A week or so ago my four-year-old said something to me that made me stop in my tracks.
We were grocery shopping and I was grabbing some onions when I heard her sweet little voice say "Mum, I think I'm ready to try asparagus now."
Now, I've been a mother for the better part of two decades now and not once have I ever heard any of my children say such a thing. So how did we get to this place and what did I do in response?
There's no doubt that parents and kids often battle over vegetables- I have certainly have with my children over the years and many of my friends and clients tell me they experience the same. Parents know kids should eat vegetbales for all the health benefits that they confer, but children are often resistant- seeming to have a preference for the sweet stuff and exerting some control over their lives by shutting tight their pearly whites and refusing to try the veggies that mum or dad have served. I know, I've been there may times myself but something has changed with the way I feed my children now and it works wonders.
Many of us may have grown up with our well-intentioned parents insisting that we can not leave the dinner table until we finish everything on our plate, or at the very least trying each vegetable served to us. And like in so many things in parenthood, we tend to copy with our own children what our parents did with us. But, be honest here- how does that actually work for you? Do your children respond well to be forced to try something, or to being pressured to eat when they really don't want to? Maybe if you have a really compliant child they may do what you say, but a lot of kids have a pretty strong will (my own included) and this approach can end in tears- from kids and parents!
Since I've entered the field of dietetics, I've encountered a great principle that can be summarised in the following four words, "Parent's provide, children decide." What this means in practice is that a parent is responsible for choosing what foods to offer their child, when to offer food, and where to offer food. Children are then responsible for whether they will eat or not, and if so, the amount they eat. So no more forcing a child to try something that they are not ready to yet, no more insisting that they can't leave the dinner table until they have finished their dinner, just a simple presentation of the food and leaving the child to decide how much to eat. No pressure- it's as simple as that.
Since I have followed this approach with my own children I have seen a dramatic increase in the 'pleasantness' of our family meal times. And it is within the context of this relaxed atmosphere we now have that my children have been willing to try new foods, and experiment with unfamiliar tastes, textures and smells. Learning to like new foods is a skill - it takes time and the right environment to learn new skills. An environment where a child is feeling stressed and possibly defiant because of pressure exerted by parents is not the right environment to learn the skill of eating new foods. This is why removing all pressure from the family dinner table is so important, and enabled me to get to the stage where Miss 4 now tells me that she wants to try new foods.
Another tip to get kids to be more willing to try new foods is to expose them to foods you'd like them to eat. I make an effort to model healthy eating to my children by including a good variety of foods in my own diet- including foods that they have not tried. Children are curious by nature, and if they see someone enjoying a new food they may want to give it a go as well. And this exposure isn't just on the dinner table- we also have books about different foods and food play-sets that my expose her to different types of foods. Grocery shopping is also a great opportunity to introduce children to different foods.
So I (obviously) bought the asparagus the day that my daughter asked me to, and served it to her that night with some other familiar foods so she wouldn't go hungry if she didn't enjoy it. I served some with my dinner too so she could see me enjoying it. She had a bite or two and told me that while she didn't mind the taste she didn't really like the way it 'spurted' in her mouth (she's the same with tomatoes). I will keep serving this to her every now and then, again with no pressure for her to try it if she doesn't want to. Hopefully one day she'll get over her dislike of things spurting in her mouth but for now I'm just happy that she is comfortable enough to have it on her plate and try it when she's ready.
Sometimes dealing with fussy kids at dinner time can feel like a never-ending battle. Its unlikely you'll wake up one day with kids who will eat whatever foods you provide- it's a long term game, and like anything worthwhile, it requires consistency in approach and a bit of hard work. But there really is light at the end of the tunnel if you commit to making meal-times a stress-free environment, give your children repeated exposure to new foods and most of all, remembering 'parents provide, children decide.'