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If pregnancy marks one of the most impassioned times in a woman’s life, motherhood is one of the busiest. From caring for the newborn to assuring its needs and developing good habits, its all about the child. But one of the most tricky parts is getting your little one to eat properly.

If you too are worried about the eating habits of your child, it can be easily amended by following some easy tips and making small changes to their and your eating habits. Yes, you need to change the way you eat too, children learn a lot from their parents and their eating behaviours. So be ready to eat healthier. On the plus side, it would just improve your own health as well, so you can find new ideas to entertain your young one. Because punishment and reward tactics no longer work or rather they never had, it's time you change your approach.

  1. Types and causes of low appetite in children
  2. How to increase appetite in kids
  3. Foods that increase appetite in children

Finding the cause behind your child’s low appetite makes the first step towards their appetite improvement. While it could just be an aversion to some foods, sometimes an underlying condition like a fever or digestion problem may be responsible for it. Depending on the age, your child may or may not be able to understand or convey his/her discomfort. So, it is important that you be more aware of your child’s physical condition and needs. According to the Indian Academy of Pediatrics, lack of appetite in children may be classified into three categories:

Selective eating

When a child takes selective foods and rejects all others, it is called selective eating. This may include a food category like nuts, milk and milk products etc. However, neophobia is a term used to define the aversion of children towards foods that are introduced for the first time. Other causes of selective feeding include:

  • Force-feeding children will make them start disliking certain foods or most foods.
  • An underlying medical problem such as depression, anxiety or stress. Yes, your child can suffer from such problems. If you notice accompanying symptoms such as sadness or behavioural changes, it is important to talk to them to find the cause.
  • In case your child rejects most of the foods and is highly selective, you should consider feeding problems such as dysphagia or some other health issue. Autistic children also suffer from feeding difficulties. (Read more: What is autism?)
  • Some children have reflexes like nausea and vomiting in response to certain food and their texture, especially solid food.

Less eating 

When a child eats or seems to eat less than normal children, it is termed less eating. More often than not, it comes with a misconception that the child is genetically small. These children appear physically smaller but have an otherwise normal appetite according to their age and body type. It is important to know the right amount of food that your child needs depending on his/her growth and genetics. Other causes of less appetite include:

  • Infantile anorexia, wherein the child is pretty active otherwise but has an aversion towards food. The exact cause of this problem is still unknown but force-feeding such children cause them to develop a fear of eating or make them eat even lesser.
  • Depression and poor nutrition may be the cause behind less eating habits of your child. Such children may seem withdrawn and aloof, showing disinterest or lack of demands in all aspects of life.
  • Health conditions like gastritis, acidity, constipation may also be responsible.
  • It is further important to rule out food allergies and problems like gluten intolerance and celiac disease.

Fear of eating 

Your child may develop a fear of eating or consuming certain foods if they have some stressful experience related to the intake of solid food previously. Children who have been tube-fed due to some physiological condition also depict a fear of feeding. Other causes of this condition include:

  • If your child suddenly unlatches from your breast or bottle while feeding, it may be a fear of feeding. These children usually feed normally or without fear when sleepy.
  • Some children suffer from the fear of choking, also known as functional dysphagia.
  • If you are concerned about the feeding habits of your newborn or if your newborn cries too much when you are trying to feed them, most likely they are not hungry yet and are crying for some other reason.

Once you have ruled out an underlying condition and have found the cause of your child’s low appetite, you can easily mitigate the problem by following this advice that pediatricians give:

Start early
Include a wide variety of healthy and nutritious food in your own diet while you are pregnant and breastfeeding. Studies indicate that children accept new or certain foods more easily if the mother has taken it during pregnancy and breastfeeding. This is because your child also gets exposed to all of those flavours through amniotic fluid and later through breastmilk. (Read more: Post-pregnancy diet chart)

Don’t fuss
Before you declare that your child has a low appetite, it is important to ascertain that you are not just being too worried about their eating habits. A lot of parents think their child is eating less while he/she is eating just alright as per the age. Talk to a paediatrician or a dietician to know how much is required for children at particular ages.

Add more variety to food

Once your child starts to take in solid food, which is at about 6-8 months of age, do not hesitate in choosing from a variety of foods. This will reduce the chances of having a selective eating child later on. Infants generally prefer energy dense foods which include apples, potatoes, bananas and dislike salty foods. Instead of force-feeding, it is best that you give them small amounts of veggies and leafy greens. To get over neophobia, it is recommended that you offer the same food to your child at least 10- 16 times before deciding that they don’t like it at all.

Show your cooking skills

If your child does not seem to accept a certain food at first, try cooking it in different forms. They may like the same vegetable or fruit in a boiled or baked form rather than in a curry. Try experimenting with ingredients, mix and match, but do not go for fried or unhealthy options.

Be imaginative with the presentation 

Just like an adult, children also love a good presentation, though in a bit more creative manner. Add a variety of colours to their plate and arrange foods in a more appealing manner. Cut fruits in different shapes or just serve a colourful whole wheat veggie sandwich with a smiley on the top. You can also buy cutlery or that bowl they loved on your shopping spree to make them more interested in eating.

Increase family time 

Family, especially parents play an important part in developing eating habits in children. Whenever possible, have a family meal at the same table so your child can better enjoy better meal from your example. Eating with your child would also make it easier for you to keep tabs on their food intake.

Happy conversations 

Talking about stressful topics on the dinner table or generally having a stressful environment at home is most commonly responsible for stress and anxiety in children. Try to talk about happy topics and avoid stress. Try to converse with your child (even if they can’t talk yet), ask them about themselves or their day or about the food. This will make them feel included and happier and thus they will eat better.

Include your child in the kitchen 

You can make cooking a fun time for your children by including them in the kitchen. Give them small tasks like washing fruits and vegetables or differentiating colours and food names. If you are a gardener, you can introduce some easy gardening skills to your children like watering or sowing seeds. This will increase their interest in food at a whole different level and you never know they start to love those green vegetables too!

Reduce portion size of meals 

If your child is not going by the conventional 3 meals a day method, give them smaller portions throughout the day. Include snacks, but opt for healthier snack options. Instead of giving cookies or french fries to your children, fix them a fruit salad, yoghurt with boiled vegetables or a whole wheat pasta with a lot of vegetables. Letting your child choose and plate their food themselves may also help increase their interest in eating.

Do not skip breakfast 

As the first meal of the day, breakfast is really important to provide energy and kick start the digestive system for the whole day. Cook nutritious breakfast and don’t forget to give variations every day.

Reduce the amount of juices 

Taking one too many glasses of fruit juice or any kind of sweet beverage just adds to the calorie count and does not contribute to the nutritional status of your child. It is important that you give no more than 1-2 glasses of fruit juice to your child so they can eat more. Similarly, do not make milk a whole meal and instead of giving milk, chose other dairy products such as cottage cheese and yoghurt. Apart from being more filling, they also enhance appetite and provide proteins for proper growth of your little ones.

Go nutrient dense not energy dense 

Most of the time, even if your child has fed properly, it is only fulfilling their energy needs while leaving out nutritional requirements. Educate yourself with the various nutrient needs of the child according to age and include more nutrient-rich food in their diet. For example, iron is needed for the proper development of a child’s brain and zinc is essential to improve appetite in children. Similarly, vitamin B complex is required for the overall growth of children. According to the Centre for Disease Control, a healthy and nutritious plate consist of 5 main types of ingredients: Whole grains, fruits and vegetables, healthy oils, low-fat dairy and proteins.

Avoid punish and reward policy 

Using food as a form of punishment for children is as bad as force-feeding them. Eventually, your child will start to hate certain foods and like those which they get for reward. The latter more likely than not comprising of fried and processed food. Instead, try to make all foods interesting or by cooking it the way they like.

Keep your child busy 

Active children tend to burn more calories and are less prone to appetite reduction. So, encourage them to go out and play. Also, slowly but gradually reduce TV, cell-phone and other distractions, especially when they are eating since some children do not eat without these. More physical activity has an additional benefit of a healthier body and growth.

Reduce fried and processed food 

Ready to eat or fried food may make your child eat and save your time but it is definitely not good for their appetite or health. Reduce the number of french fries, chips, samosas and pakoras and bring in more boiled corn, vegetable pies, fruit cakes and baked foods. Do not pressurise your child to avoid certain foods. Studies suggest that this kind of behaviour makes them binge more on the said forbidden food.

Spice it up

If your child does not like boiled or plain food, add appetite enhancing spices such as cinnamon, oregano, thyme, basil, and black pepper. However, too much spicy food has its own side effects for babies. So, you must be careful.

Following the aforementioned tips would cover most of your concerns and encourage your child to eat more and healthier. However, there are certain foods that may help increase your child’s appetite. Let us have a look at them:

Foods that increase digestive Agni

Digestive agni is an ayurvedic term which is used to define the fire (agni = fire) or energy that is needed by our body to properly digest and metabolise food. Agni-enhancing foods include spices like black pepper, cinnamon, cumin, carrom seeds and herbs such as basil, ginger, and oregano. If your child is too young, make sure that his/her digestive system is ready to take in these herbs and spices or talk to a doctor before cooking your child's meal with them.

Zinc-rich foods

Zinc is an important mineral responsible for the growth and development of young ones and a deficiency of zinc is associated with loss of appetite and anorexia. If a deficiency of this mineral is a reason, you can get your child to eat more by adding foods rich in zinc in their diet. Some zinc-rich foods include:

  • Whole grains
  • Nuts such as peanuts, cashews and walnuts
  • Beans like chickpeas, kidney beans and lentils
  • Milk and milk products
  • Fortified cereals
  • Chicken and meat

Iron-rich foods

In some children, anaemia may be the cause of appetite loss. In them, adding iron-rich foods may be helpful. Iron is anyway needed for the proper development of children. Some iron-rich foods include:

  • Leafy greens like spinach
  • Beans such as kidney beans and lentils
  • Tofu
  • Seafood such as sardines and oysters
  • Tomatoes and potatoes

Probiotics

If digestive problems are what are causing loss of appetite or selective eating in your child, giving them probiotic foods like yoghurt, curd, tofu, buttermilk, and lassi may help regain their hunger. These foods contain a good amount of healthy bacteria which improves their digestive system and increases metabolism. However, it is recommended that you buy probiotic foods from trusted brands and always check for manufacturing and expiry date. Although probiotics are considered to be safe for children who are already eating solid food, it is advisable that you talk to a doctor before adding these to a baby’s diet.

(Read more: How to improve metabolism)

References

  1. Benny Kerzner, Kim Milano, William C. MacLean Jr, Glenn Berall, Sheela Stuart, Irene Chatoor. A Practical Approach to Classifying and Managing Feeding Difficulties. February 2015, VOLUME 135 / ISSUE 2
  2. National Health and Medical Research Council. Healthy eating for infants and teenagers. NHMRC Publications Australia
  3. Better health channel. Department of Health and Human Services [internet]. State government of Victoria; Children's diet - fruit and vegetables
  4. Family health service. Healthy Eating for 6 to 24 month old children (1) Getting Started. Department of health, government of Hong Kong
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  7. Schaal B, Marlier L, Soussignan R. Human foetuses learn odours from their pregnant mother's diet.. 2000 Dec;25(6):729-37. PMID: 11114151
  8. Mennella JA, Jagnow CP, Beauchamp GK. Prenatal and postnatal flavor learning by human infants. 2001 Jun;107(6):E88. PMID: 11389286
  9. Center for Disease Control and Prevention [internet], Atlanta (GA): US Department of Health and Human Services; Childhood Nutrition Facts
  10. National Institutes of Health; Office of Dietary Supplements. [Internet]. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services; Zinc.
  11. National Institutes of Health; Office of Dietary Supplements. [Internet]. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services; Iron.
  12. van den Nieuwboer M, Claassen E, Morelli L, Guarner F, Brummer RJ. Probiotic and synbiotic safety in infants under two years of age. 2014 Mar;5(1):45-60. PMID: 24463207
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