Winning the mealtime battle

As a couple, food is probably what binds us the most. We enjoy eating together, talking about food, watching food programmes, going out to eat, though not cooking together! No, I cook and he photographs. That’s the way it works, and he knows to stay out of the kitchen when I’m cooking, just as I know better than to try and take a photograph of one of our meals!

When we welcomed LC into the world, we were excited for him to share food with us, to sit at the table and eat together and to see the joy on his face when experiencing new and interesting flavours or the pleasure of visiting a restaurant. And, for a couple of years after weaning, he’d tuck into anything and everything. He’d declare his favourite meal as ‘paella’ to anyone who asked and would request I cook him squid when his peers might not venture further than a fish finger. He would cook with me, tasting as we went and chatting about the ingredients. He was a sponge, soaking up everything I had to teach him. It felt wonderful!

LC making sausages
LC making sausages

Then, something changed. This little boy who’d try anything turned into a food refuser. A wholesome and varied diet restricted to a few acceptable foods – raw red pepper and carrot, cucumber and sweetcorn, cheese and ham, bread and crackers, cheese and tomato pizza, fish fingers and not much more. Not only that, but he also no longer wanted to get involved in the kitchen. Sob!

Suddenly, I knew just how so many parents feel at meal times. Dread, anger, stress, bewilderment. I just wanted the dining room to open up and swallow me. We tried to follow our instincts and the advice for coping with the ordeal; not getting angry or upset, persisting with offering the food we wanted him to eat in small amounts, praising when he tried something, restricting sweet puddings to once a day and only if he’d eaten what we deemed appropriate, remembering that he’ll eat if he’s hungry and, most importantly, not offering an alternative.

Two years on and we’re not free of the battle with food, but the situation is slowly improving. The acceptable food pool is widening and the call to the table is no longer met with a complete meltdown.

So, how we are coping with the challenge? I realised that his life is managed for him in so many ways and that he’s constantly being told what to do and when. What goes in his mouth is the only thing he can dictate and we needed to get around this. We’re finding ways for him to assert some control over what he eats, within the boundaries that we set.

Pancakes with cherry compote and yoghurt
Pancakes with cherry compote and yoghurt

Each weekday he chooses what to have for breakfast from a small selection. At the weekends, we often have a more leisurely breakfast and he has the opportunity to request something he likes; fruit pancakes, sausage bagels, omelette and toast, sweetcorn fritters.

During the week, he gets to choose his tea from a few options. He’s in control of the decision but I can still manage the choices.

At the weekend, he picks what to have for lunch but we all eat the same thing together at tea time. I’ll ask in advance if there’s anything he fancies so I can include it in the meal plan and he’s more frequently now placing requests without me asking. It’s another way for him to feel in control.

One of the easiest ways I’ve found to make mealtimes less stressful whilst ensuring I am only preparing one meal is to do a pick-and-mix meal. We might have tacos, a noodle salad, Korean rice bowls or fajitas that allow me to set out all the separate components of the meal – meat/fish, vegetables, tortillas/rice/noodles, condiments – for everyone to build their own dish and be as adventurous as they like.

Dippers with Cornflake and Rice Krispie coating
Dippers with Cornflake and Rice Krispie coating

Make your own pizza night is always a hit and I regularly make childhood favourites such as fish fingers or dippers from scratch and with a fun twist – we might use a mixture of Cornflakes and Rice Krispies instead of breadcrumbs, use chicken, turkey or pork, or spice the dippers up with smoked paprika or a yoghurt and curry paste marinade and coat in crushed poppadoms (an introduction to curry for those children that are averse). We might serve them with wedges and a slaw and LC, who won’t eat coleslaw, will use the same vegetable to make his own salad for us to share.

We’ll also try, when he’s willing, to get him involved in making what he’s chosen for the family. He’ll invariably be encouraged to taste as he goes, trying new vegetables that he wouldn’t touch if we were at the table and snacking readily on the ones he’s already familiar with. I don’t mind then, and don’t need to put any pressure on him, if he doesn’t have his veg at dinnertime because I know he’s already eaten well.

LC photographing his food
LC photographing his food

We’re making food fun again instead of it being a battleground and it seems to be working – I think the fact that he wants to ‘style’ his meal and take a photo of it just like daddy is a good sign. Watch out for the family cookbook, recipes by me, styling by LC and photos by Througheye!

Have you found any good ways to cope with mealtime dramas and fussy eating? Have you been where we are now and survived? Were you a food refuser but now embrace food? I’d love to hear about your experiences.

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