“I like helping myself coz you don’t know how hungry I am.”

I dream of the day I will see all children in the world feeling confident enough to say that to the adult trying to control the food they eat.

That statement is a real one, made by a five-year-old girl who felt very relieved after a few days of a small but very significant change that happened at her home: her mother stopped encouraging her to eat.

Parents and other caregivers fear children won’t have enough to eat, frequently not allowing the little ones to leave the table until they finish the food on their plate or demanding them to ”have one more bite” or threatening with “no dessert for you if you don’t finish your dinner”. All these, of course, is done with the best intention which is to make sure children will have proper nutrition and keep good health. That’s quite a logical thinking, in fact.

Trouble is that young children – the age that so-called fussy eating starts is usually at 2 years – are still a work in progress, their brains are not yet ready for complex thinking. So, using logic and lecturing normally doesn’t work and actually aggravates the fussy behaviour.

At this age, children are learning about and testing their boundaries and limits. It’s when we hear a lot of “I do it myself!”, “Mine!”, “No!”. And it is also when we endure tantrums and fuss. It may take ages for a three-year-old to decide which shoes to put on to go for a walk in the local park. And don’t you dare try to decide it for him or her!! They want independence and will try to exercise it at every chance.

Now, physiologically speaking, in addition to the natural fussy behaviour, toddlers grow at a much slower pace than infants, and will eat, at times, less than they used to as a baby or in comparison to their younger sibling, whom is a living parameter to freak parents out. This puzzles parents for a while because their child goes from being a good eater to a fussy one within weeks without apparent reason.

Good news is that human beings are born with a natural, internal hunger regulation which accurately tells us how much food we need to eat to keep healthy body functions, depending on its demands for growth and physical activity. Bad news is that adults often don’t trust their children’s hunger regulation system and try to by-pass it. Because of that, some of us “un-learn” how to listen to those natural signals in order to please or obey the adults we trust.

Another important factor that affects children’s eating pattern is their stage of knowledge of foods and eating. What I mean is that we are not born knowing how to eat and must be taught how to do it. There are two important streams of learning involved here: (1) types of foods, and (2) how to eat.

Around the age of 6 months, children are introduced to solid foods in addition to breastmilk or formula. All children need a period of adaptation to get used to the new foods. Some children will take a little longer to get used to textures or tastes or temperatures. We are all different and develop at different paces. This process is not over within weeks or months. Depending on many factors, but most importantly, depending on the rate of exposure to new foods, this process can take many years, even a lifetime to getting acquainted with and getting to appreciate new foods.

Going along with the progressive introduction of foods to an infant and toddler is the teaching of how to eat. Things like how to hold a spoon, how to chew, how to drink from an open cup. We quite take for granted how children grasp these abilities. They will do as they see us do. The more chances they have to see us doing it, the quicker and better they will learn, and consequently become proficient eaters.

If a particular food is tricky for a child to eat, be it because it is tough or slippery, or if there are other factors affecting the child’s concentration, like a hot or overly noisy room, or if they feel very tired after a long day, it will all add up to overwhelm a little child who will simply give up on eating altogether.

The whole point of this article is to help you identify some of the reasons for children’s behaviour at the dinner table, as, at times, they might simply pass unnoticed. It is the adult’s responsibility to identify what triggers the child’s fuss and strive to eliminate them so the child can fully exercise their food education which means learn about foods and learn how to appreciate foods and mealtimes.

By allowing these opportunities to children we empower them and set them for a healthy relationship with food for life.

So, before we go on encouraging children to eat their veggies, maybe we look around and make sure we are providing a conducive environment and have the right attitude so they can do it gladly, for themselves, without the need of any encouragement.

And peace shall rein on this planet, at least at mealtimes! 😉

Note: there much much much much much more to children’s nutrition and fussy eating than what you’ve just read, but you better get done as much as you can before the kids wake up or it’s time to pick them up! 😉

Check out Eat Play Learn Nutrition on Triangle Genius for more info…

This lovely article was written by Fern from Eat Play Learn Nutrition.