We have lost our way when it comes to eating. Initially I thought I would write this article primarily about feeding our fussy kids… after all I am a child psychologist… but this is not a ‘kid’ problem. There are increasing number of adults who are only able to eat ‘kid food’, surviving on diets of chicken nuggets, plainish pastas and ringing ahead to restaurants to make sure that there is something on the menu that they will be able to order before meeting up with friends. The grown adults holding down responsible jobs during the day but slipping below any one else’s radar as they shun anything green or unfamiliar in favour of comforting fried, white and bland tastes.
How did we get here? And more importantly, where are we heading? You see it has only been in the last 50 odd years that there has been this emergence of a new type of cuisine – kid food. Prior to that food was just that – food. Once a baby was weaned from milk, they simply ate what the rest of the family ate – albeit perhaps the children of the family were subject to the food scraps cementing their position in the household hierarchy. And for thousands of years the human race procreated in this way.
But then something strange happened. Cheese became plastic, yellow and stringy. Fish became finger shaped, orange and sold in boxes to pop in the freezer. Yoghurt transformed into individualised tubs laced with sugar filled flavours. Chicken was presented in small bite sized breadcrumbed pieces and in some cases shaped as animals. With the emergence of this new cuisine came a marketers dream – food is no longer just food. For children it is entertainment, plastered with cartoon characters on the packets, bright colours, and presented in appealing portable packages. Most alarmingly it has become further and further removed from having any resemblance to an actual whole food.
These days take a child anywhere outside of the home to eat and I guarantee you will know what is on the menu before you arrive – spaghetti bolognaise, chicken nuggets, cheeseburger and battered fish. All served with a mandatory side of chips. I admit that when children in my house have friends over there is always a touch of worry – what will they eat? So I stick to the tried and faithful lasagne, or take away pizza where a plain margarita cheese order can always be relied on. But this is because as a culture (predominantly a western problem) we have come to assume that a child’s palate could not possibly handle, let alone enjoy, the stronger flavours of salty olives, bitter spinach, or a perfectly seared fish. Actually there is no scientific evidence whatsoever to back up the idea that there is such thing as a childish taste palate – and by falsely accepting that there is are we just muting our children’s taste buds into a self-fulfilling prophecy?
Feeding our children is an emotional issue. It strikes at the very heart of what it is to be a parent – to nourish, provide and sustain your child on the utmost basic level. It is an extension and symbol of our love for our children when we slave away preparing a delicious home cooked meal, but when that meal is adamantly refused at the dinner table, we will resort to anything just to get a few nutrients into our little cherubs. Herein lies the problem. From early days of weaning through to school aged children, parents focus far too much on the short term goal of getting as much as they can into a child without looking at the long term aim of education around taste. The French do this particularly well. Children’s education of food and taste begins immediately with toddler crèches proudly and calmly feeding two year olds three course meals of vegetable soup, fish and Roquefort blue cheese. Don’t get me wrong, food itself is just as an emotional topic in France as anywhere else in the world, but they seem to have mastered channelling this emotion into a teaching of enjoyment and appreciation of whole foods rather than an anxiety and panic about getting enough of it into our children.
Feeding toddlers blue cheese is all well and good I hear you say, but my child won’t even look at a green vegetable let alone try one! It is not too late – eating is a learned skill, and therefore we can unlearn it and re-learn it. It’s not easy but even adults can learn to change their taste preferences and eating habits.
But it’s just a phase surely? Yep, toddlers push back to anything new and it’s completely normal. It's that age where they come to a full understanding that they are a separate identity to their parents and with that identity comes individual likes, dislikes and free will! But having a two year old that is suddenly a bit of a fussy eater is a far cry from a seven year old who doesn’t eat whole food groups! Remember there is far more at stake here than just nutrition – in fact I actually think that most fussy eaters tend to be surprisingly pretty healthy anyway! As a parent, we are trying to raise our children to be participating members of society and sharing a meal with friends and family is such a identifiable and important part of any culture.
If you are a parent of a fussy eater here are my top six tips to starting to combat the dinner time battlefield:
If you want your child to eat well then YOU have to eat well. Model a varied and healthy diet with good mealtime eating habits
Set regular meal times and keep in-between snacks and drinks to a minimum.
No iPads or TV while eating! Serve food only at a table and when possible, eat together as a family.
Never ever ever force a child to eat. By doing this you are only reinforcing their hatred for whatever they are eating. No bribing, coercing, pleading or negotiating.
Quit being a personal chef – one meal cooked and served to the family
Don’t take personal offense when a child won’t eat – that’s ok! Remember you decide when, where and what when it comes to food, and they decide whether they will eat it and how much.