I’ve been meaning to write a post on fussy eating for a while now but other things have caught my attention. I don’t know about you, but when ideas or sparks of inspiration hit me, if I can, I try to go with that and see where it leads (rather than shooing it away so that I can get on with my to do list). I’ve been working on some exciting new ideas recently and feel very much in the flow with my new life at home with the boys. I think it must be good for my soul because the Big Magic has effortlessly been finding its way to me, and I’m more than happy to indulge it.
So, fussy eating. Well firstly I should say that I don’t like this term or ‘picky eating’ because they are both so negative. Yet I have not come up with something better and most parents will know what I mean when I say it, so we’ll run with it, for now.
If you follow me on Instagram you’ll see a lot of the food I feed to the boys and it may leave you with the impression that they aren’t fussy eaters. Well let me stop you in your tracks there, my friend. Laurence and Jonathan are just like most other young children. They are as fickle as a pickle, and most mealtimes are privy to some element of food being poked at or in the case of Jonathan, tried and then spat out.
Most young children will go through a stage of fussiness. For some it is fleeting and for others, more drawn out. The most important thing to understand is that it’s a completely normal part of their development and that is why I don’t like labelling it in a negative way – nothing about eating real food should be negative.
To be sure, no-one said that building a love of real food was going to be easy. It does take perseverance and you may need to muster your stamina to work through it without mealtimes resorting to a stand-off. However, forearmed is forewarned as they say, and given your success at navigating this period comes down to how you respond to the fussiness, I thought it might be helpful to see how fussy eating manifests itself differently in our home and show you how I deal with situations as and when they arise.
So firstly I’ll start with Jonathan who is nearly 2 now. Most babies are really good food explorers in the early days, say from 6 months to their first birthday – a reason why I think introducing real, whole and recognisable foods as early as possible (from around 6 months) really maximises a time of natural curiosity. But after that, it can for most toddlers (although not all) be like Russian roulette, and Jonathan was no exception.
Learning to like leaves
Although he has most of his teeth now and is very good at feeding himself, there are still a few things he physically struggles with. Leaves are a bit annoying – tearing through plants is quite tiring relative to eating other foods and ultimately there is little reward in terms of the fatty, salty, sugary flavours we’re programmed to enjoy. But for me, it’s really important that he learns to like them. They are incredibly nutritious and for that reason I always struggle to see a meal as being complete if there are no leaves on the plate.
I believe that it is within all children to come to like almost any food if they are given it often enough. Indeed, you only need to look as far as other cultures to see examples of infants and children eating foods that we might find strange in the Western world. Infants and children learn to like foods through repetition and role modelling, and so the simple truth behind my approach with leaves (and any other food for that matter) is to continue to put them on his plate like it’s as natural as putting on pyjamas before bed. So long as he’s seeing the leaves regularly and seeing us eat them, and hopefully giving them a little try – that’s all my aim is in these early years.
Pick your battles
That then begs the question of what I actually do when we are at the dinner table. We are only what we eat (and digest, of course) and so it’s not much help if the leaves never make it into his mouth, is it? Well firstly, it’s hard to reason with a toddler. Have you tried it? It’s like negotiating with a psychopath… they care little of consequences. With Jonathan I am mindful of gently encouraging him to try foods that are subtly being avoided. I might play with the food a little… tickling his cheek with some kale (just writing that sounds so twee, I’m sorry) or make a forrest with the broccoli, or use a silly counting voice every time something goes into my mouth. Anything goes really, so long as it brings in some fun and giggles to the table (table manners are for another time). My aim is one nibble… just a nibble and even if it gets spat out… that is progress.
Now, if it’s just not going to happen, even after some silliness and ridiculous affirmative reactions from me as I munch down on the tofu, then I leave it. I don’t want mealtimes to turn into a battle ground. It’s not a nice atmosphere and in reality, I’m on the losing side of this battle. I’ve taught them since they were babies that it’s up to them to feed themselves, so I can’t go back on that now. Plus, I don’t want to – I want them to eat food because they enjoy it, not because they think they should or they won’t get their ‘afters’. I try to eat up any leftovers in front of him to reinforce that there’s nothing wrong with the food, and then the hands get wiped, the table gets cleared and we move on.
Share and share alike
This brings me onto another point which is that we all share the same meal in our home probably 95% of the time. Jonathan has much smaller portions than us and I find that his appetite can vary wildly. I really try to not let this bother me. For example, some mornings, he’ll lick his porridge bowl clean and others he just picks out the little bits of dates or raisins, smearing the rest in his hair and demanding ‘out’ of his highchair. It’s difficult to not encourage him to eat a little more but I put faith in the fact that he knows his body better than I do – which is true, in as much as young children have much better appetite control than adults, who have learnt to override it.
I tend to have more success with mealtimes when the boys are hungry (for obvious reasons) but timing meal times right is definitely a fine art. Too early and there is a lot of picking at what is on the plate, too late and there are meltdowns intersperced with gnawing the dining table. This generally means that we sit down for our dinner somewhere between 4.30 and 5pm, which is probably quite early for some people, but I find that works for us.
Out the other side
Laurence is 5 now and so is almost out the other side of his fussiness. It’s been an interesting ride. He was similar to Jonathan in going through that fussy toddler stage but what has been more intriguing has been his instant dislike for foods that he previously liked. But not only that, foods that you wouldn’t consider to be typically ‘challenging’ such a sweet cherry tomatoes.
Reassuringly for me now with Jonathan, there was a time when Laurence wouldn’t touch kale but after a really positive experience with some homemade kale chips, he’s since completely converted and doesn’t need any prompting to eat it up. There are still a few foods that we’re working on.. zucchini (courgette), millet and quinoa and probably several others that escape me right now. But on the whole, we’ve come a long way.
Tallest, fastest, strongest, smartest
I just briefly want to say that my approach with Laurence at his age is markedly different to with Jonathan. Most of the time you can reason with a 5 year old to some extent (I’ll probably regret saying that). I’ve found that what motivates Laurence to eat foods is answering his questions about why – it will make you stronger, taller, smarter and so on. It’s all about competition for him at the moment. We also have a little chart on the wall where we are tracking his height and for him, visually seeing the lines creep up the wall is very motivating for him. And by and large, when he’s had a food a few times, you don’t need to convince him anymore.
Brave little eaters
And of course, there’s always new recipes to try – new foods that he hasn’t had before. And so this whole process is not just about introducing and growing a liking for a wide variety of foods, it’s also about dampening that fear of the unfamiliar. Getting them to a point where they are happy to have a little try.
The other day we picked up a jar of spicy apricot kasundi from the farmer’s market, the sort that is just enough heat to bear as an adult, let alone a child. Anyway, we popped a bit on both of their plates along with their curries. Jonny was quite alarmed when he brazenly scooped some onto his chapatti and stuffed it into his mouth. Laurence on the other hand, had a similar reaction but when his taste buds calmed down, he went back in for more. And more…
There is so much more to talk about in this whole space, so I will definitely do a follow-up post with some clear and simple strategies that I would recommend to keep little ones on a path to broad and healthful taste preferences. All children are different of course and it’s finding ways that work well for you – the more strategies you have to do this, the less likely you are to throw the dinner in the bin and reach for the gin.
Do you have any tips to share or any questions on particular foods that you’re struggling with? Let me know in the comments.
In good health,