Why I let my children “play” with their food.
Second post in the ‘My Family Food Journey’ series.
Do you have a hot cup of coffee in your hands? Then let’s dive right in.
I was at someone’s house with my kids, it was the evening meal part of the visit and we were all sat at the table, chatting as we waited for the food to be served. It soon came out, one at a time our plates laid in-front of us. Lot’s of ‘mmmmmm’ sounds coming from the adults and kids dutifully saying ‘thank you’ on queue (some needing a prompt). We adults tucked right in, confident in the flavours and ingredients we were scooping into our mouths. My eldest looked a little unsure; it wasn’t a dish familiar to her, not this combination of ingredients anyway. She quickly scanned the plate and saw she could identify the ingredients and with a little encouragement to “try it out” and reassurance that they were all ingredients and flavours she knew (and liked) she soon, bravely, dubiously, slowly manoeuvred a bite sized morsel into her mouth, quietly reassured that if it were in somehow completely repulsive that I would allow her to spit it back out, onto her plate if necessary. Thankfully that wasn’t required; although her reassurance that it was an option was certainly a comfort in her taking that step forward. She continued, and each subsequent helping came quicker in turn; a little more confident with the flavours and textures.
My son, was more dubious. He didn’t protest or turn his nose up, but I knew this wasn’t a straight forward meal for him in the way that say a Spag Bol would’ve been. It was new for him (as it was to my daughter) and being younger, the wariness was greater and subsequently more obvious and less well concealed. I was proud that he hadn’t simply pushed the plate away declaring ‘I’m not eating that’ (not an unfamiliar occurrence). Instead he sat quietly, while I subtly (as us mothers know how to) kept an eye on him, but giving him time. This was very important! I knew if I jumped right in urging him to ‘go on, have a try, you like this stuff, blah blah blah…’ he would dig his heals in especially with the attention drawn to him. So I left him to it, gave him the space he needed to just quietly do what he needed to. He sort of pushed the food around his plate with his oversized fork. He was engaging/ interacting with it! Result! Moving it around allowing him to get a better look at it, see what was in there, and ensure there were no surprises. He investigated thoroughly. He was close to his plate too, as children sat on a chair at a dining table are, so was sniffing it as well. I was so proud of him taking an interest… and patiently waited for him to take the next step of putting it to his mouth and perhaps lick it to test the waters further.
All of a sudden the host, who had also noticed the pushing and prodding around of his food, cut across his autopsy instructing him to “stop playing with your food and eat it already”, drawing everyone’s attention to him in the process. Face palm moment! For anyone who knows me well enough I’d love to stop at this point and welcome guesses as to what I did in response (in a You’ve Been Framed: ‘what happened next’ style slot they do before the advert break…). Without missing a beat, in a very relaxed way (might I add, go me) I retorted ‘it’s a totally new dish to him, he is just seeing what it is, he is fine’.
If that’s what he needs to do to work up to eating something new, then I’m all about it. Play away little one! I wouldn’t, however, define what he was doing as ‘playing’, but each to their own! I was supportive of what he was doing because I remembered what it was like for me as a kid to even put new food just into my mouth. I always scrutinised it first. I particularly had an issue with certain textures, so touching it first (either as I held in my hand/ between my fingers or pushed it with a fork) allowed me to anticipate how it may feel when (if) I put it in my mouth. Being terrified to try new things or eat foods I wasn’t keen on myself when younger allows me to sympathise and understand this reaction and in turn know what to do to help my kids with this. When people encouraged me to try something, all too often it felt like pressure & like a spot light was shone on me. Not only was I genuinely fearful to put it in my mouth but now people were going to watch and me and comment as I did it…erm, not likely… I almost always refused.
There were a few times I remember the circumstances being just right for me to try something (or try something again), so I knew there were techniques more likely to succeed in this objective- even for me, an extreme case. My fear was around the food in my mouth and so even if I did try it, if it made me gag that wasn’t a nice feeling, and quite embarrassing. So often even if I was up for trying something, the fear of possibly gagging put me off. We still to this day giggle about & mimic me and my gag reflex. I’m so pleased I have the sort of parents who have enabled me to laugh at myself, especially the hard stuff. It’s a genuine quality I find super special and a dynamic I value tremendously in my family. They have a certain way of doing it which just tickles me and can make me belly laugh.
Here are the things I do with my kids when it comes to trying something new or eating something they aren’t too keen on:
(In all of these phases I ignore the funny faces they pull! Faces which, if you didn’t know better, you would swear I was presenting them with items off the Bush Tucker Trials menu from the “I’m a Celebrity..” show.)
I put new things, usually in small quantities (eg. a single olive) on their plates along with their other food. This lets them get used to it being on their plate even if they aren’t going to eat it. They become familiar with the look of it. And hey, you never know they may just try it off their own back. I’ve seen this happen a couple of times, particularly when they eat as a group with other kids and they see the others eating that stuff. Even if they don’t try it. That’s fine. They saw it, and were introduced to it and are becoming familiar with it: What it’s called, what it looks like, how it smells etc. As well as them seeing us (myself) eating it too.
I will usually do it with them, then ask what ingredients they can identify (eg. garlic), asking questions and chatting about it in a nonchalant, casual way. I started to do a little challenge to see if they can guess some of the flavours.
I allow them to use their fingers, and don’t insist on knife and fork for this stage. We talk about what vitamins and minerals it has, who likes to eat it- or where it’s from and is popular, how it grows etc. This takes the focus off the eating part of it and brings a more rounded picture too.
This gives them a further (but still out of the body) exploration of it and introduces the flavour and little of the texture to them too. Sometimes after the initial lick, I challenge them to lick it a certain number of seconds- usually 3. This makes them feel accomplished and as though they have achieved something even if they’ve not actually eaten the new thing: positive food experience. I used to guilt trip them and make them feel like I was disappointed in them for not trying the new food- I started to feel that that was a little messed up. I cringe remembering stuff like that. This change made a big difference.
Cut a small amount off, how ever small it ends up being.
Usually this part of the process gives the kids a level of engagement and control, distracting them from whether or not they will try it. Changing the question from if they are going to try it to how much they are happy to try (sneaky huh?).
I’ll be honest and admit that I have been know on a couple of occasions to offer them 50p if they try a certain food item. I did this recently in Nando’s with my son to eat a tiny section of an olive. The first time we did it, he spat it out, but I was chuffed that he tried and encouraged him (but he wasn’t able to get the 50p). At a subsequent visit (we go there quite a bit) he asked if he could get 50p if he ate some olive (he wanted to cash in on that offer) and I obliged. This time he swallowed it. Erm… hello….let’s make a big deal about who asked to try it? Him, not me! He asked to eat an olive (okay, a tiny morsel of one, but still) result. However I advise you use cash incentivising with caution! We know how kids can turn a one off gesture into an ever lasting expectation. But we live and learn.
If eating a meal they aren’t keen on, and it’s really not going well, I sometimes ask them to have a certain number of mouthfuls (3-5 decent ones). Having a whole plate of food in front of them which they really don’t want to eat can mean they just give up and reject the whole lot. If I can see that is the way things are starting to go, I give them a manageable goal. I’d rather they have a few mouthfuls than none. Them achieving that then means that neither them, nor I feel completely dejected. After this if they do realistically still need to eat, I usually allow them a banana.
On a couple of occasions my son didn’t eat his food and opted to go to bed without anything, unfortunately as he woke up really hungry he ended up projectile vomiting. The same thing happens for me when I’m over hungry, so I then realised the need to tweak it for him.
Spit it out:
Have you noticed that as they get to the final hurdle of actually putting it in their mouth that they pause to ask ‘What if I don’t like it?’ At this I always reassure them that they can spit it out and have a cup of water ready for them to sip and wash away the taste.
I always encourage them for having tried it- even if they do spit it out. I talk to them about it too and say that sometimes a flavour is so different that it takes a couple of times having a taste before we get used to it. So just because they don’t like something having tried it, doesn’t mean they wont be presented with it again in the future. I like to reinforce that we don’t have to love everything we eat.
One of those other old statements we always hear parents saying is:
‘How do you know you don’t like it? You haven’t even tried it’.
My kids started to think that if if they had tried something and didn’t like it that that then meant they wouldn’t have to eat it.
So I have started saying this instead:
‘Even if you don’t like it, we will keep trying it and eventually you will get used to it, sometimes it takes a few times before we get used to it. And remember although it’s nice to eat food that tastes delicious, sometimes it’s a good idea to eat stuff because we know it’s good for us and will keep us strong and healthy.’
This has been successful a couple of times, which is why I mention it. My son wouldn’t eat egg or omelette. He was 2 or 3 at the time and one day I asked him to help me make dinner. He helped me crack the eggs, mix it all up, pour it into the pan, turn it over etc… he saw the process it went through and it seemed to demystify it for him enough to actually try it when we sat to eat it. He has eaten omelettes ever since.
This also worked when I made a simple lentil curry with him. He gobbled it all up! It doesn’t always work, and we don’t always have the time and patience to do this, but if you are desperate it’s worth a try. Even the times I have done this and it hasn’t worked, it’s still been a good way for him to see what happens in the kitchen & make cooking familiar to him.
I sometimes have opportunities to include & involve them in the process further by asking them to:
- Choose a new fruit to try (when I’m at the supermarket with them)
- Choose which new meal I should make next (out of a preselected few I’ve already narrowed the list down to)
- Choose one (out of two) dishes or veggies I know they aren’t mad about to have for dinner
- Have them write out my shopping lists for me
- Do the picking up of the items we need in the shop, and pop in the trolley
Ease them in:
Another tip is to offer them the food item in question along with a familiar taste. Real life examples which have worked:
- My son isn’t keen on pieces of fish, but he does eat fish fingers, so I made homemade fish fingers and offered him to dip it in ketchup. It eased him in enough to eat a few of them, even without the ketchup in the end.
- Another occasion I made a tagine with cauliflower. He was very dubious about the cauliflower in particular so I suggested he ate it as a small piece as part of a mouth full with the other ingredients, again it worked. A little while later on another occasion I challenged him to have a small piece of the cauliflower on it’s own.
As with all things, sometimes these suggestions won’t work, sometimes they will. But I find that all of these combined work, gel and underpin one another really well as a whole system.
My husband came across some information a while ago about how children of a certain age (I believe it was once they started walking around) develop a wariness of food. The article went on to explain how especially in more native and rural cultures and communities, where people forage and gather their own food, that this is where this mechanism is an invaluable life survival skill. It helps prevent children from poisoning themselves while walking past a berry bush for example or picking up a rotten piece of fruit. Makes total sense. Later they learn from their parents which are safe foods and which aren’t and how to see if something new is safe. Adults in these sorts of tribes/ communities/ villages still need to test out a new/ unknown food. Perhaps a berry, nut, fruit or even leaf. They will often investigate by initially touching it (this enables people to see if there is a physical reaction to the skin, which would obviously indicate that it is poisonous and not suitable to be consumed).
Then they would smell it (certain smells alert people to their toxicity, and as to whether something has gone-off/ rotten). If those stages are successfully passed they then progress onto licking it (a half way step to seeing if there is an oral reaction to it or any taste indicators to toxicity). Then if it does get to the mouth they will usually always spit the first few initial bites out- even without any indication of toxicity, to see if there is any adverse reaction. Following this stage being successful and no indication that the new food is poisonous they will then swallow a very small bite, and wait a day to see if there are any problems. Finally they can decide if its suitable for safe consumption and give it the green light, or not.
Now don’t all these stages sound familiar to you? I couldn’t believe it when my husband shared this with me. It was all the stuff I needed the space to do before I tried something new. And it took away the feeling of being daft or fussy. It was a refreshing reassurance that there wasn’t something wrong with me, but instead I was just really… well, really REALLY good at not getting poisoned. Lucky me. (Insert another face palm here). A welcomed addition to my light bulb moments in my food journey with my family! Being in my 20’s before I even tried a tomato or strawberry, means I remember this process first hand really clearly. Don’t they all make so much sense? It’s total natural wisdom; instinct. Survival. I find it awesome (don’t think my parents even now are ready to concur with that enthusiasm). And it’s not even that this mechanism isn’t still totally useful and needed even today! Imagine you were stranded or went somewhere remote, these are still valuable skills we would need to employ, no wonder they are so strongly evident in our children.
I want to encourage any parent reading this who may be worried or fretting about their “fussy” children. To say that I was a fussy eater when I was younger, is an enormous understatement. My parents got to a point where they took to me to a Paediatrician. Thankfully they got a good one and he was reassuring, even guessing accurately at the food I was only willing to eat. The stress came for my folks particularly when I became ill though. Tonsillitis was something I had over and again at one stage in my childhood. I wasn’t able to eat when I had it and one occasion at the docs he did a ketone test in my urine just to make sure that my body wasn’t being drawn from too much for sustenance. It was a borderline result and doc kept a close eye on me. I remember being so weak I couldn’t walk to the loo for a wee and my folks understandably worrying. Just a couple of days of not eating had quite alarming physical appearance repercussions. I feel so sorry for my folks, I know how I would have felt if I were them in that situation so I can’t thank them enough.
I hated going to a sleepover in my teen years if it involved eating dinner there. I was so worried I would be fed something I wouldn’t eat and I couldn’t bare feeling I was rude in refusing it. It was a constant source of anxiety. It wasn’t until I was 21 living in Corfu for a month, that I tried a tomato for the first time. Not long after that I tried a strawberry and now I am one of the least fussy people I know. Not only in terms of what I will eat but how I will eat it: cold, lukewarm, raw, spicy. Other than specific life-style choices resulting in us choosing not to eat certain things (like pork), I generally am one of the least fussy people I know. I even get frustrated with the people who used to comment on how fussy I was.
Now it has evolved beyond that even and I am passionate about eating a fresh, healthy and varied diet to nourish my body. I like my unhealthy share of food too, but generally what I’m getting at is that I’ve done a complete 180. Sometimes I still stop and think ‘WOW’ who would have thought that I would end up eating let alone enjoying the stuff I do now. If it’s possible for me, I trust that the same can happen for your child too.
In closing, allow me to reiterate some of the key points I repeat regularly to my kids in hope of a good mindset and relationship with food on this particular topic being built:
- Not to expect to want or even like everything on their plate
- To try new things (several times)
- To eat healthily, varied and balanced diet
- Give them some control (choice)
- Inform them/ educate them (vitamins, it’s role in the body)
- Get them involved (deciding, shopping, paying, cooking, setting the table)
- Ease them in (mixing with something they like)
- Challenge them (at a separate time to ‘feeding time’)
If you are going to bribe (or incentivise as I like to refer to it as) do it as a separate thing to eating time. They need to separate out the difference between a challenge to try something new and a ‘reward’ for eating, which, like I touched on in my last blog, is a dangerous game to play!
Additionally, make sure that if you are doing a gesture of an incentive that you don’t use big gestures, and steer away from food as the win. I think 20p-50p is a good shout and only from time to time.
I hope that some of these will be helpful to you with your little eaters. I’ll be back next Saturday with Post 4 of the ‘My Family Food Journey’ series.
Email me with any success stories to encourage and keep me blogging: firstname.lastname@example.org
Written by: Nicole Allen (Coffee Cups and Cuddles)