I have a fussy eater. By “fussy” I mean that travelling with her means I end up worrying whether she will find something she likes to eat. I end up packing food for her just in case….. My children have different tastes and likes; one likes plain food, one doesn't like meat, and one is currently on the all white food diet, much to my determination. I know this will pass as I have seen with the others that they all go through stages with loving and rejecting foods and that my job is to present them with as wide a variety of tastes and textures.
I am not a dietician or a nutritionist. I am a mother to three with my own food business that came about from a “If it doesn't exist I will make it” attitude. I grew up with healthy food on our family table; wild salmon during fishing season and wild game during hunting season. Veg from our garden and any amount of buns, tarts, breads and cakes baked daily. My children are presented with a much wider range of food than I had growing up, for example, pasta dishes were pretty rare for me and I don’t think I even tasted a blueberry until I was in my teens! Never mind a sweet potato fry. Seriously, how did our parents cope without sweet potato fries??
So, we live in wonderful times where our children can be exposed to so many different foods. Biodiversity on the kitchen table equals biodiversity in their tummies. But how? How to encourage healthy eating, ride out the standoffs and not have every trip away to end in a trip to a burger bar.
CONNECTION WITH FOOD
We live in the burbs where we have easy access to both farms and farmers’ markets. My kids know where meat comes from just as they know that veg is born dirty. They have fished with their granddad and eaten the fish they have caught together. I don’t eat meat and my middle girl doesn’t really eat much meat. I was really struck to hear her reprimand her older sister for throwing out some meat one day; “Don’t you know an animal died for you to eat that?” She’s 6 and has a respect for what arrives on her plate.
She also loves foraging and will eat almost anything off a bush. She doesn’t have a fear of food (this is the child who tried a dried cricket at a forest school camp!) and rather sees it as something that grows wild. It comes from somewhere ie, not a shop! Food cycles are part of her world. She knows she won’t find any blackberries on bushes in Winter but knows that wild garlic comes in Spring and that daisies picked in the Summer can be used for bruising and for pretty daisy chains.
BRING CHILDREN TO RESTAURANTS WHEN YOU TRAVEL
If you are lucky enough to travel with kids, it is such a wonderful opportunity for them to try the joys and enjoy the new smells and flavours of local foods. Exposing them to new foods and tastes when travelling is such a gift. However, I will admit (with shame) the absolute relief I felt when we came across a well-known burger bar in Kuala Lumpar with my 4-year-old bawling for a burger with no nuts (sesame seeds). Travelling with kids and kids not finding the foods they like is a worry for a lot of parents. But just as we try to expand a child’s experiences in the world by introducing them to new activities, such as music, theatre and travel, trying new foods and expanding a child’s palette can really help a child’s world to expand.
Following on from 3 weeks in France last Summer which we spent with our family who live there, my eldest returned to Ireland with new additions to her palette: mussels cooked in white wine, radishes fresh from the garden and salad. Children will become fearless about trying new foods and new things, realising that the unknown can be a possibility of delight. Travel really is a fantastic opportunity for food education, experimentation and expanding a child’s experience of food.
EAT TOGETHER AS A FAMILY AS OFTEN AS POSSIBLE
Eating together, everyone “A tavola”, is a fantastic way to encourage the ritual of sharing a meal together. If you’re a working parent, this is easier said than done and in our house we do breakfasts together during the week and brunch and dinner together at the weekends.
As a parent, I try to cook as I would normally with lots of veggie dishes for me and I try to offer new foods regularly. Even foods I think the kids will turn their noses up at. We eat from regular crockery and I have done away with the plastic glasses for the kids. They can choose not to eat something but they no longer get offered a different menu to “the adults”. If eating out together, we try not to differentiate between “Adult menus” and “kids menus”. So many restaurants offer a kids menu full of brown, bland food and the selection on the Adult menu is much better.
GET CHILDREN INVOLVED IN COOKING
Making savoury dishes like soups, sauces and stews, chopping veg and actually making proper meals is one way to really get kids interested in what they are eating. My 5-year-old can now make a pretty decent cheese sauce (or at least knows how to) And she is my “fussy eater”. Even involving your kids in making a simple meal (our Friday dinner) of homemade chicken/fish goujons (breadcrumbs mixed with chia seeds, crushed almonds and golden breadcrumbs), peas and raw carrots and roasted sliced new potatoes with garlic and rosemary gives them that sense of excitement and “I made this” when everyone sits down to dinner. Also, congratulate them on their endeavours. Whether it’s a smoothie and they use all your fresh berries or a cold tomato and mint soup (it actually doesn’t taste as bad as it sounds) Ask them to get involved with meal planning for the week and allow them to cook once a week with some assistance.
It can often be difficult for tired, busy parents to really spend time on meal times but it’s a commitment we need to make. Good eating patterns we establish in childhood and a sense of adventure in relation to food are gifts we can give our children, a gift that will often stay with them for life. It can be hard to find the time, to put up with the mess, to sit through the “I’m not eating that”. But I do think perseverance and consistency are important. Biodiversity on our tables equals a biodiverse experience of not just food but also life.