare the food, feeling the food, or trying a nibble of the food. Preparing a separate meal for the child after he or she rejects the original meal might seem to be a quick option at first, but we need to be warned that this practice or even one attempt at providing an option might initiate and then promote picky eating. Even if the child doesn’t wish to eat, encouraging the child to stay at the table for the designated mealtime can help, as eventually after seeing everyone else finish their meals, they might want to try it, maybe they’ll like it, and gradually they’ll learn to eat all kinds of foods.

As parents, we need to understand that not every meal might turn out perfect and even the healthiest eater might have a day of eating that’s not as balanced as it could be, say experts. At such times, giving the kids some space should be the thing to do for parents rather than to continue the control fight. Likewise, as tempting as it may be, bribing or forcing the child to eat certain foods or clean his or her plate can cause more harm than good. This might only push further the power struggle over food. Not only that, the child might start associating mealtime with anxiety and frustration or become less sensitive to his or her hunger and fullness cues.

Using a bit of creativity can prove to be a boon to create interest and excitement in little ones to explore a variety of foods. Toddlers especially would be all excited to try foods arranged in eye-catching, creative ways. Making foods look fancy and beautiful or arranging them in fun ways, cutting them in a variety of shapes that kids can recognize, can make it irresistible. Using beetroot pulp, spinach pulp, turmeric, carrot pulp, etc. for making colorful idlis, giving similar natural colors and fun shapes to parathas, calling the items with some fancy funky names, lining it with their favorite cartoon characters or superheroes as well can excite the most resistant kid to try the item.

Young kids also tend to enjoy any food involving a dip. Most kids love finger foods.

Kids usually do not appreciate the feeling of multiple textures in the mouth while they eat. Apart from the presentation and texture, the size of the morsel as well needs to be checked. Overfilling the child’s mouth with food would make them resist eating. Serving small morsels can not only help them chew easily but also relish the taste of the food.

Cutting solid foods into bite-size pieces so that the children can easily eat themselves, will motivate them to reach out to the food and finish independently. We need to make sure the pieces are small enough to avoid the risk of choking. Similarly, serving bowls full of food can be overwhelming to the child. Serving small portions instead can allow them to independently ask for more.

Giving kids options when it comes to eating can help make them feel that they have control and also enhance their decision-making skills. Better still, involving the children in the journey of food from the market to the table can turn out to be of great help. Letting them pick a vegetable from the store rack or assigning tasks like chopping, sifting, stirring, counting ingredients, picking fresh herbs from a garden or windowsill, painting on cooking oil with a pastry brush, etc. can make them feel involved and excited. When the child puts his dexterous hands at work and rolls little puris or chapatis, he would be most likely keen on eating his creations too. Children can try chopping boiled potatoes, tomatoes, cheese, bananas, etc. with a dull knife. That can be then made into a salad or a sabzi and let the little chefs enjoy their very own dishes. Kneading the dough, cutting and chopping fruits and veggies, sprinkling some salt or masalas, rinsing veggies, stirring batter, setting the table, etc. not only would help in boosting their curiosity for food but also enhance their motor skills.

Sometimes, we tend to bribe children with treats for eating regular food. That seems like a quick and handy solution. But not bribing the children with treats for eating other foods is very important. Doing this can set an incorrect mindset. The food you want them to eat will seem like a boring chore and food that is served as the “reward” would be considered more valuable and exciting. Kids want to eat what’s in front of them and eat what everyone else is eating, nobody chooses to be a picky eater, experts say.

Maintaining a routine for mealtime can go a long way in developing healthy food habits. We can try and serve meals and snacks at about the same time every day. If the child chooses not to eat a meal, a regular snack time can offer an opportunity to eat nutritious food.

Scheduled meals and limiting snacks can help ensure your child is hungry when new food is introduced.

Children look and learn. If we eat a variety of healthy foods, our child is more likely to follow suit. We must share at least one meal in a day together as a family. Distractions like TV or cell phones during mealtime should be strictly avoided. Television advertising might also encourage the child to desire sugary or less nutritious foods.

Many times, adults knowingly or unknowingly glamorize junk and fast food. When we choose to eat at Pizza and Burger joints for special occasions or celebrations, we send out a message to our young ones that eating out is a special or superior thing to do. Rather, we can try and have a family party time at such special occasions where the whole family participates in cooking a delicious variety of fancy yet healthy food at home.

Kids observe how the adults in the family value the meal and mealtime and as a result can develop a positive mindset towards healthy eating. We need to continue to provide balanced meals and continue our efforts to encourage the children to eat without giving up or losing hope. At the end of it all, healthy eating and happy eating need to go hand in hand. “Happiness at home matters,” experts say. When we enjoy our meals, we eat better. The same goes for our children.

As a parent if you are concerned about your child’s nutritional progress, consulting a pediatrician would help troubleshoot and make sure that the child is getting all the necessary nutrients for overall growth and development. We need to remember that eating habits do not change overnight, but the constant effort we would take each day to patiently guide them on their path towards healthy eating can help promote a lifetime of healthy eating habits in our little ones.