My daughter Ella, ate what we did. When Oliver arrived three years later, it was a different story. We tried everything to get him to eat, from fun cutlery to getting others to feed him.
He started losing weight and, I’m not proud to admit, I’d get angry. Mealtimes became a battleground.
It turned out ear, nose and throat issues were the cause. Post-surgery, he improved, but those learned behaviours around food were hard to break. As a Jewish mother and a balaboosta, it felt personal, as if I were doing something wrong.
I started cooking with him to move him from fussy to foodie. He enjoyed our kitchen time and slowly became receptive to trying new foods.
When he started school in 2010, I set up holiday classes for children using my experience of what had worked for us and since then have taught cooking to pre-schoolers and school-age kids. I show them how much fun cooking can be and encourage them to prepare and try new foods.
Running the classes has shown me that there are several stages of fussy eating — research focuses on the toddler phase, but there is a similar fussy period at around seven to nine years old when the kids settle into school and gain some independence; and then the teenage years when they test boundaries. My approach to each is mostly the same and I have tried and tested strategies to help you and your kids develop healthy eating habits for the longer term:
Firstly, I ask parents to make a list of what their child does and doesn’t eat and to look at the lists and focus on the positives: how much their child does actually eat and any themes emerging. Perhaps your child only eats soft foods (like my son did) so has a problem with texture? Or maybe it’s green veg, or strong flavours.
Then focus on the foods they eat and expand the boundaries slowly — with green haters, for example, use spinach in a smoothie or courgette in a cake to introduce foods they say they don’t like.
Small portions are less off-putting for kids - they can always take more. Letting them serve themselves allows them to control the amount they have on their plates. Family style meals from the centre of the table are ideal for this and they can practise motor and social skills.
Think about when you introduce new foods. Dinner time when they may be tired, or in a school lunch box is probably not the best time. Perhaps do it when you are doing another activity like watching television, playing a game or reading a story. Maybe offer veggie sticks and hummus which you can then eat together and role model good behaviour.
Food is a multi-sensory experience. Imagine if you had to eat one of those horrid creepy crawly things like on I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here and you didn’t know anything about it. That can be how kids feel, when introduced to a new and unfamiliar food.
When introducing new foods, don’t focus on the eating part — explore. Discuss what the food looks, feels, sounds, smells and (only then) tastes like. Maybe do a “smell” test and get them to guess the smells of different jars of spices; buy an exotic fruit to try; or look at different shapes and types of grain — lockshen, orzo, couscous etc. Or get them to pick up food using toothpicks or chopsticks. This is not only great motor skills practice for smaller kids but by engaging their brains on the activity in hand (getting the food to their mouths) they almost forget about the food itself, so are more likely to try it.
Research shows that cooking is one of the best things you can do to improve your child’s relationship with food. The more kids cook, the more likely they are to eat what they make.
The important thing is that you are not alone battling your fussy eater, nor is it your fault — although there are things that you are probably (subconsciously) doing that can sabotage mealtimes. They include labelling your child as “fussy”, which gives them permission not to eat new foods; providing them an alternative if they don’t eat what you serve; serving offputtingly large portions and pressurising them to eat; “over-snacking” them so they aren’t hungry for meals or know that there will be food later; and giving up with a new food that they don’t take to straight away.
It’s unbelievably rewarding to see kids try an ingredient that they didn’t think they’d like or that mum says they never eat at home. Seeing a child’s satisfaction as they take home food they’ve made for their family to try, particularly for Shabbat, is priceless.