When my eldest child was a toddler, I was a parenting expert. I had one of those unicorn children who ate absolutely everything – her favourite food was sashimi, and she loved to snack on frozen peas while she watched me cook. No meal was complete for her unless it came with a salad.
I was utterly convinced it was because I'd exposed her to a wide variety of foods early and fostered a healthy approach to eating. I'd read the books. I knew what I was doing, and I was dead proud about it.
I'd like to apologise to all my friends that I lectured on the topic at the time.
The best cure for a smug know-it-all parent is to have more children, because that's how you learn that parenting is as much a crap-shoot as it is down to how many books you've read.
My second child was a bit more fussy but still not too bad. He sampled a variety of foods, but definitely had some things he didn't like, such as strawberries and (weirdly, if you ask me) potatoes.
Fast forward to my third child and this is where I got schooled big time. It all started when I tried to go back to work when my daughter was four months old. I tried to wean her off the breast – just for day feeds while I was at the office – but she wasn't having it.
I offered a variety of formulas and cow's milk – even resorting to adding in a range of fun flavourings to see if that would entice her, but no. It was me or nothing. She showed us she would literally starve herself if she had to. I ended up leaving the office every day to feed her at daycare so she would stop being so angry at her poor carers.
I should have known then that this child would be different. Cut to six years later, and she is still a massive fusspot. She won't eat vegetables if they're cooked (except for potatoes, which is a problem of course, because my son still doesn't like them), and she generally doesn't like foods mixed together. She'll eat raw vegetables with each meal but only red and yellow capsicum, carrot and maybe cucumber, if I cut the skin off.
She likes spaghetti bolognese but only if she gets pasta and meat only, with no residual sauce. But generally, I'm better off serving meals that have separate elements that don't touch each other. Meats are fine as long as they're not marinated or seasoned in any way, and sausages must be unflavoured.
Her favourite meal is cereal.
The old smug me that parented child number one thought I was a match for her at first. I was determined she wouldn't hold the whole family to ransom and force us all to eat like toddlers. I started serving exotic things like super-mild butter chicken and chicken casserole, and told her she could starve if she wasn't willing to eat least try a mouthful. But the kid has an iron will and will go hours without eating – and then have an emotional meltdown because she's hungry – rather than give in.
I admit, she has utterly defeated me, and now I cater to her every whim like the slave I now understand I am.
I've experienced the full gamut of feeding children in my 14 years of parenting, and what I've learned is it comes down to two key lessons:
- Your parenting probably makes precious little difference to the long-term eating habits of your child. You can read all the books and offer all the foods, but your child will eat what they want to eat. You'd be foolish to take the credit, or the blame.
- Sometimes you have to take the path of least resistance and offer them what you know they'll eat. Sure, capsicum sticks may bore the pants off you, but if that's how they're getting their veggies, who cares? I generally put dinner out on a platter in the middle of the table and let everyone help themselves to what they want. It saves me having to listen to nightly cries of "I don't like that" and gives me children some agency over their own food choices – like my youngest needs the encouragement.