Parenting: How to deal with fussy eaters
Once upon a time there was family that thoroughly enjoyed every mealtime, beginning with Bismillah and ending with Alhamdullilah, and the children ate all the nutritious, diverse, and yummy food that mummy had prepared without any fuss…sound familiar? No? Not in my house either until I discovered the secret to a stress-free and dare I say, enjoyable dining experience with my children.
As parents who want the best for our kids, we endeavour to fuel their growing bodies with the best food possible and hope to encourage good table and eating etiquette and manners. We want them to experiment and savour diverse cuisines and develop healthy attitudes to food and healthy appetites and to be grateful for the loving way we have prepared and dished out their nutritious, painstakingly thought out, and well-balanced meals in a timely manner. Boy, that’s a lot of pressure we’ve just heaped onto our shoulders before the food has even got to the table! And as for our kids, that’s a whole lot of expectation from a cheese sandwich!
Mealtimes can become battle zones when you’re dealing with fussy eaters, but think about it, we’re all ‘fussy’ eaters because each and every one of us has a unique thought process when it comes to our likes and dislikes, the amount of food we need, and the time we take and whether or not we’re hungry. The battle commences if our children’s fussy eating habits differ to our thoughts and opinions on what theirs should be. Eating too slowly, eating too quickly, not eating anything, eating too much, not wanting to try different foods, saying they don’t like something without having tasted it, not finishing their meal, not feeling hungry at prescribed mealtimes, making a mess, wanting to be spoon fed, wanting to feed themselves, and power plays are all common issues that can appear to cause stressful mealtimes. Common responses and coping strategies include bribery and rewards, coercion, emotional blackmail, bargaining, and sometimes even force. I’ve tried it all and can attest to the futility and emotionally draining situation of bribing my 4-year-old son to eat all his dinner quickly with second helpings of emotional blackmail, only to have him projectile vomit his man-size portion of chicken curry and rice in my face!
The secret I learned was… food is just food. Food is sustenance and that’s it. Food is neutral. Food is not the problem. It’s not the source of my stress, it’s not a validation for being a good mum and what, when, and how my children eat is no reflection on them or me. My thinking about food is the problem and my opinions are vastly different to my kids and the associated meanings I attached to food, and in particular, my children’s behaviour at mealtimes, have nothing to do with them. When I realised this, mealtimes took on a very different look in our house.
What we do now: Eat together as a family as much as possible. No phones or TVs on. Meals are a gadget-free zone. The table is set with the children’s help and they dish out their own portions with guidance. There is no time pressure or expectation to eat everything on the plate. There are no incentives or rewards for finishing first. Mealtimes are made fun (we introduce the meal in the accent of its origin) but also mealtimes are made a normal, everyday occurrence. And finally, we thank Allah for our food and we clear the table together.
All my previous thoughts about why my children were fussy eaters were intrinsically linked to how it affected me and in turn how it defined me as a mother. When I realised their fussy eating habits were a thought problem and not a food one, it allowed me to see their individual thinking and feelings about eating and understand them better. My intention was to feed them to sustain them but this somehow got lost in the meanings I’d attached to their eating. I thank God that by going back to the core intention and seeing it clearly has made the fairy tale now a reality.
There are so many reasons as to why it would appear that being a fussy eater could be such a contentious issue. If we look closer, we can dispel a few myths and break down commonly held notions and stop ourselves from getting worked up in the first place.
Children are clever.
Just like you and I, our children were born witnessing the will of Allah and truly accepting his presence. They know themselves and they are closer connected to the truth that they are their souls and not their bodies. You are what you eat…well actually no, you’re not! To them, food is just food and in truth, it is the fuel that we need to power our bodies. They may not understand this connection fully but they know their limits. What may seem fussy to us could be the understanding of a food intolerance to them. Eating slowly is a sunnah and also excellent for good digestion, so why do we want them to eat faster? Eating too much and too quickly is also improper Islamic etiquette, and on the contrary eating less than needed is beneficial so why do we force our kids to eat more? Do we think of the third of air, water, and food that’s best for healthy digestion and even if we did, how do we know what their third looks like? Food for thought perhaps?
There are also numerous cultural pressures.
I was brought up on spicy Mauritian-Indian based food. My husband grew up on Sunday roasts and Arab food. I remember being praised by an aunt who came to visit for my ability to eat a particularly spicy hot meal, whereas my poor little sister was berated and culturally disowned for not being able to handle the heat and sullying the meal with tomato ketchup! A child’s palette is pure and able to truly taste and savour the wonderful flavours Allah has blessed us with so why is it so important that our kid’s ability or disability to handle spicy/hot/bitter/sour flavours dictates their cultural acceptance? Spicy food is great but how many dietary and digestive problems in later life could be resolved if we only ate it in moderation? My parents once made a passing comment about my son’s dislike of biryani but his love of kofta kebabs…apparently he’s more Arab than Mauritian now! Like my sister, who was so English for putting ketchup on her rice and my love of lasagna meaning I’d in effect turned my back on my roots, food can take on so many different associations, it’s no wonder mealtimes can be so fraught. The accolade for the parent of the ‘most diverse cuisine loving child’ is almost too enticing!
The common “he doesn’t eat a thing, he’s going to waste away…” comments are also harmful.
My mum is adamant that my 4-year-old son is going to one day disappear into thin air. His slight build is license to stuff him full of fatty, calorific junk. He is tall and skinny in stark comparison to my three other not so tall and skinny children. He’s not a big eater but he is the most energetic, fruit and veg loving child I have ever seen. Children don’t have a self destruct switch or the psychological ability to willfully starve themselves to death. They will eat enough to keep them going which is most likely a lot less than we think.
Another thing to think about is that most likely, children are fussy easters because they just happen to not like a certain food now.
Isn’t it funny that we can accept certain parts of our child’s behaviour as part of their ever-changing experience through life but when it comes to food we take it as gospel that what their eating habits now will remain the same forever? I hated mushrooms as a child but I love them now. I loved tomatoes growing up but I’m not a huge fan now. My dietary tastes and likes have changed and developed since my childhood and who’s to say that because my child dislikes spinach now, he won’t love it in the future? I can’t say I’ve ever seen an adult picking out the peas in his meal, dropping the onions behind her chair, or throwing themselves on the floor because they don’t want any celery!
This leads to another common comment by parents: “I cooked it, so you will eat it…all of it!”
Power struggles and ego don’t taste nice so why do we turn mealtimes into war? Us slaving away in the kitchen doesn’t even register in our kids’ realities and emotionally blackmailing them into eating up because they’re ever so lucky they’re not starving in Africa doesn’t really entice them into being the socially sensitive and charitable people we’d hoped for. Easy to see how that much emotional weight and responsibility can suddenly make you lose your appetite!
“It tastes funny…” is also something we’ve all heard as parents.
I think I’ve heard this at least a hundred times and most of those times I took it as personal insult and affront to my cooking and mothering skills. Here’s the thing though, it may very well have tasted peculiar or not the way I’d hoped. Natural, fresh raw foods in season taste infinitely better and truer than their out of season, genetically and flavour modified counterparts. There is divine wisdom in the timing and harvesting of foods in conjunction with their health benefits at that specified time. Strawberries in summer actually taste as if they were sent to vitalise and refresh you. Oranges packed in vitamin C grow in abundance during the winter months to help us ward off the sniffles. Seasonal foods have less chance of tasting funny to little people.
Finally, it’s important to remember the most important part of preparing meals for children, which is remembering Who to thank in the end.
In trying to prepare a healthy, interesting, delicious, and beautifully presented meal, I have consulted most of the famous chef’s cookbooks from Jamie Oliver to Shelina Purmaloo, but failed to pick up the best of all books…the Holy Quran! Alhamdulillah, we have been blessed with the best gift to mankind that takes care of our spiritual needs in conjunction with advising on our physical needs. Foods from all the major food groups are mentioned in the Quran and their benefits and magnificent properties fill the stomach and feed the soul. We could do a lot worse than to follow such a beneficial shopping list of ingredients and feast on olives, herbs, fish, grapes, garlic, ginger, onions, corn, wheat, pomegranate, dates, meat, milk, honey, lentils, cucumbers to name a few. If eating is a form of worship, what better than a serving of Holy food?
Our children are an amanah to us to care for, guide, and account for. Our intentions are always to love, nurture, and look after them. Once we realise and focus on feeding them with the truest and purest of intentions, all the associated thinking and misunderstandings drop. Our purpose is to worship Allah. We need fuel to power our bodies to be able to worship Him. Our fuel should therefore be the best in order to keep us healthy. Feeding our children is no different. Food is fuel, sustenance, and energy to keep them going. Food is just food. It’s neutral. It’s not an indication of our parenting skills, control, power, or definition of our kids’ identities or absolute judgment of their eating habits. It’s just food. If we can drop our fussy thinking, we might just see how not fussy our kids’ eating actually are.