I accidentally ate a smidge of banana yesterday, and the kids were in convulsions watching my own near-convulsion when I realised what was in my mouth. Most people have at least one food they can’t bear, and for me it’s bananas. (Shudder)
I’ll eat pretty much anything else though, and I was the same as a child. My husband will eat absolutely anything too. So of course we planned to have children who would eat anything.
Well, not so much planned as assumed. And indeed when the oldest was a year old, and eating cous cous and coleslaw and broccoli and asparagus, we figured this was how it would be. We tried to keep the smugness out of our smiles when people commented on how well she ate. “Oh, we just give her whatever we’re having and she eats it too,” we said, because of course we knew everything back then.
I remember chatting to a US colleague at work one day, about our kids. I happened to mention that my then one-year-old was a great eater. “Oh I miss those days,” my colleague said. I remember when mine used to eat everything too.”
“Yes, they’re so open and adventurous at that age,” she went on. “Now my eldest is four and will only eat foods that are white. Pasta, potatoes, and rice.”
So this open-to-anything attitude might not persist into toddlerhood and childhood. Good to know, but not good news. And yes, slowly over the years, my daughter became less adventurous and less open to trying new foods. Then she stopped eating the foods she used to like.
Today, if she only had to eat what she wants, she’d exist on plain pasta, porridge, and baked potatoes. So, basically, white foods.
With my second child, we adopted the same route of trying a wide variety of foods, and she followed her sister’s lead, showing an early openness to new things. I still love looking back at photos of the two of them eating mussels in a restaurant in France when they were two and one – they look at mussels now and they can’t believe they ever touched them.
My second daughter went on to become a reasonably OK eater – she’ll try most things, but once she decides she doesn’t like it, that’s it. And like her big sister, vegetables are the issue – she likes roasted peppers and olives, she tolerates peas, and that’s it.
With my third child, I did Baby-led Weaning (our full story is here), and he is indeed my child who will eat anything. But only when he feels like it. If he feels like wandering off and completely ignoring his dinner, that’s exactly what he does. I suspect this is a personality thing more than a food thing, but the end result is the same; three children who won’t always eat what I put in front of them.
And I haven’t figured out how to fix it, but I have found some tricks and ground rules that work better than others – if you have fussy eaters.
And of course all kids are different – one tip that works for me might not work for you and vice versa. Like when people tell me to just cut things into interesting shapes and my kids will eat them – it doesn’t work in my house. But it must work in some houses. Like every element of parenting, there are very few universal truths.
Anyway, this is what I do:
Everything is on the plate
I always put every element of the dinner on their plate – this is an unbreakable rule. Even if I know they won’t eat red pepper or broccoli, I still put a small piece on each plate and hope. The theory is that they get so bored seeing it there time after time they might eventually give in and try it. Or forget they don’t like it and try it. And it sends the message is that there are no special dinners, everyone gets the same. Plus I don’t want to give the signal that I’ve given up on them. To avoid waste I keep portions small. And at least some of the message has sunk in. The youngest often says “I don’t like salad leaves yet but I probably will when I’m big” – there is hope.
But they don’t have to eat it
I never insist they eat anything they don’t want to eat. I don’t tell them they have to clear their plates or that they can’t leave the table until they’ve eaten their carrots (or whatever). I suspect it would simply turn them off carrots (or whatever) for life and build an unhealthy relationship with food. (This is a full article I wrote on the downsides of asking kids to clear their plates.)
No extras of the stuff they like without giving the peas a try
However, if they want more of the food they love, they’ll need to try the food they don’t love. So if they’ve demolished a baked potato and want more – just because they love baked potatoes – I tell them they’ll need to try the peas first. I tell them that they don’t have to try them, it’s a choice, and it’s about getting some balance into the meal. The balance argument is one that makes sense to them and they usually comply. (By eating one pea, but still.)
No bribes, no rewards
We don’t have dessert every day but maybe once a week, there’s cake or a treat for after. I don’t promise dessert if they eat dinner, but they know they won’t get the treat if they leave a completely untouched dinner behind. Any kind of half-genuine effort is usually enough to get the cake. (Again with the one pea.)
Dislike V don’t love
I try to distinguish between food that they just don’t love and food they genuinely dislike. Peas, they’ll eat if they realise there’s no extra plain pasta coming otherwise. But if someone doesn’t like a curry because it’s too spicy or any kind of strong taste that’s unfamiliar, I’ll give them whatever else I have – plain rice or pasta, or bread if we’re stuck. There are lots of things they say they don’t like, but what they actually mean is “This is kind of a nothing food that I don’t love” which is a different thing entirely.
So far, it’s still a marathon-not-sprint type situation – none of these rules has had overnight success, and dinner is still regularly farcical. But there is at least an acceptance that this is how we’re doing it, and fewer arguments about what’s on the plate. And one day, I imagine like most grown-ups, they’ll eat everything. Except bananas. I’m fine without bananas.
Here are links to five dinners my kids love – all of these are really easy to make:
Chicken Taleggio (look under Wednesday in the post) – this is a really tasty dinner; chicken smothered in Taleggio with lots of roast tomatoes, and served with broccoli to give it a little bit of green.
“Lamb Turmeric” is the name I gave his lamb curry, because if I use the word curry, they won’t eat it. I made it last week with leftover roast beef and green peppers, and all three kids ask for seconds. I don’t know who they are anymore.
Prawn and salmon linguine – they don’t all eat the prawns every time but they do eat the courgettes and mushrooms I add to the recipe. This is a very recent and quite surprising development (and it’s a really tasty and easy dinner).