Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Fussy eating, trying new food, and a child's dinner

I have been revising my notions of fussy eating.  So many conversations with other parents revolve around whether their kids are so fussy that they don't eat much or whether they eat everything.  I have often put Sylvia (aged 6) in the fussy camp.  Yet then I have noticed that she will readily eat edamame, tofu bacon and raw carrot, all of which I have seen other kids refuse.  And over the last year I have made an effort to encourage her to eat more of our dinner.  Today I will reflect on what meals she has embraced and what barriers I continue to encounter at dinner time.

As I have written about previously, our little vegetarian girl actually eats well.  Sylvia loves lots of vegies, legumes, cheese and nuts.  After my childhood of hating brussels sprouts I still find it strange that she loves brussels sprouts so much that she will eat them first and often chooses them over other greens.  My challenge with her is to share dinner because I am not willing to eat such plain food as she enjoys and I want her to be able to eat with other people.

Here are my reflections on kids eating:
  • Kids struggle to articulate what they like and don't like.  One of her friends ate some sour strips at our place and said she didn't like them because they were "too spicy".  Sylvia recently decided she didn't like a vegan cheese and described it as '"too vegany".
  • Kids all have their comfort zones.  A mother told me how well her child ate and then he ran screaming from Sylvia when she sat down to eat a plate of raw carrots.  "Oh no," she said as though it was quite normal, "he only eats cooked carrots". I see some many recipes that claim to be child-friendly but the reality often is that any new meal can be a challenge.
  • Kids are fickle.  One day they will love a meal and the next refuse it.  I remember a tomato and alphabet spaghetti stew that on the first day Sylvia would only pick out the pasta to eat and rejected the rest, on the second day she ate two bowls and asked me to make it often, on the third day she refused to eat it as it wasn't warm enough.
  • Kids need to try foods many times to get used to it.  Sylvia and I have discussed this a lot.  Sometimes when she will not eat certain foods I say she will need to taste it another 19 times to like it.  When she doesn't like a meal I often ask her to eat 3 or 5 mouthfuls.  Sometimes she will end up eating a lot more.  Not always!
  • Kids seem to divide into those who want everything mixed up and those who want their foods totally separate and not touching.  Sylvia is in the latter camp.  It means very few opportunities to hide food in soups and stews.  Yet it also means that when she likes a vegetable she really knows what she is eating. 

The Bell Curve of children trying and rejecting food

When talking about children's eating, I often refer to the bell curve.  When they start on solids, food is so odd to babies that it takes a while for them to taste and embrace different foods.  Within a year or two they are eating lots of foods and then they start to refuse foods that they previously loved.  Suddenly by the time they are 4 or 5 years old they are eating a far more limited diet than when they were curious toddlers.

Sylvia's food journey might be explained through her relationship with pumpkin.  Pumpkin was one of the first foods I gave her and she loved it.  She ate lots of pureed pumpkin as a baby.  She ate pumpkin scones and pumpkin cake.  Then she decided she didn't like pumpkin.  It didn't make sense as pumpkin is so sweet and she loves sweet food.  I have talked to her about how much she loved it as a baby.  Recently I put some in her with roast vegies and she tasted some by mistake.  She told me that she might actually try pumpkin if I could add it into some meals where she can't taste it very much.  That is fantastic progress even though I am yet to find the opportunity except in pumpkin sauce.

Eating out

One reason for increasing her meals Sylvia will eat or try - other than because it is tiring to make her a separate meal from ours - is to make it easier when she visits other people or goes out to cafes.  So for example I recently made her garlic bread with lots of melted butter but no garlic to get her used to the idea because garlic bread is sometimes shared in a restaurant.  Mostly she eats out on cheese and tomato pizza, zaatar pizza, sushi, and chips and I hope she might try pasta with tomato sauce some time.  I probably need to work on chopped herbs on dinner which she hates but is something that chefs love to do, even on kids meals.

Trying new foods

Over the past year I have made a big effort to push Sylvia to try some of the foods we have been eating.  It means I have tried to use very little spice and eat the same meals over and over.  However I do love to try different meals and so Sylvia does try quite a range of dishes.  It hasn't been easy.  We have had nights where she has told me what a terrible mother I am or just howled in frustration.

Here are some of the strategies that have helped her try new dishes:
  • Trying new food is easier when dinner is early, and neither I nor Sylvia are too tired.  If we don't have the energy it is better to just open a tin of baked beans.
  • She is given a small bowl with a few spoonfuls of a stew and asked to eat it before she has her usual plate of vegies.  Or sometimes I have given her some pasta with a bit of sauce and kept her some plain pasta to eat once she had eaten some with sauce.
  • Talking about how she needs to taste things a few times to like them has helped, as has my emphasis on tasting the food rather than her needing to eat everything.  Hence some days, I give her a number of mouthfuls to eat which seems to help her.  It doesn't mean she has to stick to it if she really hates or loves something but it is something we can negotiate and make it seem manageable for her.
  • It interests me that she understands that sometimes when she sees food she doesn't like it but when it is in her mouth she is fine.  Some days I have fed her so that she can close her eyes while she eats.
  • I gave Sylvia some soup that other night with lots of rice, chickpeas and other vegies.  She hated it.  But she loves rice.  So next time I gave her rice I mixed enough soup through to season the rice but not overwhelm it.  Sylvia happily ate that.  I hope it will get her used to the flavours for next time.
  • She loves some vegies more than others.  Some days when I give her a stew she will decide on vegies she will not eat and picks them out.  I am ok with this if she also chooses some vegies that she will eat.  I try and include her favourite vegies in these dishes.
  • There is no dessert if she doesn't eat her main meal.  I know this is an old strategy that has its critics but I still insist that if she is not hungry enough to eat her main meal there is no dessert.
  • Celebrating the progress.  This week I served her Mee Goreng that she loved as a one year old.  She ate the noodles and tofu but hardly ate her vegies.  I was pleased however that she enjoyed the flavours and that she just pushed the leek off the noodles rather than shrieking about it.  A year ago it would have been more of a struggle for her to eat any of it.

    Sylvia's meals
    Here are some of the meals Sylvia eats (other than a plate of vegies):

    Old favourites:

    New meals:


    Progress

    I have made some good progress.  Sylvia has gone from only eating plain pasta with grated cheese to now eating pasta with some tomato sauce or creamy cheese sauce.  She is more open to trying new recipes.  Sometimes I get too confident and put too many vegetables in a dish.  Sylvia never hesitates to let me know!  Or she will eat red lentil koftas with delight one week and the next tell me she hates lentils.

    I have hope that I wont be making her a separate meal forever.  She is doing well.  You are welcome to admire her progress because it is such hard work at times.  However it is also a joy to see her gradually eating more complex and interesting meals and to know that I can take some credit for this.

    Over to you

    What works for you (and those around you) with children?  Do you have tried and true vegetarian kids meals?  Do you have strategies for encouraging them to try new food?

    21 comments:

    1. I would probably have been classified as a picky child when I was little. While I liked most fruit and veggies (although not mushrooms, avocado, pumpkin and probably more..) I never liked meat and would only eat it in processed form (cheeseburger, sausage roll, tortellini) or as meatless as possible (white chicken no skin no bones). I also ate a lot of plain foods like spaghetti or pasta with bottled tomato sauce and cheese on top. I remember a lot of toasted cheese for lunch, as well as banana and date sandwiches. What can I say though, I grew out of a lot of it I think! I don't have children, but to me it sounds like you are doing a great job with lots of positive things like introducing new foods to Sylvia and being persistent and creative in the way you give them to her. Keep it up! I'm sure it isn't an easy task but I bet her tastes develop and she will start loving a lot more foods. (I too remember being upset at the table, probably because I was told I couldn't have dessert unless I finished my dinner. I used to put all the things I hated in my mouth at once and then cough it into a tissue when no one was looking. Gross)

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      1. Thanks Caeli - I never thought I was fussy but when I think about it, there were quite a few things I would refuse - I didn't like meat much either and was a bit like you in eating it processed or no bones (esp after I choked on a chicken bones). I didn't eat lots of vegies - esp avoiding green ones except peas. At times I am amazed at what Sylvia eats compared to my childhood when we had never heard of sushi and hummus and tofu. Your coughing trick sounds quite cunning but I hope sylvia doesn't read about it as I am sure she would embrace it :-)

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    2. I used to love plain vegetables as a child, too. Tomatoes from my Granny's garden, swiftly rubbed against the trousers to make them "clean" and eaten then and there ... :-) So nowadays, when I am eating out, I will take what I get if it is without garlic or vinegar, but at home, I still prefer it plain(ish). There must be some virtue to it, it's just that I have filed it under personal preferences and that's the end of the story :-)

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      1. Thanks Alcessa - I don't mind plain vegies as long as they are good quality but if they get a bit old then they are so much better in a soup - a favourite meal in our house is what sylvia calls "eat what you want" which is lots of raw veg, some dip and some bikkies on a plate and we choose which ones we like. I imagine this would appeal to you.

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    3. Your reflections are spot on. Lila is by nature a bit of a foodie- she delights in trying new foods but still, she's a typical toddler and fickle in her tastes.

      My strategy (if you can even call it that) is to not make meals a big production and nagging/wheedling/pleading to eat. I serve a plate and invite her to eat what she wants.

      We say things like "Eat until your tummy is happy" in an effort to make her listen to her own body's appetite. We don't make her finish anything on her plate. What's left isn't tossed in the trash though. I'll save it in a box for the next meal (mine or hers). She also knows that some foods (candy, cake, juice) are treats that we enjoy once in a while, and some are everyday foods (lentils, veggies, fruit, yogurt) that help our body to grow and stay healthy.

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      1. Thanks Nupur - I like the "eat until your tummy is happy" line - it is hard because if I didn't push sylvia to try food she wouldn't eat such a variety but at the same time we want them to learn to listen to their own body. When Sylvia was at child care they talked about "sometimes food" and "any times food" which I thought was a useful way to talk about food and we still use those terms sometimes.

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    4. WOW! What a post! Love the time you spent on this! Everything looks and sounds great! I don't have (human) kids but I enjoy reading and seeing lunch box type meals that many bloggers post :)
      http://MyBlissfulJourney.com

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      1. Thanks Jennifer - I am always fascinated by lunchbox meals - sometimes I wonder if kids really eat them because they are so different from what Sylvia will eat - but they do have lots of good ideas

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    5. This is very interesting Johanna and it sounds like it is always in flux and always changing. I can't remember what I was like as a child with eating but I knew that I definitely hated seafood and now I love it. I wonder if I changed my preferences a lot too? Were you similar to Sylvia?

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      1. Thanks Lorraine - yes if there is one thing you can be certain of with kids is that change is constant. I hated seafood as a child too and sometimes wonder if I would have grown to like it if I didn't turn vegetarian as soon as I became adult (though I can't imagine not being veg). I had some strong dislikes like egg but we also didn't have so much variety on offer especially with living in the country. But I don't remember ever being into raw veg like she is and I loved pumpkin

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    6. I love how one child described the sour straps as 'spicy'! I'm glad I'm through those difficult days of having young kids turn their nose up at everything I put in front of them. My little guy is now 10 and he's always been my best eater; he'll even eat spicy curries. It's great to be at a stage where everyone in the family is eating the same meal xx

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      1. Thanks Charlie - that sounds lovely to have your kids old enough not to have a fuss. Sylvia used to describe a lot of food she didn't like as 'spicy' which would amuse me. My problem has always been that I want to try different things - if I had the same old meals all the time I could probably have sylvia trying them but she is getting better at trying new foods

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    7. This is really great Johanna. As the parent of fussy eaters I am nodding along! One of my friends had a very firm rule with her children called "two bites without a fight". No matter what, they had to have two decent bites of dinner (no dessert if they didn't have the two bites). My son was incredibly fussy three years ago but will now try everything. My daughter who tried everything is now very fussy! So it can be very challenging at times.

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      1. Thanks Faye - it is funny how kids change - your son does sound like he eats lots of interesting food - I think when food is challenging it is easier for kids to feel they only need to taste a little bit so the two bites rule sounds like a good one

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    8. This post is so intriguing (even though I don't have any kids and don't plan to for a while). I've noticed my own tastes have changed in my adult life. Certain things I have grown to love and others I have "grown out of". I guess it comes in phases. But I really appreciate the effort you're making with your daughter!

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      1. Thanks Quincy - I wondered if I would grow to like egg but never have but I have grown to like lots of vegies that I disliked as a kid - however I learnt to like them by eating them in stews wheras Sylvia likes quite a few of these ones plain and doesn't need stews in the way I did but when there is a veg she doesn't like there is no hiding it

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    9. I really like your reflections and your attitude to Sylvia's eating. I am also taken with the stance of trying food / shaping food choices to promote being able to eat out. I'm not sure I've heard that as a goal before but it makes a lot of sense and seems a nice philosophy to have. The idea of getting her used to pseudo-garlic bread is really sweet :-)

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      1. Thanks Kari - I think bringing up sylvia vegetarian makes me aware of making it easier for her to eat out whether at a restaurant or a friends. Most of her friends eat meat and I find that restaurants often have only meat dishes in the kids menus. So the easier it is for her to find something (especially something that is not bread or chips), the better she will eat and the more welcome she will be with others.

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    10. What an interesting post. I haven't to deal with the challenges of feeding small children, but this is helpful if you do.

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      1. Thanks Cakelaw - glad you found it interesting - hope it might be helpful to those with children or even those who are entertaining children.

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    11. I admire your tenacity Johanna. And it certainly seems like Sylvia is doing great!
      I think it is very normal for kids to pick and choose (i try to see it as that rather than 'picky'). I persuade myself (maybe because it makes me feel better) that they are asserting their right to state their preferences and we have just gone with it, knowing that 'pickiness' comes and goes. How many of us haven't grown up to really enjoy foods that we hated as children?
      We generally take a low-key 'ok so you didn't like it a couple of months ago, but tastes change and it may be worth tasting it again' attitude. Our daughter usually goes with this.... sometimes she says 'wow.... this tastes better than last time' and sometimes we get 'yuck'. But as she gets older, her diet is gradually expanding and she feels in control of that process (be it with some encouragement). To be fair, her personality would rebel very strongly, if we did t any other way!
      Keep doing what you're doing!! xx

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