Without question the most stressful part of feeding a family is dealing with picky eaters. With so many other pressures to contend with in our busy daily lives, the last thing you need is a flat refusal, plate shoving or your child spitting out food...
We’re programmed to nourish and feed our children, so seeing them missing meals or objecting to things can be really frustrating, and can lead us to undertake desperate measures – such as cutting out food they don’t like, giving up on encouraging them to try new ingredients, and plumping for the few ‘safe’ meals that we know they’ll eat. While this is definitely less stressful in the short term, it only sets you and them up for a much trickier time in the long term, when they are far more likely to be fussy eaters as teenagers and adults and will miss out on the many pleasures and benefits that fabulous food can bring. As a mother of three, I’ve had my fair share of dealing with this problem, and I have found that you can more easily navigate these difficult phases with a few simple techniques. Whether it’s a long-term problem or a one-off tea that is being sniffed at, it is so much easier if you have a coping strategy. So say goodbye to your fussy eater and look forward to stress-free meal times.
1. Plan For Beautiful Variety
It’s so easy to fall into a routine of relying on a few family favourites and to keep these meals on rotation. But this is where problems can creep in as children start to resist anything new. Try to introduce a new meal at least once a week. This will ensure your kids are open to new flavours and tastes and are used to the idea of trying unknown foods. If this is tricky to start with, you can let them join in by allowing them to choose recipes from a book or a website that you like. Letting them help prepare the veg and stir the pot also engages them in their meal and may mean they’re more keen to try what gets served up. If you have the time, write up a weekly meal plan which includes these new recipes, as this keeps the stress and the last-minute panic out of meals, which is often where the pressure comes from. Above all, keep changing these meal plans, as a repeated rota is limiting for both them and you.
2. Repeat Ingredients
Often it is one ingredient in particular that bears the brunt of a child’s loathing, and you might find that courgettes, peppers, or something else becomes the bad guy and is sidelined at every meal. I know it can be tempting to avoid this drama by just excluding this ingredient, but this issue can so often be nipped in the bud by employing exactly the opposite approach. I recommend keeping that ingredient in the mix but cooking it in a different way every time, and you may just find that they come round eventually. After all, their taste buds are developing all the time, and what they don’t like one month might change the next. It might also be a texture thing, so by changing it up, you might find they gobble it up. When my oldest son repeatedly claimed, ‘I don’t like sweet potato’, I used to say that foods are like people and you can’t tell if you like them or not by just looking at them, you need to get to know them, as they are all different. A roasted sweet potato, sweet potato fries, mash and sweet potato in curry are all so very different in texture, flavour and appearance. This argument really worked for me, and now my three are always prepared to try a little bit of everything before they turn their noses up at it.
3. Showcase The Veg
From the minute I became a mother I read about the tactic of ‘hiding vegetables’ in endless books and articles on feeding babies and children. It never felt right to me instinctively, and now, after years of cooking for endless housefuls of children, I can categorically say this is the strategy I most disagree with because I believe it is both patronising to our children and promotes an atmosphere of distrust around food. Instead of masking ingredients, we should highlight them and make them as irresistible as possible. A good way to do this is to make the vegetable in question the delicious centre-piece of a meal, rather than a sad side which may be an afterthought for the cook and the eater. Roasted cauliflower is a popular choice in my house, and is far more appetising than boiled florets, which can be tasteless, watery and soggy. A courgette from the oven baked in a little Parmesan or polenta is a crispy, delicious and juicy chip that is gobbled up by most kids who say they don’t like them. Likewise, spiralizing a courgette into thin ribbons and serving it mixed in with pasta, is showing it off at its best.
4. Good, Honest Information
As with showcasing beautiful vegetables rather than hiding them, it is important to give children real and true information about their food that will empower them, rather than patronise them with fibs. Children are savvy, and they will see right through persuasion tactics that are used to dupe them into eating things, like ‘broccoli makes you a superhero’. Instead, they appreciate and respond to straightforward, honest facts. Try out these nuggets of nutritional information at your next meal time (use more or less information depending on their age).
These have worked for me time and time again:
- Spinach gives you energy to build your blood, so you can run faster in the playground. All the different colours in food make them great at fighting bugs, so you won’t get a sore throat.
- Fish feeds your brain and makes you happier and smarter.
- Broccoli will help you make strong bones and teeth.
- Peppers will stop you getting a runny nose.
Similarly, by explaining how empty of nutrients other foods can be, rather than issuing a blanket ban on them, you are helping your child to make an informed choice that will set them up for life. After all, banning foods completely can just lead to a much-heightened desire for them and lead to binging on sweets, fizz and cakes when they’re not at home. This really just delays the problem for later in life. While children will still want to chomp on a cupcake or bag of crisps at a party, if the majority of their diet is comprised of delicious, healthy whole foods, they will taste the difference and often won’t want more than a nibble as they’ll find the sugar content too much for their palate. But what is crucial here is that they will have made their own choice.
5. Curb Grazing
It’s a tricky balancing act to keep children sustained throughout the day but still hungry at mealtimes, especially as they often need snacks to keep them fuelled, particularly when they are very young. However, permanently snacking on endless rice cakes, biscuits, bottles of milk, pouches of sweet fruit purée, etc, means that they will never be truly hungry, which will lead to meal refusing and then fussy eating. After all, if a child is being permanently topped up, nothing will seem that tempting, least of all something savoury and meal-shaped. I recommend leaving at least an hour or two (depending on their ages) between a snack and the next meal. So if lunch is at 12 pm and supper at 5 pm, don’t give them any more snacks after 10 am or 3 pm. And try to make these snacks easy and fast, but nutritious, such as fresh fruit, or some hummus and vegetable sticks. That way they’ll be more enthusiastic about eating at their next proper meal time.
6. Park The Emotions
It’s obvious that the more stress that is felt around food and meal times, the less likely children are to want to eat well. A recent study by Erasmus MC University Medical Center in Rotterdam, Netherlands, goes further and shows that the higher levels of general stress in a household lead to much fussier eaters in the long term, too. I know that when there are temper tantrums and food is being thrown on the floor, it’s easier said than done to keep your emotions in check, but by keeping calmer at meal times you will diffuse the situation and it will become a much more fun experience. So avoid repeating a mantra about how much more they have to eat and instead try talking about something completely different, perhaps the latest book they’re reading, what you’re doing at the weekend, their new friend at nursery, etc. Use aeroplanes/motorbikes/funny faces to make tiny ones find eating fun. Often distraction can be just what’s needed and they’ll start gobbling up what’s in front of them if they don’t think they’re being forced. Back out of any fights at the table; if they’re refusing to eat something, tell them they need to try it and then if it’s still a no-go, simply get on with the meal without a fuss. Be aware that before a child gets ill – for instance if they have swollen tonsils or a sore throat – they are very likely to go off their food completely. Smoothies, soups, banana ice cream and other easily swallowed, nutrient-dense foods are what you can wheel out in these circumstances to keep their calorie intake up.
7. Do As You Say
No matter how much you talk to your kids about what’s good for them, if they don’t see you enjoying the foods that you offer they’ll never be persuaded to eat them. If you eat well, they’ll eat well. If you reach for a chocolate bar or a bag of crisps as a snack, that’s what they’ll want, too. It is the tried-and-tested formula of leading by example, and double standards will not go unnoticed.
My kids love to get involved in assembling their meals: it is more interesting than having a bowl or plate thrust upon them, and it gives them more independence, too. You can start with something familiar, like a rice bowl, and have different add-ons on the table so they can create their own bespoke supper. Try offering bowls of chopped peppers, avocado, nuts, seeds, chicken or fish, that they can just pile on to create their own rice meal mix. Build-your-own tacos or tortillas with bowls of chopped vegetables, avocados, tomatoes, cheese, sauces, etc., are great fun at the dinner table and have the added benefit of being a brilliant way to use up leftovers from the fridge.
Timing is everything. If you want to try out a new dish or introduce a new ingredient into a meal but are worried about being met with resistance, pick a moment when your children’s focus will be on other things, or when they’ve got all your attention. For example, when friends are over for a playdate your children are much less likely to make a fuss in front of them, particularly if those kids are eating up with no arguments. Another good time to try new things is when you’re not at home. If you’re going on a picnic or to someone else’s house, take something with you and offer it to them then. The change of environment can often be the way in. Another time when you have your kids’ undivided attention and desire to please is when they are trying to avoid bedtime! I find my children are suddenly really keen to have a crunch on a new veg or taste my latest number from the stove if the alternative is going upstairs to bed!
10. Keep It Familiar
Another winning tactic is to incorporate a particularly hated ingredient into something you know they love already. This is not the same as hiding it or masquerading it as something else, just presenting it in a different way to achieve a very different result – offer them raw spiralised courgette or roast it rather than steam it, grate cauliflower into ‘rice’ or roast it and serve it with a cheese sauce. So if a roast dinner or meatballs are their favourite meal, for example, try serving either one with mashed sweet potato, if that ingredient is the problem. Pancakes and patties seem to be universally liked, so use these as a vehicle for adding different ingredients: grated courgette in a fritter or sweet potato and spinach in a bhaji. I really hope these tips are of some use to you, even if you just use a handful of them. If they only solve a couple of problems, that would make me very happy, as I am so familiar with the stress that mealtimes can induce. Please remember that perseverance is everything. Never stop trying and be confident in the knowledge that you’re doing your very best for everyone.