Friday, 20 April 2012

Dont fuss over fussy eaters!

How do you define a fussy eater? Is it the child who won't eat anything green? The child who will only eat when the green spoon with red stars is placed on the left side of the placemat? The child who only eats crunchy textures, or anything but crunchy textures? The child that inhales brekky, eats some lunch but locks the lips by the time dinner arrives? Is fussy eating a lifelong illness or a fad, much like One Direction (hopefully!)? Yeah ok I'm taking the lighter side but in all seriousness, kids and their 'quirky' eating habits creates such stress for parents, and mealtimes can end up resembling a battlefield rather than an enjoyable catchup on the day gone and some hearty eating.

My eldest son, Liam, was pretty much a textbook eater when he was younger. He took to food like a duck to water. I remember reading the back of a rice cereal packet before giving him his first introduction to solids. It said to start off with two tablespoons of cereal and gradually increase over time. Well he ate that straight away and was gagging for more! A few days later he was eating about a cup of the stuff!!! He ate anything served up to him and had such a diverse palate - enjoying everything from hummus sandwiches to olives to salmon and every veggie in between! Then Jake came along! Well, Jake is different to his brother in every which way and food is no exception! Don't get me wrong, he does love his food but is much more selective and has been right from word go. He refuses to have anything in his mouth that he doesn't like the look or smell of and if it does reach his mouth and he doesn't like the taste, he just spits it straight out! I hadn't experienced this before and am honestly finding it quite hard to deal with! Especially when I've cooked for the last hour or two and then he just screws his nose up and won't have a bar of it! Grrrrr. And I know he isn't even a bad case as he still eats at least a small selection of foods out of every food group. Now that's two different scenarios coming from the same household.
Remember, I'm no doctor or specialist so this post is not for kids who are literally barely eating - that is a different situation that requires medical intervention.

So what do we do about it?

'Hiding' the foods they don't like

I scoured the Internet to see what was being suggested for parents of fussy eaters and a constant recommendation was 'hiding' healthy ingredients. 'Hiding' vegies in meat dishes, 'hiding' fruit in smoothies or muffins, 'hiding' whole grains in white bread. It's a natural thought I guess - here's my thoughts on it. Before being a parent myself (and boy isn't this the case for so many different topics??!!) I would have gasped at that suggestion and said 'how ridiculous. My child will eat what's put in front of them and will love veggies'. Being a parent now and realising that what the books say and what you think you're going to do pre-parenthood, is often very different to reality. I see now that it's not that cut and dry. Especially since my experiences with Jake, and even Liam more recently.But heres the thing about hiding all the good foods.  The child doesn't then learn about healthy eating, experience different foods in their whole state, and appreciate the different textures and flavours.  If I am feeling the need to hide vegies in a meal for example (and I feel there is a place for it), I will still have veggies or salad on the table to share or put some on each plate to have them realise that this is the way we eat and I am proud of and believe in eating good food, and they should too.  'Hiding' healthy ingredients should act as a booster rather than replacing the teachings.

Change it up! Make meals fun, interactive and interesting

Make meal times fun and change it up a bit every now and then.  I started making a lot of my dinners as share plates or dinners that I would serve up at the table.  That gave the boys a bit of ownership over what they chose to put on their plate.  On warmer days we often eat outside which turns their focus to whats going on outside rather than whinging and before they know it the plate is clean!

Stand your ground for the long term benefit

 A child refusing different foods can be linked to a developmental stage where they are learning to assert their independence and say 'no'!  In most cases this will pass at some stage or move around to different foods or meal times.
Try not to make a battleground out of it.  As with lots of things kids try out, if you don't react, they get bored of it and, well, yes, try something else!  Its almost a case of battle of the wills in a way.  As all health professionals will say, no child has ever died from starving themselves and eventually they will eat.  Having said that I personally would not make alternative meals, use bribes etc.  These are short term fixes that could spiral you into a situation of even more stress and it really isnt teaching them anything other than getting their own way.
 Liam used to be obsessed with peanut butter!  He would eat it for every meal if I let him.  I used to not love the idea but chose the brand with the least salt and sugar and, well, turned a bit of a blind eye!  Then when I bought the Thermomix, I was thrilled that finally I could make my own.  Well, of course, Liam decided he didn't like it.  So since then and once the last of the store bought jar was finished, he has refused to eat the homemade stuff.  I have refused to buy any more store bought stuff.  And so the battle began.  Yesterday, I won!  He wanted to lick the spoon when I was making another homemade batch and decided, 'actually, this is delicious mum'! 

Are you eating the way you want your kids to?

Model the behaviour you want your kids to practice.  Kids sponge everything off us as they learn (even some things we dont want them to!) so if you want your kids to eat a certain way, thats gotta come from you!  And so its a whole family, lifestyle approach. 
Funnily enough I have an example of this that happened just this week.  I sat down with the boys at lunchtime the other day with a quick salad I threw together of chickpeas, spinach leaves, beanshoots, sumac, olive oil and lemon juice.  I was eating away when Jake grew interested and came over to me.  He started feeding me with the fork (which yes did get a bit messy!) and I was saying mmm, thanks Jake, YUM!  Curiosity must have got the better of him and suddenly he turned the fork around and put the chickpea in his mouth.  He went to spit it out, I think more so due to the sharpness of the lemon juice, but then started chewing and said MmmMmm!  He ended up asking for more chickpeas once that bowl was finished!

Meet them half way

I tend to make sure that at least one part of the meal I know they will like and eat - ie rice or pasta or polenta or sweet potato slices etc.  That way I know unless they really feel like playing up (!) they will at least start eating that part which for me tends to lead to them trying the other parts of the meal - perhaps chicken with a new sauce I havent made before etc.  So its mixing the old and familiar with new.   

Enrol them in the next Junior Masterchef

Hahaha, no but really, as mentioned in my previous post about Kids and Health, get them involved in the shopping/growing/cooking process.  Foods they have helped to cook often they are more inclined to at least try.   Let them choose one meal a week that they would like to eat.  If you think this might be nutella sandwiches (!!), perhaps have three options and let them chose which they would prefer.

Ten times lucky!

I'm sure you've heard that it takes 10 or more tastes of a food before a child will accept the flavour/texture.  Just keep offering it until it becomes a familiar sight on their plate.  Jake will not eat broccoli (if given to him on its own, not 'hidden' so clearly its not the taste he dislikes!) but to this day I still put a small piece in his bowl in the hope that one day he might just give it a go!!  Have you noticed that kids love reading the same book over and over.  You, on the other hand, are sick to death of reading it, but they get so excited about whats coming next, like its the first time they ever saw it! They love routine and they love habits.  So if veggies are always on the table, bread is always multigrain, peanut butter is always homemade (!!) they will eventually realise this is how it is and this is normal!

I know this has been a long post, it is such a big topic that I could keep on going!  Hopefully you can take something from this to apply in your family and make a difference!  Remember, it takes 21 days to form a habit so stick with it and let me know how you go.  Also please comment if you have any other more specific issues with fussy eating that you would like my thoughts on.


  1. Brilliant advice! Thanks so much for all the tips and tricks. I have been a vegetable 'hider' for years, but you make an excellent point that I should be serving the vegies as a side as well.

  2. Thanks Sal. I'm glad you got something out of it! And you can even 'assist' their new found autonomy by letting them chose one out of four veggies to put on their plate, and gradually increase it to two etc as they get more used to it. If you know there is a veggie they do like, ie carrots, have that as one of the choices to ease them into it! Let us know how you get on!