The four dreaded dinner words

The eternal dinner struggle.
The eternal dinner struggle. 

“I don’t like it” has to be the phrase that drives parents crazy all over the planet at meal times. When I talk to parents about their children’s eating one of the most common questions I get is how to deal with fussy eaters. So let’s attack it here.

First of all recognise that all kids will go through a phase of being fussy about food. Most often this happens around toddlerhood and is largely explained by the fact that they realise they have some control over food. Their carers can’t force them to eat and so it gives them some autonomy; a feeling that they are making the rules and setting the game plan. As humans we also have an innate distrust of new foods. After all in the wild they could be poisonous. We would have to learn which foods to eat and which made us sick. That genetic coding remains with us and children will instinctively say they don’t like something if it’s a new food, or even a new dish. Most kids will get over this phase, or will with some gentle encouragement try to the new food and get over this phase. But there are some kids for whom this becomes a deeply ingrained problem.

A cousin of mine back in Scotland confessed to me that one of her kids will only eat breakfast cereal. He was about 8 at the time and while his 3 siblings tucked into the family dinner, he would pour himself another bowl of refined cereal. Another friend reports to me that her son will frequently miss dinner and then ask for a honey sandwich later - he’s learned that if he waits a while Mum will give in and give it to him. These problems may look on paper as being ridiculous and it’s easy to blame the parents. How on earth did they allow this situation to arise? The trouble is at the front line of parenting we are all at times guilty of taking the less troubled road and caving in to what the child wants. We spend the first couple of years of their lives trying to get enough food into them to make them sleep well etc, that it can be hard to break out of the mentality that giving them something is better than letting them starve.

So there is our first lesson. No child is going to go hungry for long. As parents we need to stand firm at times and we need to learn that saying no to eating requests is OK and indeed necessary at times. I have one son who is just more interested in food and thinks about it a lot more than the other. While I’m cooking he is in and out of the kitchen asking for a snack, trying to help himself from the fridge or pantry and gets irate when I say “no you can wait for dinner”. But should he manage to pinch something without my knowing, or on the odd occasion when I cave and give him some nuts or a piece of cheese, inevitably he won’t eat as much once dinner is on the table. If it’s a night where the meal is something new, or not one of his favourite meals, I have zip chance of getting him to try it. The “I don’t like it” battle is on. Make sure your kids are hungry by mealtime and you stand a far better chance of encouraging good eating and trying of new foods.

Secondly get them involved in the making of the new meal. If they’ve been in the kitchen and helped in some way with the preparation then it doesn’t all look so new once it’s on the table. For fussy eaters this is crucial as it helps them to feel they have some control over their food. You may also learn why it is they don’t like some foods by chatting with them while you are cooking. Some kids are very sensitive to texture. Cook carrots and they’ll spit them out, but give them a crunchy raw carrot and they’ll happily munch away. Others are lazy in their eating. My eldest son hates chewing meat, but give him a homemade burger or meatballs and he tucks in. This doesn’t mean I never give him meat but it does mean I understand what is going on and can gradually shift him towards a broader range of foods. I make sure I don’t overcook meat making it tough, and I cut it up into mouth-size pieces and encourage him to mix it with other foods on the plate to create tasty mouthfuls. Gradually we’ve got there.

Try mixing new foods with familiar favourites. I’ve written before on the vegie issue, but the same principles apply to all foods. I made a new chicken dish on the weekend, but I served it with my kids favourite - sweet potato and carrot mash with peas. They ate it no problem after the first few mouthfuls. Try mixing new vegies into a familiar dish like a lasagne of a pasta dish. I make a tuna pasta dish loaded with veg. At first my kids used to pick out all of the veg, but now they’ve given in almost completely. They still pick out the green stuff, but the other veg is going down!

I am also frustrated with kids menus when eating out. We will never encourage our kids to broaden their eating palate if all they are ever offered is chicken nuggets, spag bol or ham and cheese pizza. When you travel in Europe it is rare to be offered a kids menu. Kids simply eat smaller portions of what the adults are having. I try to put that into practice here. I’ll never forget the amazed look on a fellow diners face as she watched my then 3-year-old eating one of my mussels. Never tell your kids “oh you won’t like this” before they have even tried it. Let them try and let them make up their own mind. We have a rule in our house that the kids must try everything on their plate, and then if they really don’t like it they can leave it. The exception is when they say they don’t like the whole meal and then I do descend into bribery and corruption to get them to eat something! None of us are perfect all of the time, so don’t be too hard on yourself if you do the same.

Finally if you are worried about the limited menu of your child, then see a professional to help you to work out a plan. Dietitians are a good first port of call, and for deeply ingrained problems there are specialist paediatric dietitians at children’s hospitals. But one thing is certain if you keep giving in to their demands as to what they want to eat, you’ll be fighting this battle for a long time to come. Gentle encouragement and minimal fuss is the parents mantra for good eating.

Do you have fussy eaters? Discuss on the Essential Kids' Forums.

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No child is going to go hungry for long. As parents we need to stand firm at times and we need to learn that saying no to eating requests is OK and indeed necessary at times.