Joanna Blythman: Stop giving children choices at mealtimes
Should we call time on picky eaters? Parents may want to consider standing their ground and not let stress be overwhelming when it comes to feeding kids.
The UK is a nation of 'picky eaters'
I’m exasperated with the increasingly uncontested notion that feeding children is difficult. While in mainland Europe people seem to feed their children effortlessly, the UK seems to be a nation of ‘picky eaters’. Scientific explanations are advanced for this phenomenon, positing everything from a genetic predisposition to dislike certain tastes and textures to an imbalance in gut bacteria. A procession of plausible expert commentators offer ‘solutions’: blind tasting sessions in schools, turning mealtimes into games and sensory food workshops.
Most worryingly, narratives on feeding children often segue into the territory of eating disorders. We’ve even coined terms for this: ‘restrictive food intake disorder’ and ‘selective eating disorder’. So a parent who says to a child, ‘Try another spoonful’, fears creating a junior anorexic or bulimic. Bottom line? British households are primed to expect stress around the dinner table from day one.
How did we arrive at this point?
My children are grown-up now. They eat a healthy, wide range of food, and cook well from scratch. I actually found feeding them quite easy. I followed a conscious strategy though, nothing to do with science, just simple common sense. We only ever had one category of food in our house: good quality, varied, largely unprocessed food that everyone ate.
I never caved in to the idea that children needed to be fed distinctive ‘kiddie’ dishes. I never forced my kids to eat anything but equally they knew that they wouldn’t be offered any alternative. Guess what? They learned to like the same foods as we adults. Apart from anything else, I’m only prepared to cook one meal, and I expect everyone to eat most of it.
Food habits are culturally shaped
In the UK this same-food-for-all policy sounds extreme, but it’s the norm in most countries. You won’t see Italian, Spanish or Turkish kids eating chicken nuggets and microwave pizza while everyone else eats risotto, paella or pilaf. In Britain, there’s an assumption that children naturally go for sweet, bland flavours, but food habits are culturally shaped, not universally set. Around the world children eat all manner of ingredients from salty seaweed to sour sumac, but in the UK, we falsely stereotype children as food conservatives.
Be tough on snacking
I also decided not to have food or drink in the house that I didn’t want my children to consume. You’re kidding yourself if you think that you can keep a stash of crisps and sweets as a restricted ‘treat’ for kids after they’ve eaten the healthy stuff . You don’t need to be a psychologist to see the warped message this sends to kids: real food is a penance, junk is a reward. When they argued: ‘Everyone else gets to eat X’, I responded, ‘Tough’. They soon got the message.
Sit together at the dinner table
Children learn civilised eating habits by participating with adults. Communal meals are the best food education opportunity any family has. The novelty of eating iced gems and Pringles outside the home wore off quickly. Instead they’d come in the door asking, ‘What’s for tea?’, hungry and looking forward to a decent meal.
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Good Food contributing editor Joanna is an award-winning journalist who has written about food for 25 years. She is also a regular contributor to BBC Radio 4.