Timothy and I are obsessed with food. I would rather go out to eat than go to the cinema, or a party, or to buy new clothes. It’s a silly thing to spend money on, since it’s not like it hangs around for very long. But food, glorious food. I almost always want some more.
Imagine our bewilderment, then, when our delightful firstborn turned out to be not much of a fish-and-chip off the old block. Henry is a temperamental eater at best. Dinner is a chore to be endured until a) we let him out of the high chair to go play, or b) it’s dessert time. I’ve spent more hours than I care to admit cajoling things into his mouth, picking them out of my hair, and bashing my head against the wall in frustration. I worry about being a pansy and letting him get into bad habits, but I don’t want eating to be stressful for him. It’s such a hard balance to strike. So over the past six months, I’ve gathered an arsenal of tricks that I pull out and reshuffle, depending on what works that day. I dare say these will have to be totally revised once I have a toddler.
If you’ve got a nose-wrinkler, see if any of these help.
1. Establish a meal routine
Henry needs to know that, at certain points of the day, we eat. I try to keep his mealtimes as consistent as possible. His best meal is breakfast, because he knows that as soon as he wakes up, it’s time to eat. I put him in his high chair about ten minutes beforehand, and give him a toy to play with. It eases him in gently. And he likes the challenge of seeing how many times he can drop the toy off the tray before the food arrives.
2. Force the first taste, then back off
This boy came with a built-in assumption that everything on a spoon is his mortal enemy. He’ll refuse it before he’s tried it. So I literally pin him down to get the first spoon in his mouth, then give him a while before the next one to decide whether he likes it. I try not to push him, but the deal is that he has to try it once.
3. Run the operation like a tapas bar
When I first started trying to make Henry eat, I went to Tesco, bought everything the health visitor recommended, and put a little bit of everything on his tray at once. It was too much for him to think about – our usual problem at mealtimes – and he didn’t eat anything at all. These days I give him one thing to concentrate on at once: I’ll drop off a couple of pieces of bagel in front of him, then go away. Five minutes later I’ll come back with chicken slices. Five minutes after that I’ll come back again with cucumber. It seems to work better. Maybe he just feels a bit Spanish at the moment.
4. Think global
If your fussy eater is anything like mine, one day he’ll refuse to eat something that the previous day he buried his face in. So there’s no advantage in sticking to the same, safe foods. If you’re eating something spicy, seasoned or otherwise unusual, you’ve got nothing to lose by giving him some. I try him with anything we’re eating, and thus far he’s shown a surprise enthusiasm for chilli pasta, onion bhajis, korma sauce and sweet and sour chicken. For now, at least.
5. Don’t snack
I used to give Henry raisins and organic baby snacks to munch on while I got dinner ready, then found that the little he was eating shrank to nothing at all. While his appetite is small, we don’t snack at all. If he’s going to fill up on cereal bars, you might’s well not cook.
6. The old two-spoon trick
One of Henry’s best stalling techniques is grabbing the spoon out of my hands while we eat. It’s not that he wants to feed himself – yet – he just wants to play with it and stop me using it for food transport. So I give him a spoon to play with, and keep a second one for myself. BUSTED.
7. Keep emergency rations
No matter what kind of day he’s having, Henry will eat two things: fruit pots, and strawberry fromage frais. So on days when the only things he’s put in his mouth are the batteries he’s managed to prise out of the remote control (AGAIN), I know I can always fill him up before bed. I keep a couple in my bag in case we’re caught short while we’re out.
8. Give praise, and then space
There are so many books that tell you to sit with your child and eat while they eat. No good in this house. Most days, Henry is more of a basilisk consumer: he eats better when I’m not looking at him. So I applaud him wildly when he chews something, and then leave him to get on with it.
9. Be flexible
One of the things that has really bothered me is that I don’t want meals to be a battleground. Not so soon, anyway. So the rule is that he eats in his chair, but some days, if he’s really upset, he gets to eat on my knee instead. He hated the bib so much that he was getting too cross to eat, so we got rid of it and he just gets dirty clothes. Routines are good, but not every day is the same. Which leads me on to…
10. Don’t sweat it
The last time I checked (and trust me, I’ve googled it more than once), very few children starve voluntarily. If he has two bites and throws everything else away, the chances are that’s all he wanted. As long as he’s going through enough nappies, is happy and has lots of energy – and no one could accuse this boy of lacking in beans – then don’t worry about it.
Is there anything else that works for you? Welcome to Club Spoon-Thrower. May the force be with you, my friend.