I have much sympathy for parents of fussy eaters, as I was one of those myself as a child. Mealtimes were a battleground featuring my mother on one side and me, a fierce food hater on the other. Despite her best efforts to serve all sorts of fancy foods, I would resist all her attempts often reducing her to tears as my sisters quietly watched on.
While my mother didn’t cook back then, our Kolkata kitchen functioned under her watchful eye and recipe know how. The cook made our family recipes for Sambhar Dal and Bengali Kosha Mangsho on her instructions, while my Nani produced platters of aloo, mooli and gaajar parathas dripping in homemade desi ghee, Kadhi and Rajma based on recipes from her Delhi family home.
With my teenage years came a slow appreciation of food, which eventually turned into a passion for eating, flavours and food writing. By the time I had my own children, I was determined that they will grow up savouring the simple pleasure of eating. With a British husband and 2 Brit-Indian kids, that could have been a challenge. However, for what it’s worth they love their food and apart from the odd bit of fussiness, they are a joy to feed and watch eating.
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So what are my top tips for navigating fussy eaters? Here goes, based on my personal experience:
- Create a positive environment: Give your children a chance to savour enjoy the pleasure of eating in a relaxed atmosphere. Make sure you’re not stressed out, and resorting to distraction mechanisms like TV or shovelling food into their mouth while they are playing. These activities don’t create a positive relationship with food. In fact, they are counter-productive.
- Eat together: Enjoy mealtimes together if you can. If this isn’t possible, then sit with them while they are eating at home. Restaurant meals are a great way to eat together. An external environment calms everyone down too so you’re less likely to be creating negative energy around their fussiness.
- Don’t give your children food you wouldn’t eat: I am not suggesting you give your children rich food that they will have trouble digesting but it’s not fair to feed them sludge while you enjoy a varied and creative diet. As long as you stay within health professional guidance, there is no reason why your children can’t eat what you’re eating at home, toned down a notch in terms of spice levels. Conversely, just because you don’t like something doesn’t mean they won’t.
- Never force feed: Force feeding reinforces negative associations with food. Imagine someone held a cold metal spoon in front of your mouth and kept trying to shovel it into your mouth. How would you feel? Also, things like reheating old meals until they are finished and making a child sit in their seat until the plate is clean all create negative energy. I put food in front of my children for half an hour and keep encouraging them to eat. When time’s up, the plate is cleared.
- Keep snacking down to a minimum: The above point only works if you’re not constantly offering your fussy eater snacks. If he/she knows you’ll happily give them snacks when they ask, then they won’t have the motivation to eat at mealtimes. It’s very tough to say no to a child who is saying they are hungry and I don’t advocate it, but try and be disciplined about when and how much snacks to offer so your fussy eater is more motivated to fill the belly at proper meal times.
- Keep reintroducing foods: Just because your child doesn’t like mushrooms/cheese/carrots etc doesn’t mean they will despise it for life. Think about how often your tastes changed over a lifetime. Don’t be afraid of offering it to them in different guises and who knows, they may surprise you one day. Personally, I love recipes where you can hide items they claim to dislike and they have no idea what mummy’s up to either! Also, never start a meal with “he/she doesn’t like…”. Sometimes and especially with outsiders, fussy eaters will just quit being fussy and you don’t want to stop them now, do you?
And finally, it’s easy to be disillusioned and frustrated by the daily drama of a fussy eater but don’t let it get to you. I barely touched food as a child and always looked like a stick insect. I’ve gone from that and ritually tormenting my mum to the author of two published cookbooks. So, hang in there. Your fussy eater may well blossom into a food lover just like I and loads of other adults did.
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