The most stressful part of feeding a family is dealing with picky eaters. But there are ways of dealing with it, says Lizzie King. Mother of three, nutritional health coach and author of new cookbook, Lizzie Loves Healthy Family Food, Lizzie gives her top tips. Say goodbye to your fussy eater and look forward to stress-free meal times!
Without question the most stressful part of feeding a family is dealing with picky eaters. With so many other pressures to contend with in our busy daily lives, the last thing you need is a flat refusal, plate shoving or your child spitting out food.
As a mother of three, I’ve had my fair share of dealing with this problem, and I have found that you can more easily navigate these difficult phases with a few simple techniques. Whether it’s a long-term problem or a one-off tea that is being sniffed at, it is so much easier if you have a coping strategy. So say goodbye to your fussy eater and look forward to stress-free meal times!
1. Plan for beautiful variety
It’s so easy to fall into a routine of relying on a few family favourites, and to keep these meals on rotation. But this is where problems can creep in as children start to resist anything new. Try to introduce a new meal at least once a week. This will ensure your kids are open to new flavours and tastes, and are used to the idea of trying unknown foods.
2. Repeat ingredients
Often it is one ingredient in particular that bears the brunt of a child’s loathing, and you might find that courgettes, peppers, or something else becomes the bad guy and is sidelined at every meal. I know it can be tempting to avoid this drama by just excluding this ingredient, but this issue can so often be nipped in the bud by employing exactly the opposite approach.
I recommend keeping that ingredient in the mix but cooking it in a different way every time. You may just find that they come round eventually. For example, a roasted sweet potato, sweet potato fries, mash and sweet potato in curry are all so very different in texture, flavour and appearance. This argument really worked for me, and now my three are always prepared to try a little bit of everything before they turn their noses up at it.
3. Showcase ingredients
From the minute I became a mother I read about the tactic of ‘hiding vegetables’ in endless books and articles on feeding babies and children. It never felt right to me instinctively, and now, after years of cooking for endless housefuls of children, I can categorically say this is the strategy I most disagree with. I believe it is both patronising to our children and promotes an atmosphere of distrust around food.
Instead of masking ingredients, we should highlight them and make them as irresistible as possible. A good way to do this is to make the vegetable in question the delicious centre-piece of a meal, rather than a sad side which may be an afterthought for the cook and the eater.
Roasted cauliflower is a popular choice in my house, and is far more appetising than boiled florets, which can be tasteless, watery and soggy. Likewise, spiralizing a courgette into thin ribbons and serving it mixed in with pasta, is showing it off at its best.
4. Good, honest information
As with showcasing beautiful vegetables rather than hiding them, it is important to give children real and true information about their food that will empower them, rather than patronise them with fibs. Children are savvy, and they will see right through persuasion tactics that are used to dupe them into eating things, like ‘broccoli makes you a superhero’. Instead, they appreciate and respond to straightforward, honest facts.
Try out these nuggets of nutritional information at your next meal time (use more or less information depending on their age):
- Spinach gives you energy to build your blood, so you can run faster in the playground.
- All the different colours in food make them great at fighting bugs, so you won’t get a sore throat.
- Fish feeds your brain and makes you happier and smarter.
5. Park the emotions
It’s obvious that the more stress that is felt around food and meal times, the less likely children are to want to eat well. A recent study by Erasmus MC University Medical Center in Rotterdam, Netherlands, goes further and shows that the higher levels of general stress in a household lead to much fussier eaters in the long term, too. I know that when there are temper tantrums and food is being thrown on the floor, it’s easier said than done to keep your emotions in check. But by keeping calmer at meal times you will diffuse the situation and it will become a much more fun experience.
6. Do as you say
No matter how much you talk to your kids about what’s good for them, if they don’t see you enjoying the foods that you offer they’ll never be persuaded to eat them. If you eat well, they’ll eat well. If you reach for a chocolate bar or a bag of crisps as a snack, that’s what they’ll want, too. It is the tried-and-tested formula of leading by example, and double-standards will not go unnoticed.
My kids love to get involved in assembling their meals: it is more interesting than having a bowl or plate thrust upon them, and it gives them more independence, too.
You can start with something familiar, like a rice bowl, and have different add-ons on the table so they can create their own bespoke supper. Try offering bowls of chopped peppers, avocado, nuts, seeds, chicken or fish, that they can just pile on to create their own rice meal mix. Build-your-own tacos or tortillas with bowls of chopped vegetables, avocados, tomatoes, cheese, sauces, etc., are great fun at the dinner table. Plus, they have the added benefit of being a brilliant way to use up leftovers from the fridge.
8. Keep it familiar
Another winning tactic is to incorporate a particularly hated ingredient into something you know they love already. This is not the same as hiding it or masquerading it as something else, just presenting it in a different way to achieve a very different result. Offer them raw spiralised courgette or roast it rather than steam it, grate cauliflower into ‘rice’ or roast it and serve it with a cheese sauce.
So if a roast dinner or meatballs are their favourite meal, for example, try serving either one with mashed sweet potato, if that ingredient is the problem. Pancakes and patties seem to be universally liked, so use these as a vehicle for adding different ingredients: grated courgette in a fritter or sweet potato and spinach in a bhaji.
For more top tips and delicious, nutritious recipes, follow @lizzieloveshealthy and check out Lizzie Loves Healthy Family Food: Delicious and Nutritious Meals You’ll All Enjoy, by Lizzie King.
Published: Trapeze (£16.99). Photography: Charlotte Kibbles