Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against dinner ladies personally. They’re on a mission to get the children to eat their lunch and they do it with gusto and good intentions. But in the process, they break every rule in the Getting the Little Blighters to Eat book. My daughter tells me tales from her primary school lunchtimes that make my toes curl!
You have to finish ALL your lunch before you can go out and play, they say. Eat your sandwiches first before you start on anything else … Your mum won’t be very happy if you don’t eat your apple, will she?… Less talking, more eating! Sometimes they issue these commands to children individually. Sometimes they ring a bell and bark them out to the whole hall!
Does it work? Does it heck! It just makes the children super sneaky! I hear about all the tricks and tactics they use:
- They ‘accidentally’ drop food they don’t want to eat on the floor.
- They ask if they can put their banana or orange peel in the bin and put the whole fruit in.
- They scrunch up their sandwiches really tightly in the foil to make it look like they’ve eaten them.
- They ask if they can go to the toilet and put the food in the bin there.
- They secretly swap food with each other so they end up with their most preferred items. (One day, one girl gave out all her ham sandwiches in exchange for three satsumas!)
My favourite – or unfavourite – story is the time my daughter, aged five, had a slice of Soreen Malt Loaf in her lunchbox. The dinner lady assumed it was the ‘sandwich’ part of her lunch and told her to eat it first. But it’s sweet! protested my daughter. Don’t be silly! said the dinner lady. Just eat it. So she did, upset and angry that she’d been made out to be a liar and had to eat it first when she liked to save it to last. What could I do? she squeeked. I’m just a kid.
I’m not a kid though. I could do something. I wrote a note on a piece of card for my daughter to keep permanently in her lunchbox. When a dinner lady pesters you, I said, Just hand her this.
Dear Dinner Lady
We have an approach to mealtimes at home which I believe encourages my daughter to be a happy, healthy eater. We leave it entirely up to her to decide whether she wants to eat something or not, how much she eats, how fast or slow she eats and what order she eats things in. I would be really grateful if you could leave her to do the same at school lunch times.
Thank you so much!
It worked like magic. After a while, she didn’t even need to hold up the card. They knew to leave her be. Leave that one alone, they may have whispered to each other. She’s the one with the weird mum! Who cares? From then on, she could eat and enjoy her lunch happily and peacefully without any pressure, which you’ll know if you’ve read Getting the Little Blighters to Eat, works a whole lot better!
I get a lot of emails from worried parents about puddings, like this one from last week:
Our four-year-old daughter eats a few mouthfuls of the main course as she knows pudding is on its way. Help!
‘Holding out’ for pudding is a common problem with fussy eaters. So here are my Golden Rules of the best way to approach puddings.
1. Serve puddings occasionally, not every day
Your aim should be to serve pudding once in a while – an unexpected surprise, rather than something your child can rely on. This way they won’t be able to use pudding as an alternative to the main course. More importantly, you won’t be training their palate to end every meal on a sweet note (how many adults brought up on daily puddings say they don’t feel a meal is complete without a pudding?!). A sweet tooth makes tackling fussy eating more difficult.
2. Make fruit available after every meal
However, The Getting the Little Blighters to Eat approach to fussy eating is not about Tough Love! You don’t want to send your child to bed hungry. So, fruit – including bananas, which are more filling – should always be available to your child after dinner. If you’ve been giving them puddings every day, phase them out gradually. For example, start by serving their yoghurt in a bowl with some fruit next to it. Then slowly increase the fruit and decrease the yoghurt.
3. Don’t rush for pudding
Take it easy. Wait until the rest of the family have come to a natural end with their main course. Leave a gap. This will give time for your child to revisit their main course of their own accord – even absent-mindedly – if they are sitting there with it in front of them for a while.
4. Don’t use pudding as a bribe or a threat
Never ever say to your child If you eat all your dinner, you can have pudding or If you don’t eat your dinner, you can’t have pudding. Even if it sometimes works, what you’re teaching your child is this:
PUDDING IS YUMMY. MAIN COURSE IS NOT SO YUMMY – IT’S JUST SOMETHING YOU HAVE TO ENDURE TO GET TO THE NICE BIT.
Actually a totally lousy message to give a fussy eater, right?!
As I always say, the golden rule at the dinner table with fussy eaters is to give them their food and then say nothing more about it. Take the focus away from the food. TALK ABOUT OTHER STUFF!
Huh! Easier said than done, right?
How was school? you ask your six year old. Okay, they reply. What did you do at nursery today? you ask your three year old. Can’t remember, they mumble. Ooh, this is scintillating, you think to yourself. I could sit and chat to you guys all day.
Here’s a couple of tips to improve things:
1. An easy trick to suck them into telling you snippets and stories from their day is to get them to give it a score. What do you give today out of 10? you ask. Let’s say they give it a 8 out of 10. Ooh, that’s pretty high. What made it so good, and where does it lose two points? you ask. Well, at playtime me and Phoebe were playing with ants and we were making little houses for them out of twigs and stones and things and it was really really fun, they explain, but then Leila came along and stamped on all the ants and… And they’re off! Then do the same for your day to make it a two-way thing. A real conversation.
2. Another idea is to buy a pack of ‘conversation cards’ like these and have them in the middle of the table. You could make your own cards if you can come up with some groovy question ideas of your own. Turn a card over and take it in turns to answer the question on it. If you could have any superpower, what would it be? the first one might say. It may seem artificial, contrived, forced even, but it is simply a springboard to get things going more naturally – one question can end up spinning off in all directions – and to help to make the dinner table a place your fussy eater actually enjoys hanging out!
Have you tried the Jam Tart Tray Dinner with your kids yet?
One of the key things to do to conquer (and prevent) fussy eating is to keep exposing your child to a wide variety of foods – and the ‘Jam Tart Tray Dinner’ is a wonderfully fun way to do this!
Once in a while, for dinner or lunch (perhaps on a back-to-school-Sunday-night, while they’re watching a film, or when you’re too shattered to feel like cooking!) take a jam tart tray and fill each hollow with a different food. Rootle around in your fridge and cupboards and make it as colourful and varied as you can.
Most of the foods should be ones they are familiar with, and it’s good to include one or two sweet foods – but most important of all, make sure you put in a couple of wild cards! Foods they have never encountered on their own plate before. Smoked salmon? Passion fruit? Pickled onions? Hedgehog flavour crisps? Or simply a different type of apple to the one they usually insist on.
Then, before you let them tuck in, tell them there are just two (very important!) rules about how you eat a Jam Tart Tray Dinner:
1.It’s entirely up to them what they eat and don’t eat (no pressure at all!) but they mustn’t remove any foods from the tray.
2.They can eat the foods in any order and combo they like – sweet foods before (or with!) the savoury foods is absolutely fine.
Just seeing, smelling, touching a food is the first step to making it a familiar and ‘safe’ food for them to eat. You shouldn’t point out the new foods and tell them what they are unless they ask you – in which case simply tell them in a neutral way. Never add comments like, “It’s really nice”, “Try a bit” or “Mummy loves it” for them to rebel against!
Now leave them to explore and enjoy…
A snippet from a sandwich shop. A five-year-old boy and his dad were eating toasties, that came with a bit of salad garnish.
Boy [picks up slice of cucumber]: What’s that on it?
Dad: It’s just a bit of salad dressing.
Boy: I don’t like it.
Dad: Look, I’ll scrape it off for you. There.
Boy: I don’t want it.
Dad: Just eat it, please. I mean it. You’re becoming a fussy eater and I’m not having it!
Uh oh! Dad used the F word.
Odd as it may sound in all this infuriating flurry of fussiness, the one word you should never call them is ‘fussy’!
Research shows that children internalize any label you give them – Lazy? Shy? Chatty? – and live up to it. So once they know you’ve put them in the Fussy Eater category, you’re in big danger of them wearing that badge with pride! How could I possibly eat cucumber with salad dressing on it? – I’m a fussy eater, don’t you know! How can I be expected to eat this cheese that is a completely different colour to the one we normally have at home? – I’m a fussy eater, don’t forget! You’re joking if you think I’m going to try that fish, right? I’m one of those kids, remember! The fussy ones. It becomes an excuse, a way out.
So never actually tell your child they’re a fussy eater – or let them catch you telling someone else!
Swearing loudly about their fussy eating in private, however…that’s absolutely fine. 😉
Have you read Things not to say #4?
… or tales from a vegetarian restaurant!
True story. Last Saturday I was in a vegetarian cafe having lunch, sitting at a long table shared with other customers. On either side I had a set of parents, each with a toddler about 15 months old.
Toddler #1 – let’s call him Billy – was in the pushchair and having food squeezed into his mouth from a pouch. Easy peasy cheesy pasta with lots of veg, it said. Occasionally one of his parents offered him a forkful of their own food but he refused and gestured for the pouch instead.
Toddler #2 – let’s call him Bobby – was in a highchair next to his parents and had a side plate in front of him, filled with all sorts of random bits and bobs from their plates: vegetarian bake, cucumber, bulgur wheat, tomato, bread, broccoli salad. He was feeding himself with his hands.
Now which toddler do you think is the contender for Future Fussy Eater You Can’t Take To A Restaurant, Billy or Bobby?! Place your bets now!
When you’re eating out with your toddler, the very best approach is to have them up at your level, ask for an extra plate, put different bits of your own food on it and let them help themselves.
If there are two of you, they may end up with some very odd combos – roast potato next to a slice of tomato next to a piece of scampi next to cauliflower cheese?! – but they won’t mind. It gives them a wide variety of tastes and textures to explore and and keeps their palate wide open. It also means that they are ‘joining in’, learning to eat the same food as you, alongside you.
And not that they are a separate species that require separate food!
It really does all boil down to this:
You’re in charge of what food you serve.
They’re in charge of whether they eat it.
Yet so much of the time the reverse happens:
We ask them what they want to eat. We follow their preferences. We adapt our food shopping and cooking to try and please them – in the hope that they will eat it happily. We give them lots of control over what goes on their plate.
Then once the food is served, we encourage, nag, plead, bribe them to eat it – in the hope that they will eat more of what we want them to eat. We try to control what they put in their mouth.
This only makes things worse. The secret is to do it the other way round. You decide what you’re going to buy and cook (and sometimes it may be their favourites). But once the food is on the table, you hand the control over to them. You leave them to decide what and how much they eat of it – while you chat about other things. It may sound crazy, it may sound counter-intuitive, but it soon makes a difference.
“It has revolutionized mealtimes in my house” said one parent of an extremely fussy two-year-old. “I had amazing results IMMEDIATELY,” said another.
Find out the full details of how to put this plan into action in Getting the Little Blighters to Eat.
I overheard this little conversation at a fete. A family were queuing at a stall to to buy some lunch.
Girl (about 6 or 7): Can I have a hot dog?
Mum: No, I’m not getting you a hot dog. You didn’t eat any of it last time you had one.
Girl: But I want one.
Mum: No, you’re not having one. Choose something else, please.
The strong temptation with a fussy eater is to play it safe. Stick to the foods you know they’ll definitely eat. We don’t want to waste food or money or effort. We don’t want a fuss.
Isn’t this ironic?
The very thing we want with a fussy eater is for them to eat a wider range of foods. But here’s a girl asking for a food she’s rejected before – actually asking for it – and her mum says no! Maybe she didn’t eat her hot dog last time, but even if she hasn’t eaten one for three years, if we don’t at least give her the opportunity to eat one now, how can she change the pattern? It is the parent – not the child herself – keeping her diet narrow. Keeping her fussy.
I admit a hot dog might not feel like a major breakthrough! It’s not like she’s asking for a whole head of lettuce with a smoked mackerel dip on the side. But it is a food she’s rejected before.
So when your child asks for a food they’ve previously fussed over, don’t refuse. Don’t remind them what happened last time. Don’t say, “Okaaay, but only if you promise to eat it”. Just go with it.
Otherwise you’re shooting yourself in the foot.
Have you read Things not to say #3?
I caught this snippet in a pub on a Sunday lunchtime. A boy, about six, was enjoying a roast dinner with his mum and dad.
Boy: [points to cauliflower cheese on his plate] What’s that?
Mum: Cauliflower cheese. Try it.
[Boy turns up nose.]
Mum: You haven’t even tasted it. Just try a little bit, please.
[Boy scrapes cauliflower cheese to side of plate.]
It drives us nuts when kids decide they don’t like something before they’ve even tried it, right? “I have a rule,” parents sometimes say. “They don’t have to eat it, but they have to at least try it.” Like it’s an antidote for fussy eating. Perhaps a cure?
Absolutely, we want our children to try everything. Our goal is for them to be open-minded, adventurous eaters who are happy to taste any new food that comes their way. But making them try everything won’t achieve that. In fact, it will backfire big time. Are they going to go, “Ooh, mummy, I’m so glad you made me try it. It’s delicious. I’m going to eat it all! And every time I see it from now on!”? Are they heck!
Telling them to try something invites them to a battle of wills. Now it’s Us v. Them. We’re the enemy to be beaten. Yes, if we persist, we might ‘win’ and get one mouthful into them – but no more. Worse still, we’ve almost certainly killed any chance of them voluntarily eating that food next time they see it. The little blighters don’t forget!
So what’s the best way to get them trying new foods? Leave it entirely up to them. Children are born curious. They’re programmed to explore and experiment, including with food – as long as we don’t interfere and intervene. So, let’s re-run that conversation:
Boy: What’s that?
Mum: Cauliflower cheese. Cauliflower with a cheesy sauce.
And Stop. Right. There.
Maybe he’ll taste it, maybe he won’t, but the odds are way, way higher!
Have you read Things not to say #2?