Eating is an intense and emotional experience, particularly for children. Feeding our children is an intense and emotional experience for parents ….
Infants have over 30,000 tastebuds all around the inside of their mouth. Parents have less than a third of that, mostly on our tongue. Children really do taste everything more strongly than we do. Their tastebuds are set for fat and sugar at first, because that’s what they need to survive and grow. Their interest and appreciation in salty, sour, let alone bitter flavours, comes later in life. And it doesn’t necessarily come naturally – in fact, most teenagers push themselves to eat or drink things like coffee, even alcohol, to fit in with the crowd.
Some infants are tricky to feed from the outset, whether that’s reflux or tongue-tie, or a difficulty producing enough milk, but most babies fall into fairly healthy and robust patterns of satisfying their needs. Then, around the age of 2 or 3 years old, many toddlers realise they can refuse food – push their plates across the table, drop bits to the floor, spit bits out … As they do it, they feel a sense of power. And they like that feeling! After all, they don’t get this much control over any other area of their life. And they watch us react … They can sense our desperation to get them eating, and they quickly work out how to play the shots – maybe insisting all their food is square and white, or doesn’t touch - and we comply, and so it starts ….
“Fussy eating is a combination of a child’s developing independence and control and the parents’ reaction to it. With parents’ positive management of the situation it does not need to develop into a persistent problem and behaviours can be changed so that children are eating a greatly improved and varied diet – and, most importantly, enjoying it.” Anna Groom, Specialist Paediatric Dietitian, in “Getting the Little Blighters to Eat” by Claire Potter
Our child’s eating habits – even their likes and dislikes – are not set in stone. Studies with identical and non-identical twins have revealed that genes do play a role in our food preferences, tolerances and allergies, but not as much as how parents behave around food, and handle mealtimes.
To be fair, we’ve inherited our approach and attitude towards eating and feeding from our parents! Many of us will remember hearing ‘if you don’t eat your beans, there will be no pudding’ or ‘don’t be so ungrateful, the children in Africa wouldn’t make such a fuss’ or ‘finish your plate, we don’t waste food in this house’.
Did that make us love or even appreciate those food items? Not really. I still struggle with the idea of fish-fingers or fishcakes after a significant battle of wills with my mother. The stand-off lasted several hours and neither of us won. I did choose to serve fish-fingers to my sons and they gobbled them up, but I stand resolute and refuse to try them even now. I’m not alone – apparently 72% of children who had to sit at the table until they had finished one particular food item, don’t eat that food item as adults.
Eating is emotional, and it can all too easily become about power and control, and that’s not the way we want things to go.
So where do we want to go?
We want our children to adopt healthy eating habits and enjoy meals. We will be talking about family meals in general in our Setting up for Success class this week, and I promise to share more tips with you at a later date. Studies show that families who eat together regularly are happier and healthier.
Let’s start with creating an enjoyment of food and eating. First, who’s responsibility is it?
Ellyn Satter’s approach (www.ellynsatterinstitute.org) is simple and clear – she says parents are responsible for providing the best foods and creating the optimum environment for their child to eat. After that, it’s up to the child – they are responsible for whether they eat, and how much they eat. With some leeway for age, Ellyn recommends that children help themselves, rather than we decide how much to put on their plate. If we are serving them a portion, we should ask how much they want. They can always come back for more, or ask for more next time. The point is that they have control about what goes on their plate. It can be quite offputting to have a heap of food on your plate if you’re not really hungry or excited about it.
I felt uncomfortable at first. It was definitely not my parents’ approach – as evidenced by the fish-fingers. But I loved the idea of letting my children decide when they were full and letting them naturally regulate their food intake. How many of us as adults wish we could stop eating once we’re sufficiently replenished? I’m pretty sure it’s not just me!
And I was worried they would not eat enough, or eat well enough, without me telling them what and how and when to eat. The problem is, once we interfere, we mess things up.
When we tell them to finish up, or try some more, and all the rest, they quickly learn to distrust their instinctive natural feelings of satiety …
Whether you’ve got a naturally reticent eater, who is wary of new foods or seems to have a limited appetite or diet, or whether your child is pretty happy-go-lucky and tucks in more often than not, here are some ideas to help every child learn to enjoy food and enjoy eating.
Manners matter, but enjoyment comes first!
Table manners, politeness and gratitude are important, but we can add these bits on as we go. Our priority is helping children feel relaxed and happy about food and eating. Let them play with their food when they’re young – children learn through experimentation and through all their senses.
I can hear you worrying about the mess. But it’s short-term thing for a long-term win. Let your child pick up a new food item with their fingers – touch is a really good way to find out about something. In the supermarket, or while unpacking, encourage them to interact (in a safely hygienic way) with food.
One of my favourite food memories is shelling broad beans and peas in the garden with my grandfather. I was responsible for this from a young age, and I felt really proud of my podding abilities. It makes me happy just thinking about it, and I’m always up for a pea and broad bean dish!
Talk with your children about how vegetables – and other food items – look. Food exists in a fabulous range of colours and textures and sizes and shapes. If you’re hoping to introduce pears, or leeks, say, why not start by drawing them, or looking at pictures of them? It does make a difference. A study from University of Reading found that children who regularly see pictures of vegetables are less likely to be fussy eaters.
And let them sniff it too. Our sense of smell is much stronger than our sense of taste.
According to the University of London’s Centre for the Study of the Senses, between 75 and 95% of food flavour comes from our sense of smell. They recommend the Jelly Bean Test – and we’re confident your kids will enjoy this one. Chew a jelly bean while holding your nose tightly. You should be able to experience sweetness, but no particular flavour. Then let your nose go and the flavour should appear! You only need a couple of jelly beans – no need to wade through the whole packet …..
And if they want to try certain food combinations that don’t make sense to us, let them give it a go. We’ve been fixing our ideas about what we ‘should’ eat, as well as how we should eat, for years. Rather than impose your rules on whether to have ketchup or mustard or mayonnaise with something, let them discover what appeals to them- take a ‘why not try it’ approach. My sons enjoyed creating mixtures of all three, and with other options such as soy sauce, teriyaki sauce, Worcestershire sauce, and even harissa and a sweet chilli sauce. Today, they stick to one or the other.
And they may surprise you – and themselves! My god-daughter has loved olives from about 3 years old. She’d asked to try one when her parents were having tapas one day, and rather than say ‘no, you won’t like it’, they’d said ‘sure, why not?’ so she did.
Offer a wide range of foods – familiar and unfamiliar – but not an endless choice!
Without becoming a short-order chef, offering endless options at each meal, we need to offer a wide array of choices on a regular basis. Apparently it takes up to 20 exposures to a new food item before some children will even think about touching it – or even allowing it on their plate. Maybe they’re super-tasters, or maybe they’re naturally rejective of new experiences. We need to persist, whilst being careful about food wastage.
When our child does reject something, we have to bite our tongue to stop saying ‘don’t be fussy’ or ‘why are you so picky’. This creates a self-fulfilling prophesy. Our child starts to think they’re fussy or picky, so they become fussier and pickier. We start to think they’re fussy or picky, so we see them becoming fussier and pickier.
It always pays off to get organised. Having a weekly meal planner really helps, rather than having to rise to the challenge of creating each meal from whatever is in the fridge or cupboard. Many children find it reassuring knowing what’s coming up.
And let the kids get stuck in the meal planner.
One family we work with decided to let the children choose one favourite meal each week, so the parents knew one meal would go well! Then the parents chose one of their favourite meals, so they could model enjoying food. It’s OK to have favourites, but it’s not OK to only eat our favourites. When we’re nervous about how much our child is eating, we like to serve up their favourites as much as possible, so we can relax in the knowledge that they’ve eaten happily. We’re sure you can see the problem – they’ve missed another opportunity to try something different or new, or just another exposure to a ‘not sure I like this much’ meal.
This family decided that one other meal was chosen by the children but it had to include one new ingredient. The children would choose the new ingredient each week, and were involved in preparing the meal, but they didn’t have to eat it. Mostly they did ….
Another family has a list of ‘yes’ and ‘no’ and ‘maybe’ foods in coloured columns. So each child can choose one or two (possibly 3?) definite not likes and one or two (possibly 3?!) definite likes. That’s the green and red columns. The challenge is to see how many items left – in the middle or amber column – can move into green over time. If the children don’t enjoy them the first time around, they stick in the amber column for another go in future.
I reckon there are 3 big questions left, at least! Let’s address them ….
Should I hide vegetables?
No! I’m sure you’ve found some crafty ways to sneak vegetables into a pasta sauce over the years, and it sort of makes sense. I did it once myself with a tiny bit of chicken liver pureed into a tomato sauce, and they loved the sauce, but it didn’t make them like chicken liver.
A lot of eating is about trust – trusting your own instincts, and your parents! My sister still doesn’t like peas because once, after weeks of arguing about peas, my father hid her peas under her shepherd’s pie. She thought she’d won, but as she tucked into the shepherd’s pie, a layer of green was revealed…. She doesn’t like shepherd’s pie either now!
Instead, make the vegetables really stand out. Some families present a plate of a few pieces of raw or cooked vegetables - cucumber, carrot, tomatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, mange-tout, sugar snaps, mini corn, celery, and anything else, before the main meal. If the kids are sensible and coordinated enough, try a cheese fondue with an array of crudites.
Keeping vegetables prominent works best over time. Research from Penn University in 2021 found that doubling the amount of vegetables that children were offered resulted in them eating nearly 70% more vegetables!
Should I let them snack between meals?
To snack or not to snack, it really is a tricky one. Some children (and some adults!) are natural born grazers and would happily nibble and nibble all day long, much preferring this to having 3 meals a day.
Many parents feel that withholding snacks will help build up an appetite for the main meal, but it usually doesn’t work that way. First there are the arguments about having the snack – some kids are remarkably persistent so they ask, ask, ask, moan, whine … and we give in, so now they have a successful approach to copy next time. Even if we do hold firm, it may not help because our child gets irritable (to say the least!) and may well determine to get their own back on us at mealtime, however hungry they are.
I will leave the snack thing up to you - to a certain extent. Think back to Ellyn Satter’s division of responsibility. You choose the type of snack. If you’re going to allow snacking, then make sure you have snacks available that you’re happy for your child to eat between meals.
One of my sons has a very irregular appetite. We decided that when he said he was full, we wouldn’t query him. Instead, we took his plate away even if he’d not finished. As hygienically as possible, we kept it available for the next hour or so. That was his first snack option – to finish the earlier meal. And sometimes he did exactly that. After a certain period of time, the Snack Pot emerged as the previous meal went into the bin. He could choose one or two items from a limited (and never changing) supply of rice-cakes, breadsticks, raisins, a babybel or two, or a small piece of fruit. Then it was time to wait for the next meal ….
Should I sit with my children at mealtimes?
We think you know the answer already. It will be worth the effort. My sister and I had 5 children within 4 years. We both remember one particular meal with one nursing baby, 3 high-chairs and a wriggler on a wobbly chair. We don’t remember what the meal was. We do remember that we were all crying. We don’t remember exactly how that meal ended but 16 years later, which is about 16,000 meals later, one of our greatest pleasures is cooking, eating and enjoying food together.
So stick with it. It’s worth all the effort, and we wish you all the best!