First up, let me say that all the tactics in this feature will work on fussy adults just as well as they’ll work on fussy children.
Every child is different, and I promise you my mealtimes are far from perfect – it’s always total carnage and if we get through dinner without one of them crying, it’s a rare victory!
Their tastes, personalities and state of mind are ever changing, and my own belief is that I’m only ever 30 seconds away from anarchy. But, if you stick at it and use some of these strategies, you will win out in the end.
DON’T GIVE UP
It’s normal for kids to go through phases of liking and disliking things – however frustrating, it’s part of growing up. If something’s not a hit, perseverance and patience are key. Try three, 10, 20 times until you succeed. And try not to make a drama out of it. Removing the food without comment is the best way to go. Try again another day. Eventually they’ll crack, and if they don’t, perhaps they’ll never be a fan – and that’s OK.
REINFORCE GOOD HABITS
Try to come up with strategies to spark their interest, and reinforce and encourage positive eating habits over time. It’s incredibly important to get kids wanting to eat good stuff on their own, to embrace and be excited by new flavours, textures and ingredients, to grab their attention and inspire them to step outside their comfort zone and try new things.
BE A ROLE MODEL
Your children will copy and learn from you, so show them the way! Embrace a variety of foods at mealtimes – once they see you eating something, they’re far more likely to try it. And if you’re really stuck, a cheeky mouthful stolen from your plate, if they’re prepared to try something new, is only a good thing.
SET A ROUTINE
Establish a good routine as early as possible. We try to stick to three meals a day, with a snack mid-morning and mid-afternoon – that way, the kids know where they stand, feel relaxed and have a chance to build up a hunger. It also gives them a chance to look forward to their meals.
THE POWER OF PLANTS
Making it completely normal to chomp on veg and fruit is one of the most powerful things you can instill in any child. Use whatever tricks you can to get them on board. If it takes cutting things up with a crinkle-cut knife, making veggie ribbons with a speed-peeler, or giving something a funny name to get them to try it, do it!
If you can convince them that something is a treat by getting them to try it outside of mealtimes, that can be a smart tactic, too. I find that during that post-bath period when they don’t want to go to bed they’ll happily try a bit of raw asparagus or a broad bean if it means distracting Daddy from sending them to bed… I also always have a bowl of simple salad on the dinner table 10 minutes before I serve up – if they’re hungry enough, they’ll generally tuck into that while they’re waiting.
DISTRACTION OR NO DISTRACTION?
I’m really torn here. I hate toys, TV and phones at the dinner table. I believe good chat is all you need. Yet, if younger kids are struggling to eat the good stuff, letting them watch their favourite cartoon may distract them long enough to eat up. In reality, I guess a mix of tactics depending on their age is helpful. And ultimately, as they get older, eating, sharing and conversation is definitely the way to go – and it’s good for the soul, too.
I’m not a huge fan of hiding veg, but it works really well! Blitzing or blending them into their favourite dishes is a great place to start – over time you can begin to leave them a bit chunkier, until they eventually stop noticing them. It’s more of a stepping stone than a blanket cure.
This lovely image is by @all_things_hall on Instagram, who entered our brilliant breakfast competition
LOOK AT THE BIGGER PICTURE
Don’t beat yourself up if things don’t quite go to plan – look at the whole week and reassure yourself that they’ve actually done quite well. If you have the odd battle, don’t stress about it – we’ve all been there! For extra inspiration, take a look at what our family community are making mid-week and get involved by posting up your own family favourites.
5 THINGS TO KEEP IN MIND
- Dinner time is often chaos – embrace it!
- Your child is not an adult, so cut them a bit of slack
- If a kid grows it and cooks it, they’ll probably eat it
- Focus on what they do like, not on what they don’t
- If everyone’s eating it, they’re more likely to try it
DON’T WORRY, BE HAPPY!
Above all, if you’re concerned about what your kids are eating, the fact that you care already puts you in the Premier League of parenting. Have fun with food and try to think long term. They’ll get there in the end.
Extract adapted from Super Food Family Classics by Jamie Oliver, published by Penguin Random House ⓒ Jamie Oliver Enterprises Limited (2016 Super Food Family Classics). Cover photography by Paul Stuart.