Successfully catering for children – particularly in these circumstances we are in, where it is 3 meals a day, 7 days a week – is not about details. It’s not about lists or giving them this vegetable or that amount of rice. It’s about a state of mind. Specifically your state of mind. The state of mind of the child is utterly berserk and unpredictable and cannot be counted on at any time.
I am not going to tell you what you should be feeding your children. Children are so wildly and completely different and particular in their likes and tastes that the things my children will eat yours may not touch, and vice versa.
I am confident that by now, even if Before you outsourced almost all of your childrens’ meals to someone else – school/nanny/nursery – you will have managed to navigate your way into some sort of childrens’ eating schedule. You will have had to.
But you may be wondering why it’s so bloody relentless, why it’s so hard, why your children are so finicky and messy and ungrateful. You might be worried that they are not eating enough vegetables, or just enough food generally.
And I am here to say: it’s not you – it’s them. Children are, can be, go through periods of being, enormously difficult to feed. If yours aren’t then that’s fine, I envy you – but that’s not the usual run of things. Other people I envy are those who have managed to source seven meals that both you and your children are willing to eat, cutting down on elbow grease considerably.
Both mine, despite being weaned responsibly in exactly the same way, have gone through periods of nightmarish mono-diets. For six months Sam would only eat boiled eggs and cucumber. Kitty had a pesto-pasta sit-in that went on for what felt like most of 2012.
So, what is this miraculous state of mind that you have to get into in order to ensure the successful feeding of children? It is the twin pillars of sobriety: acceptance and patience. And another thing, another rather loaded word, which is: surrender.
Surrender is a tricky word when you apply it to the domestic sphere; many modern women do not surrender, don’t want to and don’t have to. This may be you; you may have gone straight back to work and scaffold your domestic life with all sorts of help and tricks. Tied to the home with children and no help can be a nasty jolt, particularly if you have no experience of surrender.
But those of us currently, or in the past, confined to domesticity – whether out of economics or choice – know that surrender is in fact not necessarily a negative thing. Surrender is sometimes tactical, and it doesn’t have to be a permanent state.
Anyway here we are, this is it. There is no escape. Accept it, surrender to it. There will be at least three meals a day, many of which may end up uneaten or on the floor and will at some point have to be cleared up. This is except on the times when you choose to deploy takeaway, of course.
And then, after the acceptance and the surrender, there is only patience. Most experts agree that the key to raising successful future eaters is a lack of tension at the childhood dinner table. I don’t mean let them crap on the floor or run riot; I don’t mean a lack of expectations, I mean a lack of tension.
The following might help loosen your shoulders if you are one of those parents, (there are many), who find mealtimes particularly stressful.
First: do not worry about the vitamins and vegetables thing. If there are literally absolutely no fruits or vegetables your child will eat, try to find a gummy vitamin pill they will take. Sam is fine about vegetables, but he will not eat any type of fruit, anywhere, ever and so he has 1/2 a fizzy vitamin tablet in water 3 times a week.
If your child will eat any fruit or any vegetable, give them that and don’t put them under pressure to eat new things, especially not now. They probably will try something else eventually, but it will be most likely due to peer pressure and sure as hell not because you insisted or cajoled or threatened or bribed them into it. It’s the same principle of that Instagram inspirational quote “Don’t look at how far you have left to go – look at how far you’ve come.” Okay, the child will eat raw carrots and cut-up apple. Boom – that’s their vitamin intake right there. Don’t sweat it.
Second: don’t worry about how much they’re eating. Children grow in fits and starts. Some weeks there will be nothing they won’t eat, they will drink the milk out of your tea and eat nine entire heads of broccoli. The next week they won’t touch anything except biscuits. Sometimes this eating/not eating thing is measured in months and years not weeks and it can really test you. It’s infuriating – but it is just the way that it is and there is nothing you can do about it.
Third: all the new and unusual things that my children have agreed to eat have been off my plate. Usually because they have come downstairs at dinnertime and they suddenly decide they want some of what I’m having. Then I will make them their own plateful the next day.
And that’s it, sorry. Possibly not remotely helpful. Maybe you know all this already. But if you don’t, when I realised these things, (on reading the amazing book My Child Won’t Eat! by Carlos Gonzalez), a huge weight was lifted from my shoulders.
How are you doing? Please leave a handy comment in the box below if you feel like it.
Thank you for this very sensible and reassuring post, Esther. My kids are bigger now, but we still have food wrangling issues.
My son is 14 and has multiple learning disabilities; despite this, he is a great eater and will try absolutely anything. His favourite foods are sushi and olives. However, he is a vegetarian, so that complicates meal planning. My daughter is 8 and is neurotypical, but fussy. She’s the type of kid who likes little bitty finger food and no sauces. Chicken dippers, that kind of thing. Doesn’t like melted cheese (what sort of child doesn’t like MELTED CHEESE for fuck’s sake?).
I am lucky though in that both of them like fruit and vegetables. In fact their fruit consumption is quite alarming to watch, like those videos of the bats that eat like an entire pineapple in nanoseconds.
Leona, your profile pic alone brings great joy x
It’s not so much what my child will or won’t eat that gets me (I remember your advice from when she was a toddler – it’s what they eat over the course of a week that matters, more than an individual meal) its the TIME she takes to eat it. Not sure how to deal with it. Wander off while she finishes? Set a timer? It’s so boring and I hear myself saying ‘eat up then’ every minute or so. But not sure whether that’s helpful or not.
Spot on post Esther. I honestly don’t know how we are doing any more. I have lost all sense of space and time. Breakfast, which when she was physically going to to school, needed to be something sustaining (which I could handle because I didn’t have to worry about lunch) has now morphed in to daily coco pops. I’m fine with this. She ‘makes’ it, so one less meal for me.
Lunch is invariably pasta or a homemade pasta and bean soup. After a year in Italy, we’ve mastered leftovers and conjuring something from nothing. Italians are SO good at this! When I can’t be bothered, this is as easy as frozen minestrone veg, passata, stock cube / thing and some small pasta. On a different day it’s beans (soaked overnight when I remember) and the classic celery, onion and carrot, with some tomatoes and potatoes. And there’s always loads of store bought pesto in the fridge.
Supper is normally a variation of pork & beef mince (sausages, meatballs, sausages, ragu, sausages, sausages, sausages done in different ways. That’s it. Not inspired but she eats it and it gets us through.
And we always keep several packets of chicken nuggets in the freezer. Not convinced I’m leading the way in child nutrition but she’s a 7 year old in 11 year clothing so clearly getting something right!
Rachel Roddy of the Guardian suggests leaving the dried beans next to the corkscrew. I have not forgotten to soak beans since (well, when I remember to leave the beans next to the corkscrew etc).
It is relentless, isn’t it? What I find frustrating is reports from nursery that my daughter will eat such and such with gusto, but when I serve it at home – no way.
What I’ve found helpful when introducing new food is a suggestion I read to always serve them something they like alongside the new thing (with no requirement to try the new thing, just a gentle suggestion) – so they always have the option of eating what they like, and bonus if they try the new thing. Less stress for us as no fretting that they haven’t eaten anything, and some introduction of different food.
It has caused me angst though and I know what works some days just doesn’t work on others!
Completely agree, my boys are quite good eaters, but not consistently. The 3 year old is going through a phase of only eating cucumber and cherry tomatoes with any enthusiasm and eg. Picking the filling from the sandwich, eating the beans but not the toast, the egg but not the soldiers. He has eaten bread before and will again, but just now he’s having none of it. My older boy went through a mammoth cheese toastie phase last year. Every day for lunch for about 3 months. But when they’re in the mood for it they have a broad, varied diet. They drink plenty of water and once a day most days they are allowed a snack ‘from the top cupboard’ (crisps/ cereal bar or the like.) I read a thing when I was weaning my first baby that basically said ‘relax, a baby won’t starve itself’ and also ‘look at what they’ve eaten over the last week or two not that last day or two’ and have lived by it ever since. Maybe the same book? Can remember, anyway helpful because they can swing from eating over a week what they used to eat in a single day. Frustrating, but out of my control really. Helps that I have ‘strapping’ (bleurgh) boys, who look well fed, I have more than one friend with more petite children and I think the comments from parents and in laws etc about not feeding them enough that they have to put up with is quite dementing. Like if they’d just eat a cheese sandwich it would change their genetic size and shape?!?! I think not. Elaine x
Accepting the relentlessness of it is definitely part of being ok with lockdown. Trying to find the zen in repetition. But then I’m ok with domesticity in general, although this is a bigger dose than usual :-/
My kids eat reasonably although in a fairly limited repertoire. I wish they’d eat more variety but I surrendered to the unshakable reality a long time ago. I top them up with a smoothie and cross my fingers on the vitamin thing.
Even though I’m ok with their eating habits, family comments are annoying. Especially when I think various in laws ‘cheated’ with their kids and spoon fed them till they were waaaay too old or let them eat with the iPad etc, when I didn’t. No wonder i get more pushback.
The bit I find frustrating is my picky older one will say something is yuck, so then my younger one copies her :-///
Emily Knight says
I am trying my hardest not to make mealtimes a battle. I am trying to work full-time with a two year old and a one year old. I don’t have time to cook everyone different things. I just serve up one meal and try not to panic if they won’t eat it. They’ll eat if they’re hungry. There are more bagels and fish fingers than I’d like but they’re both alive so I guess that’s going to be fine for now.
Gemma Wild says
Something I saw online (on Instagram I think) and found hugely helpful is this: “You don’t have to eat it.” I decide what is served and when (largely, obvs at the moment he is snacking approximately every 30 seconds) and he decides if he wants to eat it. If not, that’s fine. No cajoling, or “just one bite”, or even aeroplanes (he is only teeny still). Then I offer food again later and he can eat then if he wants to. It’s made so much difference to my stress levels!
Sarah Denham says
Great advice Esther! My children were pretty fussy when they were younger, my son would ONLY eat tomato pasta. They are now 21 and 23 and have had to return here for lockdown. My daughter lives in west London and is an amazing cook. My son has chosen to be vegan but has progressed from the tomato pasta! My husband is a meat eater and I’m pescatarian. But every day revolves around food and we have a really varied diet! So to all those with younger children who may be picky with their food, I look back on those days and think it really didn’t matter. They’ll be fine!
Today – in an unadvertised change from a cheese and cucumber sandwich, I made quesadillas for my three year old. It has not been touched he was inconsolable. The cheese and cucumber sandwich shall return tomorrow! Your newsletters make me feel less alone in all the current endless meal preparation, parenting, working and wiping so thank you !
You MONSTER! Never, ever, change the menu for something delicious again.
The Carlos Gonzalez book was in fact how I first found your brilliant writing Esther! I can’t now remember where you wrote first about it, but it also completely changed how I viewed what my children were at that time (not) eating. I have recommended it to countless parents since that time and literally every one of them has said how helpful it was in calming down the whole exhausting minefield of a situation that child-feeding can be. It’s just brilliant and I hope that you mentioning it here again will bring it to the attention of a whole raft of new readers who, I suspect, will find it doubly useful at the current time. As an aside, one thing I found very useful in encouraging my children, when they were younger, to eat more fruits and vegetables was to just cut up a bunch of different stuff into smallish, bite-size chunks, and just carelessly leave the plate somewhere within their eyeline. It was amazing how often they would pick something up and try it (usually when I wasn’t looking), especially stuff that previously they’d sworn they’d NEVER EVER eat…..
Just to say I love your blog and send it to everyone – all of whom love it too.
Thank you Sofie xx
This is really helpful Esther thank you! My issue isn’t really whether my kids eat enough or not I’ve accepted they go through phases, it’s more the insisting their full and not having finished (which is fine) then demanding a pudding or worse wanting a snack about an hour later. Any tips? Do I give the demanded snack or tell them to bugger off? My 4 year old had lunch at about 12.30pm (sandwich and some cucumber and red pepper) then at about 2pm insisted she was starving. I assured her she wasn’t. I think part of it is boredom. And I also fear she gets terrible habits from my husband particularly as he’s now working from home at the moment. His daily lunch is a ham (or some other processed meat) sandwich on white bread, can of fizzy drink, chocolate bar and crisps. He never eats any fruit and nor does she. She’s a proper meat fiend like him – black pudding, ham, chicken, anything. When she started at nursery they asked what her favourite food was she said ‘meat’. What I really don’t want to do is put any labels on food or make a big deal about how much and when she eats. Someone told me I was fat when I was 4 (I wasn’t just a bit of a tummy) and it’s stayed with me forever and I’ve been on every diet out there. I never use the word fat at home and try my best not to talk about any of the shit in my head but it’s bloody hard!! Any advice greatly received…
Just on the whole needing a snack immediately after a meal-
Dementing as it is, I take a fairly flexible line. I let them have a snack but it’s limited to, say, a piece of bread h/ cheese/ fruit/ yoghurt. Nothing special and ideally my nearly 9 yr old should do it herself. My logic is they might well be hungry, they only have small tummies and might not be able to eat enough to keep them going for long. Other parents I know are much stricter on eating at meals only, but perhaps they don’t have kids who have *epic* meltdowns when hungry (or I’m a pushover- also v likely! )
Daisy first of all I’m sorry someone called you fat when you were 4. Someone once called me “an ugly troll” in a pub when I was at university (long story) and I’ve never been able to shake that, so I am really sympathetic.
On the snack thing, I tend to agree with Emily – small children seem to need to eat pretty much constantly and although it’s possibly boredom, it seems so consistently to be the case across the board that they probably are, actually hungry, too. At the moment mine get breakfast at 7.30am, a snack at 10.30am, lunch at 12.30pm and then another snack at 3pm and then dinner at 5.30pm. The snacks are only small but they do need them and always eat the next meal in full.
I think anticipating the hunger and being prepared for it, (surrendering to it), makes it less annoying. If the snacks are at your appointed Snack Time you will feel less like a chump and you can choose what the snacks are. If she doesn’t want it, then she can’t be that hungry.
God I’m now suddenly remembering a six month period when no matter how much Sam ate at dinner he still required 5 oatcakes smeared with butter half an hour later. No wonder he’s nearly my height.
Esther I’m really sorry someone called you an ugly troll you quite obviously aren’t! (Why are people so horrible?!)
At the beginning of ‘this’ I was really organised and had a bowl for both girls and that was what they could have for snacks – mostly fruit. The baby loved it the four year old not so much. I’ll implement something similar as I see your point about small tummies. My main issue is she always wants something sweet and when I offer fruit (just like my mum always did) she rarely wants it or wants to jazz it up with yoghurt and sprinkles or some such shit so I’m not sure she is actually hungry just got a proper sweet treat. But I’ll reintroduce proper snack time which makes sense because this is what she has at nursery. I’ve been making ‘bliss balls’ from the young gums cookbook and they go down a treat and just made a gnocchi traybake both girls loved (from that traybake book everyone seems to have, sorry I can’t remember the author) so today hasn’t been a complete shit show food wise thank god because I’ve told myself I’m not drinking tonight
Some days are such utter shit shows. But the next day is quite often better
This is exactly what I needed to read right now. Thank you. My only helpful tip is to make for your kids things which you like to eat and/or can easily recycle into something you can eat. The part that really enrages me about food I have made for them going uneaten is the fear of it going to waste. (My war baby tendencies have gone into overdrive over lockdown.)
Yes a fear of waste is what always stopped me from trying out new things for the kids because I couldn’t bear it to all go in the bin. But to be totally frank, once we sorted out a decent food recycling system – all fruit and veg goes into the garden compost and everything else goes to council food waste – I tried to let it bother me less. Eradicating tension about food waste will make you braver while you work out what they do/don’t want to eat and how much. Once you’ve sorted that out you will get less waste overall xx
sheila birch says
It was the heartbreaking despair of whoever didn’t get get the Red penguin (biscuit) that tipped me over the edge!
That and ‘this gravy’s a funny colour’
Told them both to fuck off….lost it totally lost i.
Heather A says
My kids were picky eaters before lockdown but they have had to adapt. One week I couldn’t get any fresh fruit so they had to eat tinned fruit. After moaning about it they tried it and accepted it. They have also developed a love of risotto but that may have more to do with Jamie Oliver and his keep calm keep cooking show.
Ha! I just told my 3 year old the thing in the oven for his dinner is fish pie. A favourite of both of them and made from scratch this afternoon and he replied, “no, put that dinner in the bin. I want !!!!!!PASTA!!!!!!!!” Some days that would tip me into rage or tears or both but today has been a reasonably good day (so good I made the kids a fish pie from scratch!) so I just laughed and said, it’s fish pie, you’ll be hungry if you don’t eat it. If I could just bottle today’s zen mood?!
Anna W says
When my husband was young, his dad was unemployed (80s recession). It was a stressful time for the family but all my husband remembers is that they had sugar toasties for pudding – which he loved!
During lock down we’ve been having a cooked meal at lunch (bolognaise, pizza, curry etc) then just a snacky tea, which has involved a huge number of pancakes! So basically I’m hoping my children’s memory of this time will be lots and lots of pancakes xx
Oh my goodness, we’re all in this together! An international charter of unpaid food caterers for (largely) unappreciative clientele. We’re heading into our 4th week (or are we in it already, I lose count) in our NZ wide lockdown and the food/meal issue has been the most stressy.
My 11 year old son is autistic and only eats specifically the same things everyday at the same time. Getting his sanctioned heavily-processed supplies has been stressful – and don’t get me started on the batch of approved white bread buns that were obviously mixed/baked/packed with hot cross buns – but I’ve mostly managed and it’s a HUGE relief. He won’t eat otherwise and is already teetering on underweight. (He lives off gummy vitamins)
The 8 year old lad is the opposite and a hearty eater of everything, but likes to throw the boot in now and then and assert his manliness. I’ve learnt a magic trick of reframing the dinner suggestion… by offering the ‘Selection’ instead. So he might turn down quiche or pie but will gladly accept the ‘Selection’. Which is quiche or pie on a plate with fruit and an assortment of veg that he would have received anyway. I’m still high fiving myself with that.
Esther – thank you for your steady supply of blog posts xx
Anna C says
Esther, I was a regular RR reader back in the day and the word ‘surrender’ took me right back there. In fact, this lockdown is really reminding me of having a new born, the monotony of everyday and desperately trying not to lose your mind.
ANYWAY I actually came on to give anyone with a fussy eater hope, my eldest had five acceptable foods until the age of 6 then suddenly he ate everything without exception. Bizarre.
My youngest is autistic (YES, TWO OF THEM, FFS) and he didn’t learn what hunger was until he started school. Before that, all he ate was bananas and beans, and nothing at all after midday. And he is fine. He remains difficult to feed (GOD FORBID THE WET FOOD TOUCH THE DRY FOOD) but he actually asks for food and understands hunger.
My other two are on a cycle of burgers, pasta, pizza, random baked chicken things and toad in the hole. As long as the veg is salad or broccoli, they’ll accept it.
Like LETTUCE LEAVES FROM A BAG. They trust the leaves from a bag. Give them a standard lettuce and they don’t know what to do.
My 6 year old has eggs and toast or a ham bagel for lunch every bloody day. We have mutually (‘mutually’ ha) agreed that one snack per day can be processed shite, the rest has to be fruit / veg or pitta slices. Seems to work
PLEASE give us ideas, Esther. The Venn diagram of Stuff My Kids Will Eat looks very much like two subsistent planets in space, ASIDE FROM my greatest success – a ramekin of carrot soup (onion, celery, about 8 carrots and a peeled potato, braised and simmered for 40 mins in proper chicken stock – no less or it won’t go creamy when blended), served with nice bread, cheese and grapes. Looks civilised and everyone likes it, AND means they get a load of vitamins and fibre so you can just give them Easter egg for tea.
I found this useful and I don’t even have kids.
My only tip, (in that it worked for my child), was to always refer to him as an adventurous eater within earshot, even when he very obviously was picky AF. I must’ve brainwashed him, as he now says it himself and will try all sorts. Doesn’t always go on for a second try though, but it’s the trying part I’m happy with.
Sam this is advanced psychological warfare and very good advice
I’ve always found that getting them involved in some respect with the meal – literally getting them to stir something or carry some ingredients from the fridge (they’re lazy fuckers, my kids) or decide what we’re eating that night within v strict perimeters (eg I have fish and potatoes, hmmmm, what do you think we should have?) they’re more likely to eat it. Main meal is dinner (lunch is usually a plate of bits and pieces from the fridge) and if they won’t eat it, they don’t get anything else to eat for the rest of the night. Crying from hunger at bedtime? Well just as well I kept your dinner then… (Yes it’s harsh, but I can’t be dealing with the fuckwittery. Also, it works a treat. You just can’t waver…)
Esther, I second the comment commending you on your blog output at the moment. Thank you.
Thank YOU Jess. RelentlessLaundry got me through so bad times xxx