This post is by contributor Sarah Bendeich of Oesch & Doots.
I once saw Nigella Lawson being interviewed by Andrew Denton. From the outset it was clear that the two were at odds with each other. Denton admitted that he couldn’t understand Nigella’s obsession with food. He saw meals as a fuel-stop, a necessary interruption which he liked to get over and done with as quickly as possible. Nigella expressed a slightly snooty kind of pity, this was a man who did not appreciate the sensual pleasure and social ritual of sharing a meal with loved ones.
So, if there are two kinds of people in the world – the Nigellas and the Dentons, I’m a Nigella. I love beautiful, home cooked food. I value the ritual of sharing meals with the ones I love. As a new mum I looked forward to providing a lifetime of fresh, nutritious and yummy meals for my family. I was looking forward to continuing family food traditions and creating new ones, to marking milestones with memorable meals, to packing enviable school lunches. And I imagined all of this would be shared enthusiastically with my child / children.
The trouble is, Doots, my first born, my daughter, the person with whom I imagined sharing all of this culinary tradition, is a Denton. She seeks no comfort in food (which will no doubt serve her waistline well in the long run!). At eleven months, after a enthusiastic introduction to solids, she began to refuse anything that was offered on a spoon. She was craving independence (a trait which shows no sign of mellowing as a 4 year old!). I had to change my tack, so it was out with the mash, stews and soups, and in with finger food.
As time went by, she became increasingly difficult to please. A pattern to her fussiness was emerging – it was a texture-related issue; she would refuse anything ‘wet’ or runny. So yoghurt, custard, casseroles, sauces and soups were all refused. She also seemed to eat next to nothing.
It has been a struggle, but I can happily report that she now surprises us with how much she eats at meals, and how her attitude to food has changed. She is much more willing to try new, or previously no-go tastes. She is generally a lot easier to please, and therefore to feed. I’ve talked about this topic endlessly with other mums, and I know that every fussy child has their own particular ‘profile’ and that different strategies work for different kids. My tips below have worked for our family, and I actually think they’re general enough to work for many children with fussy tendencies, however I am not an expert – just a mum with the benefit of hindsight!
Respecting their preferences (within boundaries)
I remember our lovely child health nurse telling me that a child needed to be offered fifteen times before you could write it off. Perhaps this is true, but it didn’t sit well with me. Doots would get quite distressed if we put something on her plate if she had previously made it clear that she didn’t like it – she felt we were not ‘hearing’ her. So I stopped putting cooked carrots on her plate (which she detests), replacing them with a raw carrot stick (which she quite likes). A carrot is a carrot after all.
While we encourage her to try new things, we don’t put real pressure on her to eat anything she really doesn’t want to. Nor do we offer bribes.
Focus on what they will accept
Even fussy kids have favourites. For Doots, it’s pasta, so I boost it up nutritionally. Pasta has become a vehicle for all sorts of sneaky vegetable goodness. Pestos are great tossed through pasta, and you can use all sorts of greens and nuts to increase the variety of foods your child is eating. Sometimes we make our own egg pasta which has the nutritional bonanza of 8 eggs in the recipe – and she gets to help make it.
Another idea is the nibble plate. It’s something of a last resort for me because it doesn’t seem to be a meal, but it allows me to feel reassured that she is getting enough variety. It is simply laying out a range of acceptable foods, ensuring there is a little carbohydrate, protein and fruit/veg. For Doots this might be:
-a few almonds, cashews or walnuts, or a boiled egg, or cheese stick
-some slices of cucumber, capsicum, carrot
-crackers or bread
Tap in to their imagination
Anyone who knows Doots can attest to her imagination. As a two and three year old, she was rarely ‘herself’ – she loved role-playing and we’d often be required to address her as whoever she was pretending to be that day/week. I learned to work with it, so if she was a cat (and she often was) we’d talk about what cats like to eat (seriously!) and I might serve tuna patties, or crumbed or pan-fried fish. I drew the line at serving it in a dish on the floor (although actually once I did give in to her request to serve her milk in a dish on the floor – it was worth it just for my own amusement).
I once successfully coaxed her into eating a dish of braised chicken and vegies tossed with cous cous, by naming it “Puss Puss Cous Cous”.
She loves the colour yellow, so I look out for yellow plates and bowls for her at op-shops, and she has a cutlery set with little cats. This all helps her feel comfortable and respected at meal times.
What’s your food culture?
Every family is going to have a different food culture – different customs, values, routines and rituals. And whatever your food culture is will rub off on your child eventually.
Our own food culture includes Sunday mornings at the farmers’ market, growing fruit, herbs and vegetables and keeping a couple of chickens for eggs, Saturday morning Daddy-made pancakes, occasional fish and chips at a local child-friendly restaurant, barbecues with friends in summer, a weekly shared picnic with mothers group friends, always eating together at the table with no other distractions, cooking together, afternoon tea occasionally, dessert occasionally, buying fresh fish from the fishermen at the docks, foraging for blackberries and crab apples in February to make jam, finding bags of apples or lemons left by neighbours on our front doorstep, eating outside when the weather is warm…
Family food is so much more than just fuel – it’s life! Having a low-pressure and respectful yet consistent approach to food is really paying off for us now. I don’t think Doots will ever be a Nigella, but neither is she the ‘plain pasta with no sauce’ kind of kid she was threatening to grow in to. She likes to help in the kitchen (but is not the keenest young chef around), and although she doesn’t really LOVE to eat them, she is interested in growing vegies. Most importantly, she eats and enjoys a wide variety of natural, fresh, healthy foods. She’s growing, she’s got a strong immune system and plenty of energy.
I’d love to know, do you have a little Nigella at home? Or a little Denton? What are your tips for helping fussy eaters get the nutrition and variety they need?
- 10 Easy Things to Cook With Kids
- Toddler Eating: Breakfast Adventures
- 5 Toddler Snacks That Won’t Fill Them Up Before Dinner
- Introducing Solids: What Worked For Us