No fussy eaters — how to raise a child who eats everything
“As children of a food writer who likes to cook, your kids must be eating really well”, is something I’ve been told often. I’m confused by what folks mean when the say “eating really well”. Perhaps they think my children aren’t fussy eaters and get multi-course meals featuring shaved salads, a lobster frittata, 12-hour tonkotsu ramen, and that they end with a platter of homemade fruit jellies, artisanal cheese, and organic dark chocolate. Maybe they believe my kids eat a lot because as a culinary school graduate, I always have plenty of fun ingredients at home and spend a lot of time around food. Or, they assume my kids delightedly eat everything all the time. None of these are true.
My limited experience has taught me this: to get fussy eaters of all ages to eat well, stop feeding them. Yes, let them have access to a decent variety of food, help them identify it if they need help, and then focus on visibly and audibly enjoying eating yourself. Count on FOMO. Everyone has it, even toddlers. When all else fails, turn to Miguel de Cervantes – the best sauce in the world is hunger.
There are finer details involved when you are trying to teach adults-in-the-making how to eat. Things like: what we present them with, when we offer it, and how we offer it, and what we do when it swiftly lands up on the floor.
‘My children will never be fussy eaters’
I was the typical idealist mom with my first child, determined to have the best-fed toddler in the world. I’d decided to keep our son off processed foods, refined grains, salt, and sugar for the first two and a half years of his life. Okay, one and a half years, and then we’d flex a little from time to time. Also, he’d mostly feed himself, eat plant-based foods, have three meals and two snacks a day, each at about the same time every day. Of course, things didn’t work out as planned.
He got hooked onto purees during one early holiday, so real vegetables became alien for months after. At home, when he wiggled out of his chair halfway through meals, I’d move us around to fight the boredom—bed, balcony, stroller, anywhere—as long as he was eating. I brought books and music and toys to the meal, only to have the meal entirely forgotten. I tried offering multi-course meals, vegetables first, everything after, and then landed up scraping hours of prep off the floor.
When I wasn’t struggling with a toddler, I had to deal with grandparents and the family. Everything from packaged chikki to unlimited quantities of milk were available to him because, “It’s okay, he wants it, let him have it.” Meals and snacks that I didn’t hawk over were fed to him by loving family hands, sometimes simply to speed things up. With a little help from adults, it doesn’t take a toddler long to figure out how to stop eating independently altogether.
Right about the time I was beginning to feel fully frustrated every time I fed my progeny, I became a mom to twin girls. Three babies in the family aren’t as novel as one nor as exciting as a firstborn grandchild. We’ve been forced to simplify the basics because we’re all so much busier now.
With my girls (now 18 months old), I finally figured that it’s best not to overthink meals, feed kids, or obsess over how little or how much they eat. Mainly because I don’t have the time for it any more.
Since we switched strategies, all three kids eat (almost) everything I offer them—but not every day. They feed themselves, often refusing to be fed because they enjoy the independence of choice. They decide the order in which they’ll eat, and they’ll incite my curiosity about flavour combinations. Recently, copying the kids, I’ve tried raw carrots dipped in almond butter, bananas with cheese, and idlis dipped in imli chutney. I have no regrets.
As a food writer, I realised it might help to figure out a system for my family. This is ours.
How to turn fussy eaters into food lovers
- We make small quantities of a variety of food for the kids, with at least two or three things that are familiar, and two or three that are not yet but will soon become. So these days, during a meal, the kids might have steamed sprouts, shredded carrots and beets with lemon juice, omelette chunks seasoned with pepper, seared paneer sticks, millet roti where the dough has been kneaded with green leafy vegetables… all of which they have grown to like because I offered it to them over and over again in the last year. At every meal, we’ll have two to three new things which will, over months, become part of our everyday meals.
- Even fussy eaters like a few healthy things, but it takes trial and error to find out what these are. It helps to find a way to repurpose rejected food. Sprouts rejected by the kids in the early days went into ginger and coriander-laden pudlas for us; shredded veggies went into soups; omelette chunks went into omelette curry.
- For kids who don’t eat processed sugar, orange segments and pomegranate arils are shiny bits of jewel-toned candy. When all else fails, we eat plenty of fruit.
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