This week I have learned that being inventive or somewhat creative with the truth can go a long way in encouraging a toddler to eat. I have been trying to come up with ways to get Fia to eat fish and frankly, failing miserably, despite my best attempts at introducing pink fish (salmon) and fish fingers (like in her book Barry the Fish with Fingers). I decided I would make fish cakes with white fish and lots of potato and onion, and shape them like massive chips hoping she would be none the wiser. Seemed like a great plan until I made the mixture way too wet and sloppy and when trying to form the massive fishcake-chips they spread out all over the baking tray and looked a bit like slugs. When I let out a groan of frustrated disappointment, Fia asked me what was wrong, and I told her the chips looked a bit like caterpillars (one of the slugs had legs). She laughed at this and said something about a big fat Hungry Caterpillar, which she kept repeating until dinner finally arrived. When I brought the plate over to her I held my breath, waiting to see if she would say “Mammy, that’s not a caterpillar!” and reject the meal entirely. But lo and behold, she scrutinised the offering, then looked up at me and laughed saying “I have a big fat daddy caterpillar for my dinner!” and promptly ate 3 of the grotesque fishy creations.
Which leads me to my next suggestion…
Make Mealtimes Fun
Before we ever learn to eat something because it is good for us, we learn to enjoy our food and have fun with it. Remember talking to your soldiers before dipping them in your egg? Or sticking your broccoli upright in your mashed potato so it looked like you planted trees? These days we are all so conscious of health and nutrition that it’s easy to become fixated on having a balanced meal rather than focusing on what’s enjoyable and fun about the food we’re eating. Added to that, the pressure we put on ourselves as parents to stick to a rigid timetable of mealtimes and bedtimes can make every meal seem like a test.
On the days when you have a little more time and a little more energy see if there’s something you can do to make your toddler’s meal more fun. There are endless resources online with suggestions you can use. I love Baby-Led Feeding, Yummy Toddler Food and First 1000 Days. I also really like @foodartfun on Instagram, although it’s not for the faint hearted! I use it as inspiration rather than a how-to.
One day I was making potato rosti for dinner (I also love this website for potato ideas), and made the mistake of asking Fia what shape she’d like hers to be. I was thinking along the lines of a square but she came out with a butterfly. As much as I’d like to applaud her creativity and ability to think outside the box (or square), I cursed myself silently for letting my child decide. Then I remembered that I’ve had worse moments on my food journey with Fia, like peeling the skin off butterbeans, or picking stewed apple out of yogurt, and I got on with shaping the butterfly. It was worth it in the end because she ate it, although next time I’ll keep my mouth shut and present her with whatever shapes I can muster!
I’ve also taken to giving her sauces to dip her food into. Everyone loves a good dip! We have pink sauce and green sauce. Pink sauce is half a teaspoon of tomato ketchup or barbecue sauce mixed with a tablespoon of natural yogurt, and green sauce is half a teaspoon of pesto mixed with a tablespoon of natural yogurt. I think Fia would eat almost anything with pink sauce on it, but at least I don’t have to worry too much or feel too guilty if she just licks the sauce and then scoops the sauce straight from the bowl to her mouth.
Have Family Mealtimes
The experts say that one of the best ways to encourage your child to eat well is to eat together as a family. I really do agree with this, although it’s not always easy to organise it around work, fitness regimes and the odd social engagement. Nevertheless, at least one of us will try to sit down and eat with Fia and we always make time to do it at the weekend. Not only does it set a good example and encourage your child to copy what they see being done by others at the table, it’s also supposed to be very good for building vocabulary and conversation skills. My mother also claims it’s great for their maths to get them to help set the table, laying out a knife and fork for each person. I suppose she might be on to something there.
I came across a suggestion to put all the food in the middle of the table and allow your toddler to help themselves. I can see the possible difficulties with this though. Maybe a way to make it work for you would be to put something familiar on your child’s plate and have other foods on the table in front of them that they can grab for themselves.
Don’t Give Up!
In the end, the strongest weapon in your arsenal is perseverance. Try to have the patience and tenacity not to give up. Apparently it can take a child up to 15 times to try a new taste before accepting it, so keep offering the new food along with other familiar favourites.
Fia has taken to licking everything, a new skill she’s learned since ice-cream season started, so this is now a typical conversation at the dinner table:
Fia: (pointing at something new on her plate) What’s that, Mammy?
Me: It’s chicken, Fia. Try it.
Fia: I just lick it, Mammy.
Me: Ok, it’s yummy isn’t it?
Fia: (sour face) I don’t like it.
Me: (silent internal sigh) Ok. Well done for trying it. No, don’t throw it on the floor. Just put it on the side of your plate. Oh ok, I’ll just take it away.
What annoys me most about this is the waste, so I’ve learned to prepare only very small amounts of a new food. If she likes it, great, she can have more. If she rejects it, it’s not such a big deal to throw it out or save it for another time (depending on how salvageable it is!)
On the other hand, and maybe most importantly for everyone’s sanity, know when to quit. Imagine you were presented with your least favourite meal for dinner 15 times in a row, and you were expected to eat it all up and be happy about it – you’d be pretty jaded and uninterested in mealtimes too. No point in flogging a dead horse.
Here are a few other little tips I’ve picked up:
Be aware of taste versus texture. If your little one doesn’t like something, it may be the texture they dislike rather than the taste. Try giving them the food in another format, e.g., pureed fruit mixed with yogurt, or finely cut vegetables in soup.
Don’t stress about mess (or at least don’t show them you’re stressing!). Mess can always be cleaned, but you’ll have a worse problem on your hands if your child becomes so anxious about getting dirty that they decide not to eat at all.
Don’t measure your success based on social media and internet postings like this picture. In your heart you know it was snapped right before the child took each little veggie out of the box, examined each one carefully, and ceremoniously dropped them on the floor, while someone scrambled around on their hands and knees trying to pick them up before they became a permanent feature on an already colourful carpet.
Remember this isn’t forever, so don’t be too hard on yourself. I’m sure most of us had trouble with our vegetables, crusts, or porridge as children and we turned out alright. The fact that you’re even trying means you’re doing a great job.