Is there anything more likely to make you totally insane than a toddler who won’t eat? Or who will, inexplicably, no longer eat the failsafe back-up meal that they would normally always eat?
It’s enough to drive you demented with worry! You just want to nourish them, these children whom you love and want to be healthy.
Not to mention how frustrating it is when you’ve spent all that time cooking and they won’t even countenance it on their plate, despite your many pleas and negotiations.
I’ve been there. Naming no names, we have had excellent eaters and fussy eaters and all the eaters in between – and when I tell you that I once fed my toddler his supper in the bath in an attempt to get him to eat Something, Anything, you’ll have a sense of my levels of desperation.
Anyway, I’ve learnt a few things along the way and these days I don’t have to chase anyone around to slip food into their mouths when they’re not looking.
1. Care less
Sure, this is hard to do when you are desperate for them to at least just try whatever you have presented to them – but would there be anything more offputting than trying to eat something at a dinner party and your host staring at you intently, scrutinizing your reaction? As with most things to do with toddlers, the less pressure there is, the more likely it is to go well.
Serve the food and then sit and eat your own food, or a snack, or have a cup of tea – anything to stop you staring pointedly at the floret of broccoli that you want them to try.
2. Make it fun
The first bite is with the eye, and all that. Try presenting the food in a fun way – thin cheese slices as a sunshine, with cucumber grass, you get the picture.
Our children are also totally won over by indoor picnics, for a mealtime or snack depending on how committed to this activity you are – so I sometimes use that as an opportunity to sneak something in that they wouldn’t normally eat. I did this recently in an ongoing attempt to convince my 4 year old to like raisins or any other dried fruit.
Put a rug / table cloth on the floor and arrange the food in a variety of jazzy containers.
Invite some guests if you like
3. Involve them in the prep
Most books will tell you to do this but it is (sometimes) unbelievably effective. My children now all love courgettes/zucchinis because they are so easy to chop that I always get them to do that chore and they cannot help but feel proud of their own efforts, proud enough to eat something green.
3. Get sneaky
You already know about blending vegetables into a tomato sauce, but you can also – more simply – grate vegetables into all sorts of things without giving the game away. Grate courgette/zucchini into macaroni cheese, for example, and often no one is any the wiser, especially if you peel them first. Ditto grated carrots into muffins.
Or even mashed potato – I always add chopped broccoli and cheese to a mash – not quite so secretive, but green mash is a surprise hit here.
5. Make it into a burger / make it into a biscuit / make it into a muffin
One for the older child really as younger toddlers probably don’t care about being allowed to eat a ‘burger’ but I can nearly always convince our children to, at the very least, try something, if it is sandwiched into a bun and sold to them as a burger. They happily eat black bean ‘burgers’ and salmon ‘burgers’ which are really just black beans or salmon plus vegetables, egg and breadcrumbs, in a bun.
Similarly, anything muffin-shaped can seem like a treat despite having no sugar in it. Even biscuits can have some ground flax or wholewheat flour or extra protein added if there are a few chocolate chips in there too..
6. Make it forbidden fruit
This is a bit sneakier and may involve playing the long game but, you know, if sliced carrots are a treat for you that you shouldn’t really share then suddenly they have a new level of appeal…
7. Stay calm
They will eat when they need to. I found this very hard to begin with but now with the handy distraction of four mouths to feed, I am focusing less on feeling stressed if someone just isn’t feeling so hungry at any given point. Just keep offering the foods and eventually, for no apparent reason, carrots will suddenly be in favour. (I HOPE).
This is a fantastic collection of recipes and ideas from 6months onwards – probably the only recipe book for children you need.
It has a really simple and straightforward intro at the start with all the basics you need to know with regards nutrition and I wish I’d had this for the first part of weaning our eldest. It also contains the best cauliflower cheese recipe ever, with a sauce I now make for pasta or broccoli or cauliflower and all three older children devour.
In the book it is presented as a brussels sprouts gratin but it didn’t quite convince my children to eat Brussels (it’s not that good) so I use cauliflower or broccoli or a combination thereof and I almost never leave enough time to bake it as a gratin (but if you do, it is delicious enough that you and your husband will try and steal it from your children’s plates.)
Here it is, slightly adapted:
1 small onion, roughly chopped
1 bay leaf
A few black peppercorns (optional)
25g plain / all purpose flour
100g cheese, grated (however strong your child will tolerate..)
+ 1 small cauliflower, or half a head of cauliflower and a few florets of broccoli, or a bowl of pasta – cooked until tender if you are just going to eat this in the sauce, or cooked until al-dente if you are going to make this into a gratin and bake.
Topping: (If you are making a gratin)
30g hard cheese
30g coarse breadcrumbs
Put the milk in a saucepan with the onion, bay leaf and peppercorns – if using. Bring to just below the boil, take off the heat and leave to infuse for half an hour or so before you continue. This is the kind of step I usually skip in an effort to speed things up but I have tried making this without leaving it to infuse and it really isn’t as tasty. This is one to do when you have half an hour to kill.
Preheat the oven to 190C/G5 (if you are making a gratin…).
After your half an hour – put a pan of boiling water on the stove/hob to cook the cauliflower / broccoli / pasta as required.
Strain the milk, discard the flavourings. Melt the butter, add the flour and cook over a low heat for a couple of minutes, stirring. Add a splash of the warm milk and add it slowly, stirring continuously to keep the sauce smooth (there’s a Bridget Jones reference in there somewhere, Una).
Bring to a gentle simmer.
Cook for a minute or two, until it thickens slightly. Add the cheese. Season, if your children are old enough / tolerant enough.
Add the cauliflower / alternative to the sauce. If you are making a gratin, spread in a dish about 20cm square / 25 x 15cm, mix the cheese with breadcrumbs to make the topping, sprinkle over the top and bake for about 25 minutes until bubbling and golden. If you are serving it plain – enjoy! The original suggests serving with a baked potato or poached chicken but we are purists here and tend to have it as a main children’s dish. Enjoy! Don’t stare at them while they eat it.