Devansh Agarwal is going to turn two soon. Until a few weeks ago, he had to be coaxed, cajoled and sometimes distracted with toys, or cartoons on TV in order to be fed a few spoons of khichdi. His mother Rajyashree Agarwal was worried that a primarily milk-based diet would not be nutritious enough.
The struggle to instill good food habits is real and common among parents across the world. The dietary guidelines by national and international bodies provide a good indication of the foods that meet the nutritional needs of infants, especially those of fussy eaters.
Nutritional needs of a child after six months
Until the age of one an infant requires 100kcal of energy per kg of body weight per day. A well-nourished infant usually doubles the birth weight by six months of age and triples the birth weight around the first birthday.
WHO recommends exclusive breastfeeding until six months of age. It further recommends introduction of complementary semi-solid foods like mashed banana, cereal-based homemade porridges, and stewed and pureed vegetables or fruits, one at a time, to meet the nutritional needs post six months of age.
Infants’ palates are accustomed to the taste of milk. Getting them used to textured food requires calibration of nutritional needs as per age without overwhelming them with diverse flavours or excessive quantity at one go.
Taste preference is unique to every child
Homemaker Reshmi Bose from Kolkata says, “Before labelling a child as a fussy eater, we need to understand the difference between being fussy and having preferences. Not all children like the taste of every food item equally.” Her two children are now in their late teens. She introduced them to a wide variety of tastes and textures of the Indian cuisine to identify their individual preferences.
Her son, she discovered, loved chewing on raw carrot and cucumber sticks that she gave him when he started teething, but her daughter disliked both. Basu had to struggle until crunchy apples became her daughter’s staple fruit. “It is unfair to call them fussy if they don’t like the taste of something. I kept trying. By the age of 10, both my children had started eating almost everything, even if reluctantly at times,” she adds.
Introducing complex foods to toddlers
The parental guidelines by the Indian Academy of Pediatrics (IAP) recommends that after the age of one, only one-third of the child’s nutritional needs should be met by milk. The rest of it should come from complementary foods.
Depending on your family’s dietary preferences you can consider foods like dal-chawal, idli, dosa, dhokla, lightly sauteed vegetables, minced chicken cooked with mild seasoning, stewed fish curry, boiled or poached eggs, fresh fruits and dairy products like milk, curd, yogurt and cheese for your child.
Role of fat, sugar and salt in a toddler’s diet
Some parents exclude oil or ghee, full-fat milk, sugar, jaggery and salt from the food cooked for an infant to get them acquainted with the natural taste of foods.
The dietary guidelines for infants and young children by the Food and Nutrition Board of the Department of Women and Child Development, Government of India, however, states that full-fat milk, ghee or oil, and sugar or jaggery should be a part of the diet of infants or young children to meet their energy needs. It also recommends the use of iodised salt while preparing food for this age group as deficiency of iodine can hamper their mental development.
Experts’ quick dos and don’ts of feeding
- Start with tiny portions – one or two teaspoons of porridge is a great first milestone
- It takes multiple attempts to introduce a new food – sometimes 15-20 attempts are required to make toddlers swallow a bite of something they do not like
- Force-feeding usually backfires – it only creates a stressful situation for both the child and the parents
- Feed what the family eats – the more a child eats from the family pot, the faster he or she will develop a taste for the food
- Children learn by imitation – this is applicable to food, too. If the parents are not fond of fruits or green vegetables, or overly fond of junk food, the child will follow suit
- Encourage the whole family to eat together – allowing the child to self-feed at the table or on the floor can be messy and unsatisfactory in the beginning, but your encouragement can build their confidence and foster their bond with food
- Do not incentivise good eating habits – from the beginning tell them why carrots are good for health or how fish help develop brain and eyesight. Bribing them to eat things that they are averse to can lead to making bad food choices later in life when there are no incentives except good health
- Discourage screen time during meals – a recent development, infants and toddlers are increasingly getting accustomed to watching videos during meals. While the distraction helps in reducing the time taken to eat, the habit can become very hard to break
- Include children in the process – allow them to play with washed fruits and vegetables as infants. Once they are older, involve them in the process of food preparation by taking their help in shelling peas, peeling bananas, breaking leaves off stems, de-seeding fruits and other small tasks. It will make them appreciate food more
- Age-old wisdom counts – Agarwal’s breakthrough moment came when her mother told her that she should try making rotis of different shapes for her son. She made stars, rockets and even a crescent moon for him one evening. To her delight this simple change turned a tedious chore into a playful mealtime for both
Food suggestion as per age group from different dietary guidelines
Six months onwards
- Give the infant a porridge made by boiling the staple cereal of the family like ground rice, semolina or ragi powder in milk or water and adding a little sugar/jaggery and ghee
- A roti the size of an adult fist can also be soaked in milk, ghee and jaggery, mashed and passed through a sieve before being given as the first semi-solid food to an infant
- Initially, the consistency should be thin, and the porridge should be given once a day. It can be thickened gradually, after the child is accustomed to swallowing semi-solid food easily
- Gradually introduce mashed soft fruits and stewed vegetables
Nine months onwards
Before adding spices, remove a small quantity of cooked rice, wheat, pulses and vegetables that the family usually eats and set it aside. Season it with salt and a teaspoon of ghee and offer it to the child.
One year onwards
- The child should be fed five to six times a day in small quantities
- Idli, dosa, roti softened with vegetable curry, dhokla, upma or dal chilla can be given for breakfast
- Any seasonal fruit, peeled and de-seeded, can be given around mid-morning
- Lunch can be the same as what the family is eating, but without spices
- For evening snacks, sweet or savoury bite-sized pancakes, roasted fox nuts (makhana), semolina or wheat halwa, vegetable cutlets and steamed momos can be considered
- Dinner can be either roti soaked in milk, or the same as what the family is eating