You don’t need me to tell you that having a fussy eater in the family is an utter bastard. Like potty training, sleepless nights and nits, it’s one of those aspects of parenthood that manages to be painfully frustrating and arse-numbingly boring at the same time. I would never have believed it, had someone told me before I had kids, that it is possible to yawn and weep simultaneously.
Like all these things, when you are in the thick of it you don’t believe it will ever end and when you eventually come through it, as you invariably will, you will quickly forget how bad it was – or forget it happened altogether. As I have only recently emerged from Dark Days of Plain Pasta, my eyes still smarting in the brightness of the future and the possibilities it holds – cooking only once of an evening, absence of tears (usually mine) and/or vomit at the dinner table, visits to restaurants that serve things other than chips or pasta – I thought I would jot down some of the strategies I used to survive, before I completely eradicate the whole sorry affair from my memory.
I’d say that my two were not fussy eaters for, oh, about the first month of weaning, then it all went rapidly downhill. At first, during Phase Puree, the little choo choo train merrily chuffed its way into the tunnel without so much as a leaf on the line to disrupt or delay. Then, due to the wrong kind of cheese, the service became irregular and eventually ground to a halt when all the staff went on strike and barricaded the tunnel (labouring the metaphor slightly, but you catch my drift).
Things didn’t improve in Phase Finger Food. Neither of them tried to hide their contempt for the bits and pieces I would lay before them, staring straight at me with a nonchalant look that said ‘Nope not even going to try it…and what are you going do about it?’ before tossing cherry tomato and chicken morsel off side of highchair.
Next, everything but pasta – usually unadorned – was spurned. This phase, I kid you not, continued for almost AN ENTIRE DECADE with little progress, because the sizeable age gap between the two meant that just as the eldest was coming out of this period of finicky fuckwittery, the youngest was getting stuck in.
This behaviour, needless to say, drove me completely insane to the point where it’s a wonder I ever went back in my kitchen. I would spend endless hours in there with my new bessie mate, Annabel Karmel, coming up with increasingly devious ways to get new foods into them, only to have it, sometimes quite literally, thrown back in my face. Then there was the deranged trawling of parenting websites, in search of but failing to find the magic answer to the question of why your DS thinks anything but penne the work of the devil.
The truth is there is no magic answer. Kids are stubborn little mites and no amount of cajoling is going to make them eat something if they have decided that they already hate it. So if you are still in the thick of it, I’m really sorry, I feel your pain. Things will get better, but in the meantime, see if any of these help:
Pizza and pasta are your friends
Think of these, not as endless plates of refined carbs, but as blank canvasses to which you can introduce all manner of new stuff. My own kids’ pasta evolution went something like this: naked; plain with butter and cheese; tomato sauce; pesto; a combination of tomato and pesto sauce, with chopped up cooked sausage; footballs and laces (a.k.a. meatballs); bolognese; lasagne (the latter led to the eventual albeit reluctant acceptance of what I sold as ‘English lasagne’ a.k.a cottage pie). Anyway, kids need tons of carbs to fuel all those teatime tantrums.
Don’t be too devious
Hiding vegetables by blending them into a sauce is fine as long as it doesn’t end up tasting like cheap tinned soup. Part of the solution to fussy eating is getting your kids to trust that you are not trying to poison them, so go easy on the underhand additions. When making a sauce which requires chopped vegetables (bolognese, for example) use a processor to eliminate the risk of any discernible bits of celery and carrot. Always choose passata over tinned tomatoes to avoid the ‘eugh it’s got bits in’ scenario.
Cutlery is for losers
Kids love novelty and tend to have an aversion to cutlery so anything they can eat with their hands is good. Channel their inner caveman by giving them small joints of meat on the bone – ribs, chicken wings, drumsticks (recipe soon). Make vegetable, meat or fruit kebabs by skewering the contents of your fridge. Let them have a go with chopsticks. Wrap entire meals in a tortilla with a sprinkling of cheese. Keep the baby wipes at the ready.
Spice it up
This might be a boy thing, or it might be just a thing for my boys, but they seem to prefer food to have a bit of a kick to it. They have now started competing over the title of Spice King, their macho bravado being most evident in the local curry house, where the convo goes something like this: I’ll see your chicken jalfrezi and raise you a dhansak. It is only a matter of time before they are both sweating over phall.
Peer parent power
Don’t underestimate the influence of your child’s peers – or indeed their parents. Befriend parents at the school gate who you know would never dream of giving their kids Iceland popcorn chicken and work on getting your child an invite to tea. Better still, try and arrange a playdate with the child of the most ferocious parent you can find, you know the one who not only terrifies your child but actually scares the shit out of you, and see if the little darling doesn’t polish off every last scrap on his plate.
Send them on as many residential trips as possible
Mine always return from school trips ravenous, with a new-found affection for home cooking. Do not waste the opportunity to exploit this.
Let them help in the kitchen
Actually scrap that idea. Beyond annoying.
Don’t give too many fucks
Very easily said in hindsight, but try not to fret too much. Don’t give up, don’t (always) give in, keep shoving new things under their noses, but don’t show them you care. You have fulfilled your part of the bargain by providing a meal, the rest is really down to them. When all else fails, gin.
The other thing to remember when faced with a fussy eater is that we grown-ups are terrible hypocrites. We all have likes and dislikes, most of us are guilty of claiming we don’t like something despite having never tried it (by we I mean I, and by something, I mean innards) and we all love a bit of unchallenging comfort food. This was something that became apparent to me last weekend, when we went out for lunch at restaurateurs Corbyn & King’s new Islington gaff, Bellanger (great place, shite name). This pair, who also own The Wolseley, The Delaunay and Fischer’s among others, are famous for serving Viennese/Bavarian food in grand European-style brasseries. AA Gill in his recent review of Bellanger, put the couple’s success down to the fact that all their restaurants tell a story, but I think people love them because they offer the kind of food that wouldn’t be out of place on a kids’ menu. So we sat around pretending to be all sophisticated with our fancy wine and starched napkins, but what did we eat? Schnitzel (basically an oversized chicken nugget) with french fries and tarte flambee (very thin posh pizza). And delicious it was too.
Kids do seem to love a bit of breadcrumb making it a useful tool when dealing with the picky ones. Mine have (at least) tried all sorts of foods hidden then fried in a crumb – pork, white fish, prawns, brussel sprouts. I know the frying bit is not ideal, but when you have a fussy eater, getting variety into them is as important as the health angle (I actually did a little victory dance when my eldest decided he liked burgers, ditto the youngest and sausages.)
You can add different flavours to your breadcrumbs to zhuzh it up a bit: a teaspoon of smoked paprika and garlic powder will give a southern fried twang, or a handful of parmesan will give your dish an Italian accent. The other thing about breadcrumbing your food is it makes whatever you’re coating go miles further (one large chicken breast will easily serve two, if not three people). Here’s how I do it:
Serves at least 4
- Line up three (preferably shallow) bowls. Into the first put 100g of plain flour seasoned well with salt and pepper, into the second 1-2 eggs beaten with a splash of water to loosen, and into the third, about 150g of breadcrumbs (with your choice of flavouring or just a pinch of salt). I use Panko breadcrumbs available from big supermarkets or Asian stores as they give a good crunch, but ordinary breadcrumbs will do (my mate Annabel says you can use crushed cornflakes too).
- To make schnitzel, bash out a couple of large chicken breasts under a bit of greaseproof or clingfilm with a rolling pin until about a centimeter thick. Then cut each flattened breast into two pieces. You can just chop the chicken breast into bite-sized pieces if you prefer a nugget.
- Dip and coat the chicken first in the flour, then in the egg and finally in the breadcrumbs making sure it is completely covered. You are supposed to use one hand for the wet ingredients and one for the dry, but I always forget and end up with fingers looking like KFC drumsticks.
- Heat a centimeter of flavourless oil in a large frying pan over a medium heat. Cook schnitzels in batches for about 3 minutes per side until golden. Drain on kitchen paper, then serve. I served these the Italian way with what is known as sauce pasta in our house, with a rocket and parmesan salad (which the younger one left natch).
Lifesaver pasta sauce
When the kids were young I used to make a batch of this literally every week, even when we went on holiday. It keeps well for over a week in the fridge, or you can halve it and freeze some. Use on pasta or as a sauce base for pizza. You can try and hide extra vegetables in it but you do so entirely at your own risk.
- 680g jar passata
- good glug of olive oil
- 1-2 cloves garlic, crushed
- 1 generous pinch salt
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- squeeze of lemon juice or splash of balsamic
- large handful grated parmesan (optional)
- 5 or so torn basil leaves (these will be picked out by chubby little fingers but they will impart some flavour nevertheless)
- Heat oil gently in a wok, frying pan or large saucepan.
- Crush in garlic and cook for about 30 seconds – you don’t want it to burn.
- Empty in passata then add sugar and salt.
- Bring to boil then reduce heat and simmer for about 15 mins until the sauce has reduced and thickened.
- Add lemon or vinegar, the parmesan and basil, stir in and check for seasoning – it may need a pinch more sugar or salt (it will still contain much less sugar and salt than shop-bought pasta sauce).