Get creative with picky eaters at home

Get creative with picky eaters at homePicky eaters:Cred(Viva Venezuela)

With daycare centres closed, and the nation in a lockdown — mealtime with toddlers can be an uphill battle as their palates and appetites develop. But it doesn’t have to be, say experts and parents.

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Single father, Saziso Dlamini, struggles to get his two-year-old toddler to eat healthy food. 

“Sibahle, my daughter, has never been a fan of vegetables, bread or porridge, and feeding her breakfast is difficult. What I realised is that she prefers yoghurt and custard instead of a proper meal,” says Dlamini.

“But what surprises me the most is that at the crèche, her teachers say she eats everything. I guess she’s only picky if I’m feeding her.”

Dlamini, from KwaDinda, KwaZulu-Natal, is not alone in his struggle with a fussy eater.

Thandeka Msomi’s three-year-old son throws a tantrum every mealtime. Msomi says it’s gotten to the point where she doesn’t know if he’s hungry or not, because when she feeds him he spits out the food and cries. 

“It saddens me when he cries so I try to avoid that,” she says. “My friends and family say I’m spoiling my child, but I’m doing my best to provide for him. He prefers his dummy, bottle, fruits and biscuits — and usually eats in the afternoon.”

“I have tried to introduce my son to new and different healthy foods but he doesn’t seem to like them,” she says, exasperated.

Changing appetites, changing tastes

Paediatrician, Dr Melissa Chettiar, says that age three is a common milestone for picking eating to develop, as these formative years are a time of rapid growth and development. Children’s weight gain peaks by age two and slows down between the ages of two and five years. 

“Coinciding with this decreased rate of growth, toddlers also experience a decrease in appetite. During this time, children’s appetites can also be quite erratic, with neophobia, which is initial rejection or avoidance of new foods,” explains Chettiar.

“Therefore, it is absolutely not an option to force feed your child but it’s always advisable to wait until your child is hungry to give her food she hasn’t wanted in the past, plus let the child feed herself when possible – this helps the child feel in control of what they’re eating.”

Work schedules put pressure on parents

Dlamini raises the fact that his busy schedule often doesn’t allow for him to give Sibahle his full and undivided attention — and that her recent weight gain has made him feel guilty about sometimes spoiling her with junk food.

“I work at home most of the time, and after picking her from crèche she needs my attention whilst I’m still busy at my computer. I then give her unhealthy food, and switch on cartoons — until everyone comes in the afternoon. I know it’s wrong to give my child junk food, but there’s nothing I can do if I am busy on that day,” he says.

Chettiar says there are healthy snacks that parents should give to their children to avoid giving them salty, sugary and greasy foods.

“Snacks like dried fruits, whole wheat crackers, whole wheat mini bagel, cheese sticks, hard boiled eggs, 100% fruits bars, low fat chocolate or low fat yogurts are some, to name a few. By doing this, you decrease the chance of your child being underweight and having poor growth, or conversely of being overweight which might be driven by poor dietary variety in childhood,” Chettiar says.

Time and creativity needed

Children’s nutrition can cause headaches for all parents of toddlers going through these growth stages. According to Mayo Clinic, parents should be patient when serving new foods to their toddlers. 

Repeated exposure to new and unfamiliar tastes is one option of gradually introducing a child to different food, and a toddler seeing their parent eat healthy food will also motivate them to choose to do so.

Durbanite Boniswa Magudulela believes the trick to getting her son to eat proper meals was getting inventive with what she served him, and how she served food.

“My 10-year-old son was a picky eater when he was young, but what I did to encourage him to eat was playing creative eating games, making colourful food and calling him to help me while I prepared food,” she says.

“All it takes is creativity as a parent.”

Chettiar says that parents could try different ways of motivating their children to eat but that ultimately, if a child doesn’t want to eat the food, they won’t. Small steps and gradual inclusion of new foods is the way to go. She provides the following tips for parents of fussy eaters:

  • Try to stay calm. The best reaction is no reaction at all, 
  • Never use food as a reward or punishment,
  • Don’t feel pressured to make a second meal, save it for the next meal,
  • Trust that if your child is truly hungry, she’ll eat, and;
  • Remember, when it comes to encouraging your child to eat a variety of foods: you provide and your child decides to eat or not.


“Most children who are picky eaters eventually outgrow this phase. But in the meantime, to avoid your child being over, or underweight, it is important to always try and give them a balanced diet every day,” adds Chettiar. — Health-e News