When I chat to parents of younger children, by far the most common food issue begins with, ‘My child won’t eat… (insert vegetables, meat, fruit, anything green, and so on).’ Trying to get our little ones to eat foods they’re not keen on can be such a source of stress for parents and carers and may cause regular mealtime battles that can even lead to problems becoming worse.
While there is no magical cure to children’s fussiness, it’s reassuring to know that they will generally increase the range of foods they eat as they get older. In the meantime, here are a range of techniques and tricks I’ve found have helped with my boys as well as friends’ children and those I’ve worked with. Please note that these ideas cover a range of ages and stages. Do ensure any food tips you try are of a suitable texture for your child’s age and stage of weaning or eating.
- Kids love food on sticks. Once they’re old enough to handle a skewer (you can often snip with sharper end off with kitchen scissors), you can make chunks of chicken, fish, or marinated firm tofu, squares of capsicum or coins of zucchini, and many other foods more attractive just by threading them onto a skewer before cooking. But it doesn’t end with meat and veg – many other foods lend themselves to this, from cubes of Cheddar alternated with cherry tomatoes to colourful rockmelon, honeydew, and strawberries. For a cool twist, try freezing a fruit kebab before serving it.
- Kids love food in balls. My fussy second son’s unexpected enjoyment of Ikea meatballs inspired this discovery. Almost all other meat, chicken, and fish led to a miserable face. However, when I bought them as mince (or blitzed fish in a food processor), added some beaten egg to bind them, and served them as meatballs, chicken balls, and even fish balls, he lit up with a smile. A bonus with this method is that you can mix in some child-friendly extra flavourings such as cheese, tomato puree, or cream cheese, or use Panko breadcrumbs or even crushed cornflakes to add a crispy coating. Why not combine these 2 ideas and serve up meatball kebabs?
- Take a tip from advertising gurus and sell the food to your child by using a funny name. From Monster Meatballs to Worms in the Dirt (spaghetti and mince stirred together), let your child’s imagination boost their appetite. Research by scientists at Cornell University in the USA found that 4-year olds given ‘X-Ray-Vision carrots’ ate twice as much as when they were just given ‘carrots’ to eat, despite the fact that both dishes were exactly the same. The scientist who led the study suggested also offering ‘power peas’ and ‘dinosaur-tree broccoli’ to help kids enjoy their vegetables more. The researchers found that adults fall for the same tricks. Restaurant dishes with exciting names were ordered more often and even rated as being tastier than the same meal with a boring name. It seems the power of suggestion really works.
- All of us want something more when we’re told it’s not for us. Serving yourself something different and telling the kids it’s ‘Mummy’s special food’ might be enough to get them to ask for a taste when they’d normally turn it down if it appeared on their own plate.
- The same goes for treat foods – it makes them a bit more special. If your little person isn’t keen on tasting new foods, try serving one alongside treat foods at a party or celebration meal. Talk it up, as though it’s a special treat rather than a challenge.
- Sometimes mealtimes can become such a tense environment that any new or disliked food will automatically lead to a battle. Mid-meal snacks, without a parent watching over their shoulder, can remove some of the pressure. If your child is old enough to eat independently, try setting out a small ‘grazing’ plate where your child is playing. Include a few finger foods your child enjoys, along with one new item. Then stay in the background and see if their natural curiosity leads them to have a sniff or even a taste. As always, do keep an eye on young children anytime they’re eating, even if from a distance, and keep snack amounts quite small so children aren’t full up at mealtimes.
- I’ve often found that giving my boys a decision to make, even a tiny one, helps to keep them happy when they would otherwise be grumbling. So you could try giving your little ones a choice of which veg to serve with dinner, or which fruit they’d prefer with dessert, or whether they’d like leftover chicken or cheese and tomato in their sandwich – hopefully they’ll eat more and grumble less than if you just tell them what they’re having.
- Encourage your children to play with their food. No, I’m not advocating a food fight, but being more hands-on with food can help overcome children’s feeling of fear of foods they have issues with. They may even be brave enough to try a lick or nibble! Fruits and vegetables such as potato, sweet potato, carrots, watermelon, and rockmelon can be cut into square ‘building blocks’, either raw or lightly cooked. Try a mix of colours and maybe make an interesting checkerboard pattern on a plate. I know we’re all madly busy and generally keen just to get food on a plate in front of our families, but it often takes less time than you think to make it a bit more fun. Think spaghetti and meatballs with spaghetti hair, pasta sauce face, meatball eyes, cherry tomato nose, and a bean for a mouth. Or a deconstructed cheese sandwich with bread cut into a ‘boat’, cheese sails, and a carrot stick mast. Ideally include mostly foods that are commonly eaten, with one item they find more challenging.
- Along the same lines as playing with food, see if there are other ways your kids can get involved with what they’re eating…or what you hope they might eat. This could include
- shopping – maybe choosing the silliest-looking vegetable
- food preparation – while peeling potatoes may be a few years off, easy tasks such as tearing up lettuce, chopping mushrooms with a very blunt knife (my little one’s favourite job), and helping to whisk eggs for scrambled eggs are tasks that suit younger children
- cooking – as children get older they can start to observe food cooking and eventually help in tasks like stirring a pot, testing if pasta is cooked (after cooling it a little), and flipping small pancakes…all with the careful assistance of an adult helper of course.
- Growing – while we don’t all have the luxury of a vegetable patch, just a used yogurt tub on a windowsill is enough to try growing beans. Potatoes and carrots take a bit longer and more space, but little kids are so excited to pull or dig them up, you’d think they’d discovered buried treasure!
- Mix up the timings. Some children (just like adults) are ‘breakfast people’ and wake up ravenous. They might be much more likely to gobble up foods at the beginning of the day that they normally struggle with at dinnertime. Keeping an open mind about food combinations and timings can help in these cases. There’s no reason children can’t have meat or chicken at snack times if they’re more likely to graze on a meatball at afternoon tea rather than eat one for dinner.
Hopefully, some of these ideas are useful to those of you who struggle to get your little ones to eat a balanced diet. It can be stressful for some children to try something new, and sometimes even just to pick it up and look at it or smell it. Thus, it’s great to praise children for any step forward, however small, not just if they actually swallow the food.
I’ve left out the obvious suggestion of hiding the food your child dislikes in other things they’re eating, and focussed on ways to convince them to knowingly taste new foods. However, if all else fails, that can be an option for helping your child to get the range of foods their bodies need. I’ll have suggestions on this topic in a future blog.
Of course, many of you will have already found other ideas that work for you. If you’d like to share them with other Mother Duck families, please do feel free to pass it on to a member of staff who’ll forward it to me to share with everyone in a future blog.
To read more about healthy eating for children, try this website.
©Fiona Hinton 2021
MEDICAL DISCLAIMER: Please note that this blog is for general information only, and should not be taken as a substitute for qualified medical advice. Please discuss medical issues with your child’s doctor before taking any action.
About Fiona: Fiona Hinton is a dietitian, but describes herself as a nutrition translator, taking the science of nutrition and translating it into foods we love to eat, to nourish both body and soul. She has over 20 years of experience as a dietitian, working in a wide range of areas from hospital wards to running her own private practice. Fiona has a special interest in children’s nutrition. As a mum of three school-age boys, she has first-hand experience of the issues associated with feeding young children, such as weaning and fussiness. Fiona specialises in real-life strategies and practical suggestions to convert nutrition advice into food kids will eat. Fiona has collaborated on several books, including one with best-selling children’s food writer Annabel Karmel, as well as training childcare staff in children’s nutrition.