I doubt many parents have been spared the experience of having a child who becomes a fussy eater at a certain age.
My son is now a tall, strapping 10-year-old lad who is into maths, problem-solving, story-writing, rugby, basketball and swimming. And like any kid of his age, he loves television and video games. And he LOVES magic tricks. He finds videos of card tricks on the Internet and then practices them for hours.
But wind the clock back by 8 years and I found myself with a two-year-old who refused to eat anything remotely healthy or colourful. The child-friendly staples of fish fingers and chips or chicken nuggets and chips went down a storm but I can remember a particularly memorable week when, one evening, I had spent hours slaving over the stove to lovingly prepare a Cottage Pie only to have my son spit out the first spoonful he put into his mouth. Two nights later, during a harassed, hurried and busy evening, all I had time to do was to open a small tin of Mac and Cheese, nuke it for a minute in the microwave before putting it on the table in front of my son. He greedily wolfed down the content of his plate and declared that it was the best thing he’d ever eaten. Thoughts of my rejected, spat-out Cottage Pie made me want to strangle that fussy little so-and-so, but I was too busy even for that.
So for a while, the only fruit he’d eat was banana. Yogurts and milk were no problem. Potatoes in all their forms were always welcome and, very strangely, so was spinach. My theory is that I ate so much spinach when I was pregnant, he must have developed a taste for it in utero.
But that fussy phase also coincided with a pretty ferocious growth spurt. In no time at all, the sleeves of my son’s jumpers were way above his wrists and his trousers were all hanging at half-mast. And then came the complaints. “I’m tired.” Every day and several times a day. 2-3 year-old children are supposed to tear about the place, not feel tired all the time and the fear of anaemia popped into my mind. What if my son was poorly because I couldn’t get him to eat a healthy and varied diet?
So I carted my fussy eater to the doctor’s. The good doctor checked him over but couldn’t find any signs of anything wrong with him and after checking the colour of the inner lining of his lower eyelid, declared that my son wasn’t anaemic. The tiredness was probably the fast growth spurt taking its toll on him.
I was reassured but while I had the attention of a medical professional, I thought it would be the perfect time to tackle the fussy eating problem and ask for advice.
Whilst I wasn’t expecting a “There, there, poor you *pat-on-the-shoulder* here is a magic wand” solution, I wasn’t quite prepared for the “cruel to be kind” method I was told to follow. The doctor basically said “You are his mother, not his slave. Nor are you running a restaurant. He doesn’t eat à la carte. If he doesn’t eat what he’s given, then he doesn’t eat. Full stop.”
Here is the method my doctor gave me:
1sttip: Only serve the child a very small portion. It is less overwhelming for them than a full plate.
2ndtip: Make it clear that the child only has 20 minutes to eat his food. If the food is not eaten in 20 minutes, it will go in the bin and there’ll be nothing else to eat. Hence the small portion; if, like me, you hate waste, you’ll feel less bad about binning a very small amount of food.
3rdtip: After 10 minutes, remind your child he only has 10 minutes left and after that the food is gone until his next meal.
4thtip: If after 20 minutes, your child hasn’t eaten his food, take away the plate in ABSOLUTE SILENCE and throw away the food in the bin.
The absolute silence is very important. If you tell your child off (which I used to do a lot when he wouldn’t eat), you’re giving him attention and for children, negative attention is better than no attention at all.
5thtip: If your child eats a little of the food (even if the portion isn’t finished) or at least samples what is in his plate, then make a huge fuss of him. Congratulate him, encourage him. This is very simply positive reinforcement in action: ignore the bad behaviour and reward the desired behaviour with plenty of attention and encouragement.
So, armed with my tough love method, I trotted home with my fussy eater and set about putting our doctor’s advice into practice.
And it worked!
Not overnight, not at all. It took 12-18 months to get my son out of his fussy eating habits but it worked.
It wasn’t easy. I threw away food on many an occasion. And every single time, about an hour later, I’d hear a little voice saying “Mummy, I’m hungry.” But, I stuck to my guns and said “No food until the next meal!”
The guilt was epic! Here I was, not feeding my hungry child! What was I doing? In my mind, I was the worst mother ever.
But little by little, I noticed a few changes. Even if he didn’t eat everything that was in his plate, my son became more willing to try different foods and he discovered that what I was serving him wasn’t so bad after all.
Mushrooms soon became a favourite, swiftly followed by sweetcorn and green beans and tuna. Beans became yummy! All kind of beans: red kidney, cannellini, pinto… You name them, he ate them! One day, he even ate lettuce served with a French dressing! I almost collapsed with joy!
We also devised our own ways of making food a lot more fun. A colourful plate is better than a plain, boring white one to enjoy colourful, healthy food.
Carrot sticks, cucumber sticks, pepper slices… Anything that can be held in your hand and dipped into delicious hummus is a winner. Is there anything better than eating food with your fingers? I don’t think so! So if you’re planning on cooking some chicken, make sure you get drumsticks and then eat them caveman-style with your hands!
Gone was my fussy eater and in his place, a young boy who loved his food. And he’s kept on loving it.
I still keep him engaged with good, wholesome, healthy food. Once a week, he gets to choose what he wants to eat. Anything he wants out of my cookbooks (even if it’s a cake!) His choice this week? This recipe from River Cottage Veg Every Day: Roast New Potatoes with 2 Mojo Sauces.
The green sauce is a Mojo Cilantro made with coriander and the red sauce is a Mojo Picon made with red chilli and roasted red pepper.
I made our dish with sweet potatoes rather than new potatoes and added sliced cucumber and yellow peppers to dip into the sauces. Never, in a million years, would my fussy eater have picked such a colourful meal.
(By the way, I know the sweet potatoes in my photo may look a tad burnt, but don’t be alarmed by their appearance: I love my roasted veggies to be quite charred! They may not win a beauty contest, but they do taste good!)
The method given by my doctor may not work for everybody. Some may even disagree with this tough love approach. All I know is that it worked for my son and I and it may be worth giving it a shot if you are at your wits’ end.
Now, please do not think that everything is perfect nowadays. According to my son, onions are evil and tomatoes are ok in sauces, but not sliced on a plate. Despite all this, he is still willing to try new stuff, even though it can be a little hit and miss sometimes. Aubergines have become a recent favourite, especially roasted in the oven but a chunk of avocado was promptly spat out and labelled as “slimy!”
And, in the spirit of keeping food fun, we once prepared our own pizzas, home-made dough and all. When we came to choose our toppings, I was keen to try something out of River Cottage Veg Every Day: kale and onion. My son took one suspicious look at my pizza and said: “Can I just have chicken and sweetcorn on mine?”
You can’t win them all… 😉