Watching my children try a new food or eagerly tucking into a healthy dish is up there as one of the top things that makes me happy. The happiness and joy (and relief) flows and I feel I’m nailing parenthood! But, sadly this rarely happens. What is more likely to happen is noses get turned up, kids start jumping, voicing their displeasure “eurgh what is this, it looks disgusting?” or “I AM NOT EATING THAT! Sound familiar?
I often meet with clients who describe mealtimes as a battle, involving separate meals where conversation is consumed with coaxing and bribing; parents desperately trying to ensure a few morsels of nutritious food gets eaten (because it will make them sleep longer won’t it?!). Sometimes conversations are replaced with tears.
Feeding kids can be a thankless and unpredictable task! My four year old ate three spinach leaves the other day and I could not contain myself. Smug little me started telling everyone only for him to turn around the next day and refuse it (sigh). The wind changed, he got out of bed on a different side and spinach was back on the unaccepted list. In my opinion it is our duty as parents to nurture a healthy attitude to eating in our kids and create opportunities for them to try (and try again) new foods.
A recent survey from Scottish Government suggests almost one third of parents have given up trying to feed their kid’s vegetables. Frustrated by constant rejection of greens (and reds, and yellows and oranges!) many simply stop trying altogether. Kids aren’t trying to be “annoying” or “fussy” when they screw up their noses; they can genuinely feel panic at the thought of a new food. Understanding the reason behind this can help you deal with this phase and push through it quicker. Most will come out the other side unscathed and still nourished.
What you need to know:
• Picky eating is very common
• It is a normal “phase” of growing up
• You are not alone
• It isn’t down to your parenting
What can you do?
• Start simple and small
You are in control of what you put on your kid’s plate but THEY are in control of if, and how much they eat. Don’t insist they eat everything on the plate. In fact don’t insist they eat anything but reinforce no other food will be offered.
Children are quite rightly suspicious of new things. You may have heard it before, but it can take 10 to 15 times (even more) before a child likes a new food.
Persevere with new foods on your kid’s plate (without encouragement). Offer again, and again, and again….
Respect your kid’s appetite.
• Stamp out the substitutions
Knowing a bowl of plain pasta is waiting in the wings isn’t going to get a kid trying new foods.
Offer one family meal choice only, including a well-known, loved food.
• Take stock of snacks
If children constantly graze throughout the day they are never really hungry at mealtimes. And when hungry, children will be more inclined to try new foods. Similarly filling up on drink will reduce a kid’s appetite.
Limit to three meals a day with one to two snacks at consistent times.
• Invite an adventurous friend
Whilst parents can influence what kids eat by trying new foods (with enthusiasm!), peers have the greatest influence. Recently my son’s pre-school offered raw kale and nearly all the class ate it.
Or simply mix it up by setting a picnic for your child with their favourite toys.
• Encourage participation
There are few chances in a kid’s life where they get to choose what they do. Involve them in the purchasing, preparation and plating up of food.
Ask your kids to choose a new fruit or vegetable to try when shopping next.
Allow self-service at the table.
Let them become little chefs – crack some eggs (EXPECT MESS!).
• Focus on flavour and get creative in the kitchen
Not all children like beige food! Bring colour, crunch and flavour to the table. Offer foods in different ways e.g. if sweetcorn is refused offer corn on the cob next time. Roasting vegetables brings out their sweetness and simply cutting them into a different shape may make them more appealing. Invent new names for your meals. Charlie and Lola love their cloud fluff (mashed potato), orange twiglets (carrots) and moonsquirters (tomatoes).
Whilst this can be a testing time for all, we need to not panic, not pressure and create a positive environment. Our goal isn’t for our kids to munch on a plate of cabbage today but just to try it. And over time like it and hopefully include it in their diet.
Victoria Francis is a registered dietitian with more than 10 years clinical experience in the NHS. She currently manages her private practice alongside her NHS work in one of London’s leading teaching hospitals. She is a mum of two young boys and writes her blog, Cherry Tree Nutrition, featuring practical healthy eating messages, recipes and tips.