This is how to get your picky kid to eat anything

A Mummy Too blogger Emily Leary shares her 5-phase plan to beat children’s fussy eating. Lisa Salmon reports.

There’s little more disheartening than your child refusing to eat a meal you’ve spent ages preparing.

And when the meal refusals happen repeatedly, many desperate parents fall into the trap of only serving food they know their child will eat – which is most likely to feature unhealthy kiddie-favourites like pizza and burgers.

But it doesn’t have to be that way, says Emily Leary, a mother of two who runs the popular parenting and food blog A Mummy Too.

“Most of us have witnessed the list of things our child will eat getting shorter and shorter and felt powerless to do anything about it,” she says.

“The trap we busy parents tend to fall into is serving the things we’re sure our kids will eat time and time again. That can be very practical – no-one likes to see their carefully cooked meals rejected by the kids – but it can lead to a very narrow view of what children think of as normal. And then anything unfamiliar is viewed with suspicion.”

In a bid to help parents overcome their children’s fussy eating, Leary, whose A Mummy Too blog has 300,000 followers and has won several best food blog awards, has written a new book Get Your Kids to Eat Anything (published on March 21 by Mitchell Beazley, £16.99).

Leary says the core aim of Get Your Kids to Eat Anything is to turn the idea of normal food on its head: “To gradually introduce variety and to keep that going day after day, week after week until the experience of discovering new flavours, textures, smells, shapes and colours on the plate is the new normal.”

And the way to introduce that new normal, she explains, is through these five phases.

1. Put the unfamiliar into the familiar

Start to gently encourage variety at mealtimes by introducing small elements of unfamiliar colour, flavour or texture to trusted family favourites.

Change them just enough to begin to break some early assumptions about what food should be like, and just enough to get all children excited about the journey ahead.

“You might try taking some family favourites and adding a twist,” says Leary. “For example, by adding red lentils to spaghetti bolognese, or curry powder to the crumb on your fish and chips.”

2. Educate

If you’ve ever begged your child to eat their vegetables, you will almost certainly have had your pleas met with questions like ‘Why do we have to eat healthily?’

As much as we might want to shut down the dreaded ‘whys’, if we really want children to buy into the journey towards healthy, varied eating, education is key.

Leary says: “We don’t want to force healthy eating upon our children only for them to rebel. Rather, we want to equip them with the skills and desire to make healthy choices for a lifetime.”

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In the education phase, parents might try helping children grow their own herbs to help illustrate where food comes from, then get them involved in cooking a meal using those herbs.

Or take on the challenge to build a plate based on the main food groups. Leary says this phase is all about assisting your children’s explorations in texture, taste and smell, so keep the conversation open and encourage questions and investigation.

3. Discover the fun in food

“As we work continually towards serving up varied, interesting meals, it’s time to turn our focus to putting the enjoyment into food,” says Leary.

“We can overcome visual resistance to certain foods and build a new level of enthusiasm for variety by introducing visually exciting meals. You might try serving up arty plates such as fruity flowers adorning a pancake, or add bright and unexpected colour to a meal with bright red beetroot risotto.”

She says parents should think about the recipes they know well, and think creatively about how they might tweak them to make them fun with colour, patterns, shapes and even by stacking or layering food.

4. Step into the unknown

A dish of strawberries & cream pasta (Tom Regester/PA)
Strawberries and cream pasta (Tom Regester/PA)

By this phase, children should be not just open to new flavours, but positively enthusiastic about being adventurous with food, says Leary.

“Now is the time to embrace that receptiveness to help them discover ingredients and flavour combinations that will be surprising even to grown-up palates.”

She suggests parents and children might try tasting unfamiliar food combinations in a game of fridge roulette, where you grab two random items and see how they taste together.

And at mealtimes, you can continue to push food boundaries in delicious ways, such as with strawberries and cream pasta, made with a butternut squash cheese sauce and balsamic strawberries.

5. Cement variety

By now, you and your family will have come a long way and tried foods you’ve never tried before. But if you stopped there, you might find tastes slowly narrowing again, so the final phase is all about ensuring that good habits stick and new continues to be the norm.

“Key here is to get creative,” says Leary. “You might take something really simple like a collection of breakfast leftovers and brainstorm all the different ways you could serve it up – chopped and baked into a roll with an egg, perhaps?

“Or you could keep an ever-growing list of all the ways you’d like to try jazzing up vegetable sides. Think chilli sesame broccoli, cauliflower roasted in curry spices, or peas blitzed with citrus and mint.

“Now your family are more receptive to new flavours, the world of mealtimes is your oyster.”