I’ve posted before when the Woman’s Hour podcast has covered Fussy Eaters but as they’re covering it again as part of their current series on Parenting I thought I’d cover this one again too as I think they always have some interesting points of view (and their other Parenting podcasts are also well worth a listen).
Today’s podcast had a couple of guests – Ciara Atwell from myfussereater.com and a mum of two (3 and 6) as well as Jackie Blissett, Professor of Childhood Eating Behaviour at the University of Coventry and also a mum of two (17 and 13).
And in fact I think listening to two mums at different stages of the parenting spectrum was an interesting dynamic. One of the comments from a listener was basically that all of this passes and one day you wake up, mother to a teenager who doesn’t insist that they will only eat plain pasta everyday or that you chop up the cheese into hedgehog shapes before they’ll contemplate it.
To some extent this is comforting, it’s always nice to know that the painful phases are just that and that your daily efforts will ultimately result in a relatively normal adult. My sister Cara definitely seems to be discovering this now and has two pretty adventurous teenagers on her hands to show for all of the years of refused dinners.
It also resonates with one of my strongly held beliefs about feeding young children – the more stressful you make the experience the more likely you are to have a fussy eater on your hands. I’ve always refused to use the naughty step (or whatever disciplinary method you might choose) as a method to “punish” reactions to food at the dinner table (not something my husband has always agreed with) because I think it brings added stress into the situation and the child ultimately starts to associate dinner and the dinner table with an unpleasant situation at which they are being held at against their will.
I’m fully aware that this is all sound enough in principle and that in reality it’s quite hard to hold your shit together when you’ve been cooking for the last hour and nobody will eat any of it, but this is one of those occasions where it really does pay off to bite your tongue as much as you are able I believe. So I found it interesting that Ciara’s view tallied with this and her main piece of advice was not to get too stressed about the whole thing. After all, they really are unlikely to starve themselves.
Again, of course this is all sound enough if the scenario is short lived and your child eats well in general but if you’re in the midst of a fussy eating war and it’s been going on for some time the advice that it one day passes or that you shouldn’t lose your mind is probably not that comforting at all.
I think there were some interesting pieces of advice to those in this scenario too however. Ciara advised taking the fussy eating element away from the table – that is, don’t try and introduce new foods at the table in the mealtime environment. Consider letting younger children play with food that they may be suspicious about outside or on a picnic blanket on the floor at other times to get them used to the concept of different foods and textures.
For slightly older children reward them for giving things a try, and see that as a win even if they don’t eat a full portion. My friend has put together a meal planner which encourages her 6 year old to try one new meal a week whilst keeping the other days more Jack-friendly so he feels like he still has some control over the situation. Blissett rejects the idea of rewarding kids with pudding if they do eat the food in dispute as this gives that food a less attractive connotation which I agree with the principle of but I do find that if there’s ice cream on offer they’re much more likely to try something than when I’m not offering ice cream so I’m happy to use it every now and then.
Ultimately, as Blissett points out at the beginning, fussy eating is a case of “gene environment interaction” so whilst some kids definitely are more likely than others to be disposed towards fussiness, the environment in which they are exposed to food is also an important factor towards their subsequent attitude to it. So basically those kids that see their parents eating varied, healthy food and are offered it on a regular basis are less likely to be fussy eaters than those that don’t. That doesn’t mean that the whole thing doesn’t have everyone tearing their hair out on a pretty regular basis but stick to your guns and, more importantly, your broccoli and one day you too will wake up with a teenager that eats it without the need for negotiation.