One of the greatest challenges of parenting can be feeding your children. If your days are anything like mine, then mealtimes are often fraught with tension. Breakfast is a rushed affair at the start of the day when we are in a hurry to leave the house, lunchtimes are squeezed in-between nursery pick-ups for older siblings, or before afternoon activities, and dinnertime is at the end of the day when the children are at their most tired and testing. On top of that, you need to think of things to cook that the kids will actually eat, have fresh ingredients in the fridge and prepare meals with hungry toddlers snapping at your heels. It’s no wonder that fish fingers become a weekly staple for most of us! Of course there is nothing wrong with fish fingers – I can certainly recommend the Jamie Oliver version – but cooking the same old meals can be very monotonous for both us, and our taste buds. And of course isn’t it every parent’s dream to have children that really enjoy their food and aren’t fussy eaters?!
So, how can we encourage less fussy eating and get children to try new foods? I was quite amused at a party recently when my daughter excitedly pointed to the table and exclaimed, “Look Mummy, olives. Delicious.” I could sense the envy in the Mum I was stood next to as she exclaimed, “My daughter is so fussy, I wish she would eat olives”, at which point she grabbed the arm of her daughter, pointed to mine and said, “Look, your new friend is eating olives, won’t you try one too?” So she did try it, but spat it out immediately! But at least she tried it.
My husband, in desperate moments, used to coat our daughter’s food in yoghurt in the hope that she ‘wouldn’t notice’ and might eat ‘the good stuff’ anyway. I’ve heard of toddlers happily dunking carrots in yoghurt, and others of course succumb to tomato ketchup as a vehicle for healthier food, or just food in general! Parents will try anything just to get their kids to sample food they think they don’t or won’t like.
One of the favourite books in our house is Green Eggs and Ham, by Dr. Seuss – a comical tale of Sam trying endlessly to get the Cat in the Hat to try something new, which he is convinced he won’t like. Finally, in order to avoid the nagging, he tries the green eggs and ham, and of course discovers he not only likes them, but he loves them. So, as the yoghurt trick won’t wash in our house anymore, we have one line when we present the children with new food they are suspicious of: ‘Green Eggs and Ham’!! My daughter then retorts, ‘He didn’t like it and then he did like it. Ok I’ll try it.’ We don’t always win of course, but at least we are making progress with the concept of trying something before you decide if you like it.
Fussy eating is almost certainly part of any childhood, but exposing children to lots of different types of food, served in different ways, can certainly help, as well as teaching children about what they are eating, where it comes from and how it is prepared. Talking to children about food away from the dinner table can help stimulate curiosity too. We found that growing a vegetable patch can be an exciting pursuit, or picking vegetables from a local grow your own farm. We took the children this summer to pick vegetables, and I was surprised by how much I learnt too, but more importantly, how excited they were to come home and help to cook and taste their wares!
Despite the title of my website, I don’t believe that children need to eat separate food to adults, and indeed the preparation of separate meals doesn’t benefit anyone, as it’s then just twice the work and you have less opportunity to introduce new flavours. Often it can be a case of staging the preparation, so that you can add spices later on, or giving them a small amount of the ‘adult’ food with plenty of other staples alongside. However, I do concede that some days this is perhaps the easiest strategy, but you can always get them to help prepare the adult food too, even if it’s just adding saffron to the rice to see it change colour, as eventually their curiosity may get the better of them!
Finally, trying food from new cultures can also generate an interest. A simple trip to Pizza Express can be made more exciting if you tell them they are eating Italian food and talk a little about the place and the culture. In this setting you just may get them to try the olives, and not spit them out!