We encourage our children to have their own likes, dislikes and not to do things just because everyone else does. We want them to be individual with their own opinions. However, it seems this applies in every setting except for at the dinner table!
With most people eating three meals a day, food is such a big part of our lives and should be an opportunity for enjoyment and to socialise. Time spent eating together should be fun, yet it is often a time of stress, arguing and upset and the words ‘dinner time’ are often ones that some parents and children have learnt to dread.
So, you’ve had a really busy day and you have rushed around to cook a nice healthy (tasty) meal for the family. No sooner have you placed it on the table, your child has outright refused to eat it! Does this sound familiar?
Many of us have tried to force them to take a mouthful, telling them they couldn’t get down from the table until their meal was finished, or we have bribed them saying “no dinner, no desert”. It just doesn’t work. So, do you tell them “you eat this or there’s nothing else” or rush back into the kitchen to rustle up something they do like?
On one hand, you don’t want to give the impression that you’re willing to cook a different meal at the drop of a hat just because they don’t like it, but on the other, you don’t want them to be deprived of the vitamins and nutrients they need to function and grow, especially if this is a regular occurrence. As parents, we are also all too aware that missing dinner causes irritability and the prospect of a moody, upset evening filled with arguments, often causes us to cave in. There’s no denying it’s a tricky one, but like most things in life, it need not be a case of black or white.
The book shops and libraries are saturated with advice on what we, as parents, should be doing- ‘What to Do If You Have a Fussy Eater’, ‘What to Do If Your Child Doesn’t Sleep’. Society is also bursting with opinions on what we should and shouldn’t be doing. Parents and non-parents, all too eager to offer their views on what is right.
The reality is, all our children are different. They are unique in every way. What works for one, may or may not work for another.
All we can do is try a variety of suggestions and see what works for us.
All we can do is our best. So, here are a few ideas and my experiences of them.
Serve at least one food on the plate that your child likes
At times, our meals can be very boring as we tend to have the same set dinners that we know everyone likes and will eat. However, if we are going to try something new, I always put at least one food on the plate that I know they like, so that if all else fails with the new food, they will at least have something to eat.
Some children are scared of trying new foods. The colour, texture and smell can all be reasons (and excuses) that prevent our children from trying something new.
According to research, you have to try a new food 10-15 times before your taste-buds can decide whether they really like the food or not. Therefore, perseverance is key. Last week, I cooked a lovely buttermilk chicken and it was so tasty, my eldest two even commented on how nice it was and asked for more, but my youngest was adamant she wasn’t going to eat it. She did, however, eat one mouthful and we decided not to try to persuade her any more, as she had lots of vegetables and potatoes on her plate to fill her up. This week, we had the same dinner. I called her in the kitchen and opened the oven to show her how nice it looked and smelt cooking and I asked her if she was going to eat it. Today she said yes! So, last week it was a definite no go and this week she cleared the whole plate! Maybe she fancied it today but didn’t last week? Maybe she was grumpy last week and wanted to say “no” to everything? Maybe she just got used to the look of it? Or maybe she just wasn’t hungry? who knows? What I’m saying is, just because our children refuse a meal one day shouldn’t mean that we rule it out forever. I know that some days I look in the fridge and I might see, let’s say, a piece of salmon and I think “nope, I really don’t fancy that tonight”. It doesn’t mean I don’t like it. I think our kids are just the same, only unlike us, they aren’t in a position to decide what to cook for dinner and what time they are going to eat it.
Disguise foods to help develop a likeness for it and to ensure a balanced diet
If you have a fussy eater, you will know all too well that it can cause a lot of stress and anxiety. Children need a balanced diet so that they can grow and develop properly, so it’s not surprising that as parents, we can feel a lot of pressure.
If I chop a courgette, aubergine or tomato and put them on my children’s plates there is no way they would eat them, but if I chop them really small and mix them in to the sugo (sauce) that I make for lasagne so they can’t be seen, they will eat them all. When they were very small, I would blend them. This way, there is no stress and I know they are eating a meal that is packed with vitamins. The first time I served my children spinach and ricotta ravioli, I decided that I wouldn’t tell them it was spinach because I knew that once they found out it was a green vegetable, they would turn their noses up. I decided the best thing to do was just to say that it was a pasta dish. I found something funny to talk about to keep them distracted from pulling their food apart and analysing it and by the time they asked about what they were eating they had realised that they really liked it.
I’m aware this all sounds idyllic and while it’s definitely worth a try, I also know from personal experience that it doesn’t always work. When I was younger, I was a very fussy eater. My parents were worried about me getting enough vitamins and nutrients, so I remember my mum blending a piece of fillet steak, then making it look like a burger by putting it in a bun. It didn’t work. I still didn’t like it. The thing is, I just didn’t like eating meat, but back then the number of vegetarian options were limited and so I think my mum wanted me to eat meat with the rest of the family for ease, but also because she was worried that I wouldn’t get the right balance of nutrients if I became a vegetarian. To this day, I still don’t like meat and only occasionally eat chicken. I knew then what I liked and dis-liked, and no amount of persuading has made me change. However, I have naturally become bored of the same foods and decided off my own back to try different things.
Get them involved in preparing the food- Make it fun!
I love making home-made pizzas with my children. Not just putting the topping on a pre-made base, but the whole process- the mixing and waiting for the yeast to activate and kneading the dough until we’re ready to shape it. We all tend to like different toppings, so we chop, slice and pour them into different bowls and then help ourselves to whatever we want to put on top. My youngest, who didn’t like cheese at the time, was so hungry when she was making her pizza that she decided to try the grated mozzarella and has asked for it at lunchtimes ever since. They also enjoy moulding the base into different shapes and faces, using olives and sweetcorn to make the eyes, nose and mouth. Children are proud of what they make, and my experience is that they are more likely to eat something if they have made it themselves, especially if they have been given lots of praise for it. For young children, you could help them to use cutters to make food into different shapes. It also gives them some control over their dinner and helps them to mentally prepare for meal time.
Don’t force them to eat. Relax
The best advice I can give to anyone who has a fussy eater is to relax.
It’s natural to worry if our children are getting enough food but we don’t want to end up with a child who develops an unhealthy relationship with food or has a food phobia.
When my eldest was a baby, I spent hours in the kitchen peeling and boiling fresh fruit and vegetables, making them into a puree and freezing them into ice cube trays. I followed the Annabel Karmel baby and toddler book religiously and planned every day around food preparation and meal times, only to be faced with a baby that refused to eat it. The hours of cooking, the fresh produce, all scooped into the bin after a time when it was clear it wasn’t going to be eaten. It was like all my good intentions were being kicked in the teeth, day after day, and the more time I spent preparing, the more pressure I felt for her to eat it. The more pressure she probably felt to eat it, and the more likely it became that she wasn’t going to. After reading all the pages of the book, my mum gave me the best advice of all. She told me to go out for the day, forget about cooking and to buy some jars of ready-made food. When it came to meal times, I was less stressed, and although she still didn’t eat, I didn’t feel quite so bad because I had been out for the day, and not in the kitchen cooking a meal that I knew was going to be thrown in the bin. After a while, things slowly improved, and I believe it’s because I became more relaxed around meal-times. Yes, we have to make sure we aren’t allowing snacks too close to meal-times, that dinner isn’t served too late and that the portion size is appropriate for the age of the child, but we can build this into a relaxed daily routine. Think of meal-time as an opportunity to spend quality time as a family, talking about your days and having fun. If we enjoy the experience, we build up positive associations with ‘dinner time’ and it is more likely that eating will naturally follow.
There are still days when my children don’t eat their dinner, but on the whole, I have learnt what they do and don’t like to eat, we are all relaxed and enjoy our family mealtimes together. We have managed to build up enough dinners and foods, to ensure that they are eating a balanced varied diet and every so often, we will explore a new dish and hope for the best.
Tip! Pour yourself a glass of wine to have with dinner and relax!