I've always been a bit on the fence when it comes to the nature/nurture debate. You know, how much of our children's traits and behaviours are down to upbringing, and how much we can blame on their dad! My first real test, though, came when my son first developed an opinion. I had always been very keen for him to sample as many different tastes early on as possible, so that he had the best chance of being open to new tastes as he got older. I did exactly the same with my daughter and she ate pretty much anything throughout her childhood. I can't tell you how easy I had it (I only realise this now)! So, from a young age, he would have a little of what we had; he loved stir fry, and vegetable sticks, anything colourful, and it was always reassuring to see him eating well. Then, it happened.
Shortly after starting school, he began to reject certain foods, until, at one stage, he would 'only eat' a handful of barely nutritious convenience foods. To begin with, I was not concerned. I have seen lots of parents go through this situation and handle it in a number of ways, with varying success rates. I also spoke to some 'grown ups' I know, who are self confessed fussy eaters, even as adults, and asked if they felt their parents response could have helped them.
Tina, from Trials and Tribulations of a Brummie Mummy, writes; "It was my parents making me fussy, by forcing me to eat things I didn't like. Now, as a parent, I never force the kids to eat anything they don't like, but they are only alowed an apple if they don't."
Chrissie, from Manchester Flick Chick adds; "They did everything they could to encourage me to eat my meals when I was telling them I was too full. Turns out, I have a food intolerance to wheat and dairy which really bloats my tummy. They could have actually listened to me."
Laura, from Petit Moi - Big World, a reformed fussy eater, feels her parents really helped her in the long run; "She (mum) just let me decide; I ate sausage and chips for days and days in a row once. I came to veg and 'the good stuff' in my own time, without pressure and it worked really well!"
On the other hand...
Sarah-Jane, from Chasing the Donkey offered a totally different insight; "I have zero interest in fruit. My parents never encouraged me or tried to help me eat it and just let me not eat it. I am sure that is why the texture of most fruit has me gagging. As my son gets older, I'll be sure to make it fun, and encourage him to try things."
So, as is often the case with parenting issues, it seems there's no right or wrong answer, but listening to your children seems to play an important part. The adults I interviewed all spoke of the issues they face now, in restaurants, at parties, on holiday. Embarrassment and fear of going to unknown food environments and anxious feelings at the thought of family occasions, were the main theme of many of the comments. This is clearly a difficult issue for many people, and even at a young age, there may be more to this than just the nutrition perspective.
I do want to mention one little-known condition that I believe can play a part in some children's food issues. Several of my contributors, spoke of being particularly put off by different textures and even smells. It's recently been suggested that around 25% of the population could be Supertasters, who have heightened oral sensations to food and drink, due to over-enthusiastic tastebuds. The result being that anything beyond the bland is magnified, causing unpleasantly strong tastes and sensations. You can read more about the condition in this related article.
With my own son, I was fairly confident of one thing, which is that the majority of children will go through a 'fussy eating' phase at some stage in their formative years. I also felt that drawing attention to it could actually make it worse. Based on the, 'any attention is good attention' philosophy, I felt it was best ignored. So that's exactly what I did. I knew he had the capacity to enjoy a variety of different tastes and textures, so when he refused, I simply let him have the small variety of foods he would eat, hoping he would get bored. But he didn't. I think it was partly laziness, because all his choices involved very little cutting or even chewing! Scrambled egg, hot dogs, meatballs, occasionally pizza. The crunch (sorry!) came when he developed an intolerance to egg. This was really his main source of nutrients, so I started to become concerned about his health. The 'fussy phase' had been going on too long and was running the risk of developing from a phase, into a way of life. So I needed to take action. What follows are my tips to get your fussy eater eating. I can't guarantee they will work for everyone, but in a couple of months, my sons recipe repertoire has increased hugely, and his attitude to food has changed too.
1. Stay Calm. Children will quickly pick up on your anxiety, and this can affect how they view mealtimes, so keep the situation relaxed and positive. Praise is important, even for trying just a small amount of something new, but I have had the most success from playing down the whole experience. Food on plate, plate on table, and leave them to get on with it, whilst you eat yours.
2. Eat Meals Together. I realise this isn't always possible, but eating meals together allows you to expose your child to a wealth of tastes and smells in a natural, unpressured environment. He may think he only wants to eat one bland item, but seeing you eating something that smells or looks interesting, may pique his curiousity. I don't think there's any harm in suggesting he tries a little off your plate either. This was how I discovered that my 'fussy eater's' favourite food is curry!
3. Be Positive! Always try to talk about foods in a positive way, even if it's something you don't like. There is no harm in explaining that everyone is different and we all have different tastes. He may turn out to like things that you don't, but who cares, as long as he's eating?!
4. Make a Start. Write a list of all the foods your child does enjoy and will happily eat. Sometimes it's surprising how many different food types will feature and it gives you a good starting point to build on. You can sometimes find foods with a similar texture, taste or even colour, that might expand the menu and increase your child's confidence.
5. Communicate. Make talking about food part of daily life. My son and I have had discussions about what puts him off certain foods and what appeals to him, as part of normal conversation. This helps me choose foods for him to try that won't be instantly rejected, but also helps him be reassured that his opinions are respected and valued, building trust, so that he is more inclined to take my suggestions on board when it comes to new ideas.
6. Be Honest! This is a subject of much debate, but in my experience, honesty is key. I feel, that if you are honest with your child (for example; not telling them that all meat is chicken, because you know they will eat chicken), they will be more likely in the long run to trust you and therefore be open to your suggestions on new food choices to try.
7. Get Children Involved. I'm a big advocate for getting children involved in cooking from an early age. Not just cakes and biscuits (although, there's always time for cakes in our house!) but also, simple meal projects. In our recipe files, there are some suggestions for easy recipes, featuring just a few ingredients, that children can play a part in. This helps them develop an interest in food and who wouldn't want to taste their own creation?!
8. 'Try Something New' Stickers! In The 99p Store, I bought a pack of stickers with different faces on. Cartoony emoticons, really. If he tries something new, he gets a sticker. The best part is, he can choose a face to match how he felt about the new taste, which seems to be a fun incentive! If this doesn't appeal, you can obviously choose stickers of your child's favourite characters, or whatever appeals to them. But, it is a simple reward scheme that gives children a sense of achievement and a positive spin on a new taste experiences.
9. Eat the Rainbow! I am not sure where I originally heard about this idea, but I've included the link to the website, for further information. The basic premise is that you challenge yourself to eat a piece of fruit or veg containing every colour of the rainbow each day. For some reason this idea really sparked the imagination and my son was very keen to find new fruits and vegetables to complete his quota!
10. What Will Be, Will Be. To illustrate my final point, I would like to leave the last quote to sixteen year old Darren, who, when asked by his mother about her contribution to his eating habits, had this to say; "Nothing you lot could've done would've made any difference. Think of the one food you really hate, something that the smell and texture just turns your stomach, and ask yourself if there is any way someone could encourage you to eat that and be happy about it?" In some cases, nothing you do will make any difference and your child may just enjoy a limited number of foods. In which case, constant focus on food may just make them more anxious and unhappy. So, if nothing seems to work, give it time. Do your best to include the 'good foods' they will eat and hope they come around in their own time. Our tastes change a lot as we get older and, with the right amount of patience, there's every possibility they will express an interest in new foods as they get older and see their friends eating different things. But, if they don't, they don't. Provided they are healthy, there is really no point making them feel any worse about it.
If you have had your own experience of challenging eating situations, either your own or your children's, we would love to hear your comments. Thanks for reading and I hope I've helped, or at least reassured a little!