During our building works last summer we had to live for 4 months without a kitchen, yes that’s right, without a kitchen! I was pregnant and Raff was 1.5 years old so it was an experience full of challenges. Finding food to feed him that didn’t require a kitchen meant resorting to convenience, and so the beginning of his food fussiness began. Suddenly he went from the baby who’d eat anything, to the baby who turned his nose up at anything other than pesto pasta. It was a blow to a pair of foodies like Mr G and I.
I fought against the fussiness for months and months. I’d get snappy with him at mealtimes, I’d make option after option after he refused to even try foods, and I ended up with lots of wastage in the bin and toast for tea most nights. In the end I decided enough was enough and I stopped providing an alternative. I figured he wouldn’t likely starve himself and he would get what he was given and go hungry if he chose to leave it. This was the beginning of a more positive approach to his fussiness.
He started to clock pretty quickly that hunger was worse than trying food and often he’d surprise himself if he did try things, that actually he quite liked them. And so I built up a collection of foods I knew he would like and slowly but surely from that I managed to expand my repertoire of meals. It has taken months, and much, much patience on our part, but I finally feel like I’m breaking some ground here and the stress of mealtimes is slowly diminishing.
Here are my tips on how to overcome fussiness and take control back at the dinner table. (Please note I am no expert, just well practised in dealing with fussiness):
1) You get what you’re given. Don’t offer an alternative - they’ll quickly realise trying is better than the hunger that follows an outright refusal! For months I resorted to toast as a back up and then I realised Raff knew if he refused what was on offer he would get what he wanted - toast! Where’s the motivation to try then?
2) Buy a segmented toddler plate and offer variety on it. If there are different foods on offer at each meal they are likely to at least finish one of them, even if they sniff at another. I often put things like pieces of cucumber, cheese, hummus and apple slices with a meal for example.
3) Work out what flavours and foods they do like and think creatively about ways you could do much more with them. I knew Raff loved pasta and rice, and sweeter flavours and from those starting points I’ve been able to build a variety of meals such as spaghetti bolognese, pumpkin rissotto, mushroom rice and tomato and basil fusili.
4) Use veggies discreetly - I try to hide them in foods, cut them up small, mash them into sauces, and sneak them in so he doesn’t have a chance to question the presence of a carrot or courgette.
5) Don’t loose your rag. If they give an outright refusal, act nonchalant and explain that that is the end of teatime then.
6) Give them notice that mealtimes are approaching. I tell Raff when I am about to start cooking and give him 10 and 5 minute reminders so he knows that whatever he is doing will soon be interrupted, and he has a chance to engage his appetite.
7) Lots of outdoor time and exercise really does build their appetite. If they get enough running around they’ll generally be pulling at your ankles come teatime and less likely to turn their noses up.
8) Always, always praise positive eating and ignore negative behaviours. Toddlers can’t resist praise, they simply love it and the more praise they get for trying, the more likely they are to repeat the behaviour again.
9) Eat together and make mealtimes fun and social. Whenever I can, I sit with the kids and eat a little of what they are having so they feel it is a shared experience.
10) Never give up offering foods they don’t like. Even now, I still put things on the plate I know have been refused before and I feel such a sense of achievement when they get sampled again. This week - very thinly sliced raw carrot was gobbled up despite months of him saying he hates carrot. Perhaps the thinness of the slices made it more enticing or perhaps he decided he’d give it another go. Either way, if I’d given up offering it, he still wouldn’t be eating it.
11) There is nothing wrong will dippy eggs and soldiers and some days call for simplicity!