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?
I heard this exchange last week between a father and his four or five-year-old boy after they’d just boarded a train with hot pasties in paper bags from the station cafe.
Boy: I only eat the bit round the edge. That’s my favourite bit.
Dad: What? Just the pastry round the edge? But the bit in the middle is the best bit. Daddy LOVES that bit. Mmmmmm. [Makes orgasmic noises while taking over-enthusiastic bite of his own pasty.]
[Boy continues to eat the pastry round the edge with sideways glances at his dad to see if he’s noticing].
Let’s face it. That whole ‘daddy-lurrrrrves-the-bit-in-the-middle’ or ‘mummy-lurrrrrves-brussel-sprouts’ tactic aint never gonna work! Even a one-year old can see through the hammy acting. The pasty’s THAT good huh, dad? They know 100% that it’s just another way of us trying to get them to eat something – and that gives them something to react against.
Yep, that pasty just became way more than a pasty. It became one big, fat, juicy handful of power and attention. Power to wind you up. Attention for not eating it. What’s the chance of the boy venturing into the middle bit now? Nil, I’d say!
Let’s rewind and see how the conversation could have unfolded in a way that didn’t make matters worse.
Boy: I only eat the bit round the edge. That’s my favourite bit.
Dad [bites tongue with all his might]: Oh, right.
Have you read Things not to say #1?
I eavesdrop. A lot.
In the supermarket, in a cafe, on a train, I hear the things that parents say to their children about food and eating. The ordinary, everyday things that feel like the right thing to say.
But are actually the wrong the thing to say.
In this new series, I will be sharing some of these snippets with you and explaining how they encourage – not discourage – fussy eating! Here’s the first one:
[In the supermarket. A mum and her three-year-old daughter. The girl bounds over to a big freezer, opens the door and reaches for a bag of peas enthusiastically.]
Mum: No, no, put them back darling. You don’t like peas.
[Child puts the peas back and closes the freezer door.]
In the fight against fussy eating, the words ‘don’t like’ are Very Bad Words. Avoid them like the plague! Why? They give your child this message:
There are two types of food: The ones you Like and the ones you Don’t Like. This is a fixed thing. It doesn’t change. (Oh, so be sure to approach new foods with caution – just in case they turn out to be one of your Don’t Likes!)
Clearly this girl had rejected peas before – maybe once, maybe many times. Either way, this doesn’t mean she won’t eat them tomorrow, or next month, or next year – given the chance. Children’s palettes change and develop – and some days, like us, they just don’t fancy something. What we don’t want is for them to put a food into the Don’t Like bin in their head forever: I will never not ever eat a pea again (to use Lola’s lingo from Charlie and Lola!).
Instead, we want to keep everything fluid, flexible, on the menu. Perhaps this girl would have happily eaten peas the next time they came her way.
Much less likely now.
Now read Things not to say #2