‘Almost everyone has to deal with fussy eating at some point,’ says Annabel, mum of three, and author of 17 best-selling books on the subject. ‘I had three myself, so I can sympathize.’ She believes that around 90 per cent of kids go through a picky phase, so if you’re experiencing this in your own home right now, you’re not alone.
The key, she says, is not to give any attention to fussy behaviour at meal times. Conversely, layer on the praise when they try something new, even if it’s just the tiniest amount. ‘You’ll soon find that if you don’t give them the attention they’re seeking, they’ll stop making a fuss because there’s no point,’ she says.
One of the most common mistakes parents make in these situations is to give in to a child’s demands, just to get them to eat something, anything even. ‘Some parents never allow their children to get hungry, but it’s only then that you’ll break the pattern,’ she warns. ‘Leave them if they don’t want to eat; when they’re hungry they’ll be so much more likely to try something different.’ Parents shouldn’t worry about just ‘filling children up’.
When it comes to mealtimes, it’s as much about setting an example as a parent as putting a healthy meal on the table, she says. Kids will always want to try something you’re eating, and when it comes to rewards, give out stickers rather than chocolate or sweets, otherwise you’re setting up more bad habits.
Not liking a certain food can often just come down to a child’s personal tastes rather than fussy behaviour, she says. ‘Children are just like adults, they’ll like or dislike certain flavours or textures. Try re-introducing something further down the line – tastes change as we get older. Think about it – most kids love eating the sickly sweet icing from cakes, but can you imagine just eating that part as an adult?’
The good news is that most kids eventually grow out of their fussiness, but as a parent, it’s always good to lay down the foundations of a healthy eater at an early age. ‘You are helping form your child’s habits. If a certain food isn’t given to them, they’re not going to miss it. They say that children make up their minds about things by the age of five, and after that it can be quite difficult to change their ways. In the first year, when they start weaning, that’s the time to introduce new flavours. Between the ages of one and three it can be more difficult – that’s when they become more stubborn, their growth slows down, and life is just too exciting to be concerned with eating.’
Don’t avoid ethnic or more flavoursome meals, either, she says, and don’t stick to the old adage that kids only eat bland foods. ‘My own kids love Asian cuisine: nasi goreng, chow mein, stir fries. It’s all about expanding their tastebuds and the variety they’ll eat.’
When you’re preparing meals, always take into account the pyschological factor, she advises. ‘For kids there’s a real visual side to things; meals have to look appetizing. Younger kids especially don’t like food to be mixed together, so will tend to turn their nose up at things like stews. If you are going to make pies or casseroles, try using small ramekins, so you can keep them separate from the vegetables on their plate.’
Easy-to-eat finger foods are always a winner, she says, such as meatballs, corn on the cob or chicken dippers. And if they are inclined towards junk food, make your own healthy versions. ‘If your child likes hamburgers, make your own using lean meat, then add hidden veg like grated onion, grated carrot and red pepper. Or you can make your own chicken nuggets using good quality chicken – I make a tasty coating with crushed rice crispies and parmesan cheese, which is really yummy. Blending sauces is a great option – tomato sauces for pasta are useful for hiding healthy vegetables. And try making your own fresh fruit ice lollies. They’re fun to make, tasty, and good to beat the summer heat, too.’