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Food fighters: Getting a picky kid to eat

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Simon Farrell-Green on the frustrating – alright, panic-making – business of getting a picky four-year-old to eat.

We were so smug about food there for a while. For the first year of our son Ira’s life, he ate everything we put in front of him. From about the time he was four or five months old, he was interested in food – to the point where he’d grab food off our plates, or chips at the pub. We’d start chopping up an avocado and within 10 minutes he’d have eaten the whole thing, piece by slippery piece. We didn’t worry about allergies – peanuts, gluten, shellfish, he ate the lot.

We have a wonderful photo from his first summer, when he was all of six months old, his face covered with food, a gummy smile, holding up a bit of chicken triumphantly like some sort of talisman. Chicken! So this is what they were on about! He’s sitting in his high chair at our place, it’s high summer, and there is a golden glow around him.

Not long after that, we took him to Thailand. He was nine months old by then and we rented a villa on a quiet beach in Koh Samui, and ate each night at one of four excellent barbecue restaurants. We sucked the chilli off the stir-fried clams and gave him bits of grilled fish; the staff took him off for walks around the restaurant, and the golden Buddha child just gurgled happily along with them. For breakfast, he ate mango, pineapple and watermelon on the covered deck while we drank coffee and enjoyed the heat.

Other people’s children didn’t eat like Ira. A friend’s children will only eat if accompanied by an iPad; another battled nightly on anything from broccoli to bread. We got smugger. It’s because we eat together, we said: I was freelance at the time, and was home most nights for dinner at 5.30 with my son. We just give him what we eat, we said. We’ll take him back to Thailand one day, we said. 

I look back on those days with wonder and a little envy. Who is that family? Who is that child? Who are those relaxed parents? Ira is now four and for the past two years, it has been a daily struggle to get him to eat anything that isn’t white or beige, and some days, I would just really love it if he even ate that. I’m a professional food critic – someone who is actually paid to eat – and an enthusiastic home cook, and I’ve cooked dinner for 20 people at a time. And yet I cannot get a small human to eat.

It started when he was two, around the time his sister Marti was born and we moved out of our house for six months while it was being renovated, before finally settling back in. By then, food had become a battle. And, in hindsight, we did most things wrong.

He started refusing food, pushing it away, turning his head. It was obvious he was hungry, and then later he would ask for a banana, or worse, he’d wake up in the middle of the night and say he was hungry.

We told stories to distract him. We told silly jokes. We read books. We tried smushing things together. We tried keeping them apart. We cajoled. We pleaded. We were stern. Underneath it all, we were paralysed with anxiety. Why wouldn’t this kid eat? Where had our Ira gone? We gave up, and when he asked for toast instead, we gave it to him, just grateful he would go to bed with a full tummy and maybe – maybe – he might not wake up in the night.

Slowly, the quality of what we gave him declined and narrowed. These days, there are fish fingers in the freezer, ready to be reheated from frozen, and there is a chicken equivalent, which he apparently likes, but that I can’t bring myself to feed him on the odd day when I do afternoon pick-ups. (I’m a drop-off dad.) He will not eat anything with sauce on it, and he’s suspicious of greens. He will not eat the Nigel Slater fried rice he was so fond of until he turned two. He will not gnaw on a chicken bone. He will not eat muesli very often because it’s all in together and it looks a bit messy and the banana on it makes him gag (actually, as a life-long banana hater, I get where he’s coming from here). He’ll have an egg with soldiers, but mainly he eats the soldiers – and only when there is a lot of butter. If you so much as put a teaspoon in the egg to feed him, he loses the plot.

The reading I’ve done on this – and I have to confess here, my wife is the one that does the reading; I just get frustrated and say things like, “They just need to eat!” – says all this is kind of on the normal spectrum. Kids turn two, and then they learn they have a choice, and so they start exercising that choice, and they do that by saying no, and slowly narrow the variety of what they’ll eat until it seems very little at all.

Think of it as kind of evolutionary: we’re omnivores and we eat anything, so it makes sense that once kids are of an age where they can eat anything, they kind of need to stop eating everything until they know what will and won’t kill them. That takes time and patience.

That’s fine in theory. In practice? We’ve evolved into a society where children are looked after by other people a lot of the time while their parents go to work. Parents who work really, really need their children to eat, so they are happy and contented and then sleep well so that we can get up tomorrow and do it all over again – and in doing so slowly stagger through the rest of the week until that blessed moment on Saturday when you wake up and realise it doesn’t matter if the kids don’t eat or stick to their routine because it’s the weekend and you can have a wine when they go to bed.

We just don’t have time to spend an hour convincing toddlers to eat in the morning, and no one has the energy to do so at night.

“Our job as parents is to serve kids good, balanced, nutritious food. Their job is to eat it. Or not.”
Recently, Ira has shown signs of progression. He has developed a deep interest in things that are beige, but which have a crunchy top, like lasagne and macaroni cheese. He likes sausages. He’s 50:50 on chips and 75:25 on broccoli, carrots and peas. And so it is that we have begun a new strategy on food, which is probably the strategy we should have had all along – in short, it’s up to him. If he eats, he’ll eat. If he wants one thing but not another, then fine. We try and give him a bit of choice, and that seems to help – carrots or broccoli, little man?

I’ll admit here this is completely out of my comfort zone as a parent. Turns out, I am not particularly laid-back or organic; I like structure and certainty, and I like children to eat the things they are given. And so to help me in this journey, which my wife has always understood because she is a much better parent than me, I contacted registered nutritionist and health writer Sheena Hendon. I explained the predicament. At length. She paused. “I’ve never met a child who will starve themselves,” she said. In short, unless a child has a deeply unhealthy relationship with food, like only eating two things or refusing food entirely, picky eating isn’t actually a problem.

Kids don’t eat some things, but they do eat other things, and this is all very normal – we forget humans are all different. Some of us don’t eat meat. Some of us can’t stand Brussels sprouts or oysters. Some of us don’t like the texture of cold roasted lamb. Some of us had a huge lunch and don’t feel like dinner, and some kids eat a lot one day and almost nothing the next. “Our job as parents is to serve them good, balanced, nutritious food,” Hendon said, practically. “Their job is to eat it. Or not.”

It’s really quite simple, when you put it in those terms. Give them a balanced meal of one-third protein, one-third vegetables, one-third carbohydrates – and remember they have really little stomachs, so don’t give them too much. Put it on the table, and hope they eat. Don’t make a big deal if they don’t. And, if you can, make them part of the process. Let them exercise that choice, within some boundaries: carrots or broccoli? Spaghetti or penne? Do you want to butter the soldiers?

My wife already knew all this, and so she was bemused when I started trying again with Ira. “Boiled or scrambled?” I asked him one morning. “Scrambled,” he said firmly. When I asked him if he’d like to help, Ira’s face lit up and he had his little wooden stool up at the bench in seconds. He cracked the egg, then cracked another – because he wanted two – then put the bread in the toaster and pushed it down. We put butter in the pan and then together, we pushed the eggs around the pan with a big wooden spoon until they were ready. He ate the entire thing, plus a little bowl of fruit I snuck in on the side.

Later that week, I made macaroni cheese and hid peas in it for a bit of green. I asked him if he wanted broccoli or carrots. “Both,” he said. I served him a bit of it, and he ate that, and then he asked for more, and he ate that and then finally, he asked if he could just have the baking dish at the table, and proceeded to eat like a toddler possessed. He ate three nights’ worth in one sitting, plus the carrots, plus the broccoli and then gave a very satisfied burp. As he ate, I asked him why he liked it so much. “Because it’s crunchy on top and then nice on the inside,” he said seriously. “And it has cheese.” I could have cried.

Since then, we’ve waxed and waned. He chooses eggs for breakfast most mornings, sometimes with some fruit on the side, and sometimes he eats his greens. The night after a particularly successful lasagne, I thought maybe I might give him spaghetti and tomato sauce, and so I made a lovely pomodoro sauce, slow-cooked for an hour over a low heat and served the sauce on the pasta. He took one look at it and threw maybe his biggest tantrum ever. I caved, and that night he ate dry spaghetti. Without a fork.

And what about his sister, Marti? She’s two and has gamely eaten most of the things we’ve given her, especially if they are green. The night of the spaghetti incident, she ate the lot, red tomato sauce smeared all over her face. The next night, she didn’t eat much at all, or the following night. I put the untouched lasagne back in the dish, and figured she’d ask for it if she was hungry, and tried very hard not to panic.

This article was first published in the October 2019 issue of North & South. Follow North & South on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and sign up to the fortnightly email for more great stories.