A bit of this and that...with added frangipani.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Fussy Eaters: Conflict or Compromise?

There is an ongoing argument around our house about how to approach the problem of fussy eaters.

The Background

I can use two fingers to count how many foods Will dislikes. As he would have you know, he came from parents who practised no-nonsense parenting. He was forced to eat everything and as a result he will eat anything. He is so easygoing about his likes and dislikes that he will defer to me when it comes to how he likes his food. If I am putting Parmesan cheese on my pasta, he will ask for it too, but if I am not, oh well, he won't either.

I on the other hand, am more discerning in my tastes, but generally there are only a handful of foods that I absolutely detest, and I will try most things, but this was not always the case. I could not stand asparagus, curry and most types of seafood until I became an adult, and now I love, love, love them.

My children are complete opposites to one another.

MasterSeven, after having been deprived of a lot of foods due to his former allergy to milk and egg products, will try anything. I can't think of anything he really doesn't like. He loves olives, pickles, seafood, blue cheese, pate and in general, foods you would associate as being 'grown-up' foods.

MasterFive is picky. One day he will like a food and devour it promptly, and the next time I cook it, he will say he doesn't like it. He detests mushrooms (and gags on them), he can't stand the more exotic seafoods, such as mussels and he's not a true Aussie, because he has decided he no longer likes prawns. Bok choy, capsicum and sometimes zucchini are not his favourites.

They both LOVE broccoli however, go figure.

What We Want

I think I speak for most parents when I say that what we want for our children is this:

  • We want them to get a variety of nutrients from a variety of foods.
  • We want them to enjoy healthy foods and not just the junk.
  • We want them to savour their food and enjoy trying new things.
  • We want them to be welcome in other people's homes, because they know how to behave when faced with a food that doesn't appeal to their palates.
  • When we have spent most of the afternoon slaving over a new recipe, we would love for the effort to be appreciated by each and every member of the family.

The Obstacles

Well, children have their own idea of what they think should happen at mealtimes:

  • Some (most) would prefer to eat junk than that meal you slaved over.
  • Some won't eat a morsel of the food on their plates, but the minute it is not mealtime, they are hoovering up everything within a 10km radius.
  • Some won't eat off their own plates; they want to eat off yours.
  • Some find the texture and the taste of some foods so revolting that they will regurgitate said food for your viewing pleasure.
  • Some will eat nothing but Vegemite sandwiches, and I mean nothing.
  • Some won't eat mushrooms in a stir-fry but will eat it as mushroom sauce on pork chops.
  • And I am sure that my readers could add many more to this list...

The Approach

So here's the tricky bit. How do we get to 'What We Want' and bypass 'The Obstacles' yet still keep our sanity?

If you asked Will, he would be prefer to be standing on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise saying "Make it so." He has a lot to say about how soft I am on the kids when it comes to this issue, but I think he recognises that the autocratic way takes a lot of energy and saps the enjoyment out of mealtime, so he tends to let me give my approach a whirl.

The approach I have takes into account something I read somewhere that children have thousands more taste buds than grown-ups, and that our sense of taste dulls over time. This is said to be why children have a harder time with more adult flavours (MasterSeven disproves this theory, but never mind that), because they can taste them exponentially more than we can. This makes a lot of sense to me, so I try to implement the following rules:

  1. When it comes to newly introduced foods, you have to try it before you say you don't like it. If you don't like it the first time, you don't have to eat it, but I'd like you to try it again on another occasion, because you might change your mind.
  2. When you are at someone else's house and you are faced with a food on your plate that you really hate, then I want you to discreetly put that food to the side of your plate without making a big song and dance about it.
  3. BUT, if I have slaved over a hot stove making this food for you and the last time I made it for you, you gobbled it up, but you have since decided that you no longer like it, TOO BAD, you are going to sit and eat it if it takes all night, and if you don't eat it tonight is will be waiting for you in the morning for breakfast, and you are going to like it. Do you know why? Because there are starving children all over the world and you just don't know how lucky you are...!
Exaggerating about that last one, but that's not to say that at least some of those words haven't been uttered in moments of sheer desperation.

'Food For Thought'

When we were fleeing from Cyclone Yasi, we brought a limited amount food with us to the evacuation centre. By the time nightfall came, the kids were pretty hungry with having only had crackers and muesli bars, so when I opened a cold can of spaghetti, I had to fight them off to make sure everyone got some. If you had offered them a cold can of spaghetti normally, you can bet noses would be turned up.  

So is the solution to make sure that no snacks are had between meal times? That's what our parents did for us, and we survived it, but with childhood obesity becoming an increasing problem, isn't it better to allow them to eat smaller amounts throughout the day?

Which is your approach? Are you the autocrat or the diplomat, or somewhere in between?

Some Related Links

Here are some other excellent posts on this topic:

Marita at Stuff With Thing shares a great post on how to put some fun in the meal and still get around a fussy eater or two.

Donna at Nappy Daze talks about a Fussy Eaters seminar she attended and her mealtime trials and tribulations with her toddler. See? This is such an issue, they hold seminars about it!

Kellie's husband, Julian, over at Three Li'l Princesses tells us about one time when trying to disguise the veggies in the food just didn't work.

Susan at Reading Updside Down has kindly suggested the book More Peas Please from Kate di Prima and Dr Julie Chichero.

Rachel at Because I said so! also shares a creative way to make food fun for fussy eaters.


  1. Great overview! I'm pleased to say things have improved on our front but there is a looong road ahead to get to where he should be.

    I'm going to be sure to remember your advice fro the first time the son has dinner at a friend's house and is served something he doesn't like.

  2. This week is a ``good'' week. Ella is eating everything off her plate and not asking for snack food. Next week that will all go out the window, I'm sure!
    I've been holding strong on `no snacks' if meals aren't eaten. I've even left lunch on the table, so an hour later when she says `mum, I'm hungry', I point her to the dining table! It works... sometimes! :)

  3. My kids have switched eating personalities. My daughter was very picky as a baby and toddler but not so now-she usually tries everything (my rule) before turning her nose up at it. Now my son, he ate anything as a baby and toddler, but now the older he gets, the pickier he gets. I have to remind him constantly about the "try rule," and I have stopped after school snacking with him just so he gets a little dinner down...

  4. Dare I write such a comment!!!!
    We as parents teach our children that they have choices. Having done so we then complain of their choices. They learn from our choices.
    As I grew up liver was always on our menu. As much as I tried I could not get it down my throat. I was excused from eating it.(Thanks Mum) However I introduced liver and most dislikes in lot of my childrens meals from when they were months old. Today they will eat anything and everthing. Of course as Trop Mum has mentioned it also came from no nonsense parenting. No apologies for that.
    Good luck Mums keep trying, remember you dont have to win the battle every time.

  5. I think parenting plays a big part in how our children approach mealtimes, but it doesn't account for everything. My older son was a picky toddler, but now (at almost 12) will try anything and loves Chinese, Indian and Mexican dishes.

    My daughter (almost 10) will happily try anything. She doesn't like spicy food, but eats a wide range of foods and always has.

    My younger son (almost 7) has quirky tastes. His preferences tend to relate as much to textures as they do to taste. He doesn't like mushroom or avocado, hates anything with sauce on it or with a saucy/watery texture (including casseroles and soups). But he loves some tastes that most kids shy away from, like fruit mince pies and liquorice. He doesn't like foods where there are two different textures in the food, which includes treats like choc chip biscuits.

    My children know that they must try new foods, but I won't force them to eat something they don't like. I found that they tried more foods and ate a wider variety of foods when I started placing serving dishes in the centre of the table and allowing them to serve themselves. Rules are that they must have at least a little of everything and they must eat everything on their plate, since they served it.

    I read a great book a little while ago called 'More Peas Please' by Kate Di Prima and Dr Julie Cichero which had some fantastic advice on dealing with fussy eaters, if anyone is looking for some useful guidelines/tips.

  6. One of my kids has food allergies (gluten and dairy) so we have some other issues. Our general rule is the kids can eat it or not, but they have to sit up at the table with the family, and they don't get anything else to eat. Only once have they gone to bed hungry - the lesson was learned very quickly. If we are having a roast or similar meal with lots of veggies, the kids can choose one vegetable not to have, they have to eat the rest. One son really hates pumpkin, the other hates onion.

  7. Donna: I am please that things have improved for you. They are always offering us challenges, but they don't last forever.

    Kellie: That is a great rule, I have been known to do that also, if only to stop from perfectly good food going to waste.

    Susan F: I find that Mstr5 is practically in tears he is so hungry after school, so he gets a light snack of fruit or raw veg so as not to fill him up for dinner.

    Mum (Anon): Whatever you did worked a treat, as Will is the best eater, but I just wish I could 'mind-meld' (another Star Trek analogy) with you to figure out how you did it! And your comments are ALWAYS welcome!

    Susan at Reading...: I like your idea of getting them to serve themselves. Also thanks for the book recommendation, I will add it to the post.

    Melissa: Yes, we do the 'if you don't eat it, you won't get anything else' rule also, but not for new foods. I also like your idea of letting them choose one veg to exclude.

  8. We were more of the "fine don't eat it, but nothing but water until the next meal". Harder to enforce when Sheldon got to high school but eh, do our best.

  9. My boys, at 18, 20 and 22, despite being brought up exactly the same, have very different tastes. My eldest will eat practically anything as long as its bought from a shop that is spotless and cooked in a kitchen that is spotless. My middle son wont eat chicken, fish, eggs or mushrooms and strangely enough he was the only one allergic to eggs as a baby. My youngest will usually try anything but doesn't particularly like spicy food (but will eat it if starving). Out of the three of them only the middle one eats a fair bit of junk food. They all prefer salads to vegetables and they all eat a lot of fruit. And they can all cook!!!

  10. Since I'm not a parent, I don't feel like I can really weigh in here, but as your evacuation story attests, if they're hungry, they'll eat what's on offer. (but I'm sure starving children to get them to eat whatever you're serving would be frowned upon by the authorities).
    My parents were lucky with me; when I was little, I had a pink bowl with Winnie the Pooh on the side and I would eat any food, as long as it was in that pink bowl :-)

  11. Mrs Tuna: I can imagine my battles will be harder to win when they are in high school!

    Ca88andra: I want to teach my boys to cook as soon as they can see over the stove!

    Sara Louise: Yet another brilliant idea to have a special bowl. Great for littlies!

  12. Hi Shelly,

    I have four children and four different issues with food.

    My eldest is 15 and likes almost everything, but as a baby had a hard time transferring to solids because she couldn't stand the puréed texture of baby solids.

    My second daughter (12) is definitely what you'd call picky but she enjoys more of a variety with each passing year.

    My third child is a boy (10), he eats anything but has to take medicine which has a side effect of decreasing his appetite, dramatically, so he can only properly eat at night time (when we have to feed him up because he's very thin).

    Our main problem is with my fourth child, a girl aged 4. She has an over-sensitivity in her mouth. She vomits if she tastes/feels something in her food she's not expecting or doesn't like. (And I mean brings up the entire contents of her stomach). I can't even make her a sandwich, she has to do it herself and she must know every single ingredient, in every recipe. It doesn't matter if it sweet or savoury, she has problems with all types of food.

    A few times she has really tried hard to eat something she didn't like, tried to force it down 'to be good' and not offend. Even though I told her to leave it. The end result was not pretty.

    My approach is to insist on trying but not force eating. And like you, they can try a disliked food again at a later date.
    I cook a lot with my children, during which we taste, talk about and smell the different ingredients.
    We mostly serve at the table from bowls or pans. That way no one has too much on there plate, so mostly plates are emptied.
    We try all types of food from all different cultures.Even the fussier ones then have a rich diet.

    The problem I have is when we eat out. I feel embarrassed if they make a loud comment and I'm always scared the little one will be sick. But I try not to show that to the kids. Like you I tell them to push the food quietly to the side. I also inform people who invite usof the problems.

  13. Wow Sarsm! You do have some challenges.

    Maybe the lesson we can learn from this discussion is perhaps that there is no one approach to getting kids to eat a healthy and varied diet. We have to use whatever tools and strategies we can find to achieve this.

    Thanks for sharing your experiences. It was very interesting to read. Best of luck. I hope it is something that, like your second oldest daughter, she will grow out of.


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