I am the proud parent of a fussy eater.
Since the age of about 4 days my child has been a pain in the arse when it comes to food. At one of the daily home invasions from the community midwife, I was informed that I wasn’t breast feeding correctly and this squawking, angry bundle of baby had lost half of her birth weight. We were hot-footed back to hospital where we were treated to a gruelling 4 hour feeding schedule of trying and failing to feed her myself, desperately trying to express, bottle feeding expressed milk and topping up with formula. Every. Four. Hours. For three whole days. There was much crying, so much mama-guilt, heaps of anxiety and virtually no sleep.
We eventually got into the swing of things and started on our next food hurdle: weaning.
I became a mum at 19 and I hadn’t had a chance to read the parenting books. I was too busy being shit scared to read the”how to keep it alive” manuals from the current child rearing guru. I had some not-very-helpful leaflets from my very lovely, but alas, not-very-helpful health visitor. But we gave it a bash. Stinky, me and Jake and a bowl of mashed up banana. Compared to breast feeding, this was a walk in the park. We fed her all sorts of things and she loved it (mostly). Apparently we were doing “baby led weaning”. We basically just put food in front of her and and watched while she squelched it between her fingers and rubbed it in her ear holes.
Shortly after we started weaning we had a lot of things change in our lives. We moved house twice in six months, I went back to work full time, Jake started university and Stinky started nursery. At 18 months, all of this change must have been a lot to deal with for such a tiny human. After our second move, Stinky had started to refuse to try new foods. She even started refusing foods she had previously enjoyed. The list of acceptable foods was short: apples, bananas, blueberries, strawberries, yoghurt, peas, mashed potato. Like I said, short.
Phsycologists say that every toddler goes through a fussy eating phase, usually at about 16 months. Typically this is when we start feeding our little darlings new foods. Weaning is going so well; you’ve graduated from mush to slightly lumpy mush, then finger food and you get cocky. One dinner time you just go right ahead and put something completely obscene like aubergine on your toddler’s plate and they freak the fuck out. They’ve never seen it before, never smelled or touched anything like it and they certainly won’t be putting in their mouth. If your darling child is anything like mine, they’ll probably stage the toddler version of a dirty protest by smearing it across the magnolia walls of your rented house.
According to psychologists this is normal. It’s called Neophobia, which is the fear of new foods. It’s an evolutionary survival instinct which stops us from eating food which may be harmful to us. For example, many green vegetables like broccoli and sprouts have a bitter taste, just like a poisonous Berry in the wild might. This translates to a developing toddler’s brain as “sprouts are poison”.
It’s estimated that a third of under 5s go through a fussy eating phase. Whilst it’s really very easy to judge other parents for their child’s eating habits, our blame yourself, some research has suggested that genetics can be partly to blame for fussy eating. My child is not an adventurous child; she’s highly suspicious of new things and everything has to be thoroughly mulled over so it stands to reason that those personality traits are projected on to the dinner table. Finding this out did good things for my gut wrenching mama-guilt. It’s not entirely my fault for not being a stay at home mum after all. She is who she is.
I’ve heard that there are two types of people: those that eat to live and those that live to eat. As a chef and general food obsessed person, I am definitely in the live to eat category and it hurts my soul to see my child not sharing my love of food. At age nearly 8, we have made considerable progress. Long gone are the days of Mash Pandas: a phase where she would only eat mash, peas and sausage artfully arranged in the shape of a panda. What was I thinking?
So how did we get over the crippling fussiness?
First off I let go of the mama-guilt, leave the control-freak part of my personality at the front door and pour myself a large glass of stay calm (that’s a metaphor by the way, wine is not the answer). We sit down together as a family, we eat the same meal, we chat and we laugh and enjoy our meal. Stinky is a painfully slow eater (made worse by the fact that she never stops talking) but I try not to let her sit in front of her plate while her food gets cold. No one wants to eat cold, congealed spaghetti. Some gentle encouragement is often required but there’s a fine line between encouraging her to shut up and eat and commencing a bloody battle of wills over the dining table. Watching her prod at a lovingly prepared supper fills me with rage and I’m certain that my nagging makes her furious. We try our very best as parents to not make dinner time a big deal, to not lumber her with a lifelong complex. I certainly don’t want that time I made her eat butternut squash whilst she gagged because it was stringy to be something she tells her therapist in later life.
Another thing which helped with the general suspicion of funny looking food was shopping and cooking together. Food should be fun, not a chore or something to get your knickers in a twist over. Grocery shopping as a family gives Stinky a chance to have her say in what we eat. I ask her what she would like for dinner (normally pizza, meatballs or shepherds pie) and she feels involved in our decision making. It also means she can identify lots of different foods, she feels comfortable eating new fruits and vegetables and because of that is able to enjoy a more varied diet. That being said, she might be able to identify a celeriac but she sure as hell wouldn’t touch it with a shitty stick, let alone eat it.
My last piece of advice is to just keep trying. Keep offering new foods, don’t make different dinners and don’t give up on your child. I never gave Stink peppers, thinking there was no way she’d eat it and then one day, Jake put some on her plate. She ate them by accident and loved them. Take pleasure in the small victories. After 4 years of refusing to eat meat (too chewy) she discovered bacon and fell in love. She then discovered pigs in blankets and it blew her tiny mind. She’s recently discovered that burgers are nice, and chips are acceptable but not the fat ones. They won’t like everything, every time but if they know you won’t make a big fuss over a bit of wasted food then they’re more likely to eat it. I’ve always discouraged the phrase “I don’t like it” because it’s so negative and final. It basically says “I will never eat this ever again”. Instead she tells me it’s “not my favourite” and I can live with that.