I was so sure my kids wouldn’t be fussy eaters. I never thought I’d need to know how to cure a picky eater because I simply didn’t intend on having one! (Parenting is humbling, huh?)
First of all, I hadn’t been a fussy eater as a kid. Apart from Brussel sprouts, I ate everything and Brussels were only served on Christmas Day so I only had to have one a year.
Secondly, I’d used baby-led weaning with my daughter. At 1, Pigwig had an enormously broad palate, eating everything with delight from Mexican to Indian to Polish food. As a keen cook, I was in (slightly smug) seventh heaven. Food was an adventure. The Baby Led Weaning book (which I still heartily endorse as a great way to wean a child and honestly less messy than the mush method) told me that this was a normal result of BLW and I believed it. I still think this is true in the long run but evolution makes newly independent toddlers suspicious of new tastes and bitter flavours in particular for a reason.
Then Pigwig turned 3 and was suddenly as picky as the next toddler, wary of tastes and textures which had delighted her a year before. Although still happy to try new foods, she rarely liked them. She maintained (and still does) the ability to know when she was full and not to overeat. She will still turn down her favourite foods if she is not hungry and I see that as a huge advantage of BLW. But, for that couple of years, her palate was incredibly narrow.
We now also had Tintin, weaned by the mush method as he wasn’t sitting early enough to be weaned with baby-led, and picky from the word go. We then found out he was dairy-intolerant so much of what we had been feeding him was actually giving him tummy ache so it wasn’t surprising. I cannot tell you how I wept as literally hundreds of meals finished with me handing him a jam sandwich, just to make sure his tummy was full enough for the sleep we all so desperately needed.
Meal-planning was a nightmare. There wasn’t a single vegetable my entire family ate. My children each changed which things they would and wouldn’t eat from week to week but always colluding so that they never coincided. One week my son would eat baked beans, the next it was my daughter but it never overlapped. They wouldn’t eat root vegetables, red pasta sauce or mince, the mainstays of other Mums’ menus. If they hadn’t been keen on fish, I might just have thrown in the towel. Add to this a husband who needed to gain weight and a surfeit of post-pregnancy pounds that I needed to lose….cooking was hell.
Enter my sanity saver, the Tasting Club.
The Tasting Club
One day, in a fit of desperation, I turned some leftover roast chicken into a bland and boring chicken pilaf. Defiantly I threw in some frozen peas and sweetcorn which my daughter was not eating at that stage. I was about to reach for my extensive herb and spice collection to make the meal a little livelier when I had an idea.
I gave my daughter a small serving of plain pilaf and told her we were starting a Tasting Club. Isn’t parenting all about the marketing?!? I put 3 little bowls near her place with a couple of teaspoons of a herb or spice in each: from memory one contained oregano, one fajita seasoning and one z’ataar, a Middle Eastern herb blend. I told her she could put a pinch of any spice she chose into a small portion of the pilaf, stir it in and then taste the result. She could then eat it up, stir in some more or leave it to the side if she really didn’t like the result but I wanted to know which was her favourite.
After a happy half hour of discussing different tastes and what she liked about each one, I congratulated her on polishing off three servings of pilaf. “And well done on eating your vegetables, sweetie!” I said. Pigwig blinked in surprise. “I ate vegetables?”
For the following year we had a tasting club about once a week. We doctored meat dishes, plain steamed fish, pasta sauces and noodles. We tried different spices, honey or maple syrup with fruit. We tried every sauce in the fridge, added lemon juice, soy or Worcestershire sauce to dishes and even tried oils like sesame or coconut to see what difference they would make. Heck, we even used ketchup and HP. It didn’t matter – it worked.
By the end of the year. my daughter was eating about 75% of what I would, up from roughly 25% and my son was following her example much of the time, even though he had by then hit 3 and the peak of pickiness for most children. She had discovered a taste for green Thai curry, a dash of sesame oil in egg-fried rice and strawberries with BBQ sauce. Hmmm….I’ll take what I can get!
Another tack we took was to provide 3 familiar sauces or dips and then provide an array of unfamiliar salad and cooked vegetables to see if they might appeal. There was no pressure to try any of them but both kids were brave enough to try almost everything in our Rainbow Salad with the familiarity of ketchup to hand. You could take this approach with any food – a plate of fruit, different types of meat or fish or even a tapas style spread. Grown-ups can always polish off what is spurned by the kids. I’m not going to pretend for a minute that my kids even touched the grilled aubergine in the photo above!
We’re now 2 years on and simply try new foods now, making sure that enough of each meal will fill little tummies if the new food doesn’t appeal. It also works well as an easy go-to strategy for the child who is enduring their sibling’s favourite meal to simply ask if they’d like to try a Tasting Club or to say they can add any sauce from the fridge.
Mummy is more relaxed, the kids are better nourished cooking is once again fun. When I feel that one of my kids is run down and maybe restricting their diet too much I may give a vitamin supplement which doesn’t just boost their immune system but makes me a little more laid back about their fruit and veg consumption. (I use these and really rate them. They are pricey but seem to have almost magical powers when little bodies are exhausted and run down.). It’s just one more way to keep mealtimes relaxed.
So, next time your picky eater is having a melt down, grab a few little bowls and open your own Tasting Club. It doesn’t matter what you use but I’ll bet most people have pesto and lemon juice in their fridge and jar of mixed herbs somewhere. Let me know how it goes!
And do share whatever things you have found to help your kids try and enjoy more foods.