How to bring peace to the children’s meal table

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If your dinner table turns into a battlefield at the children’s mealtimes, author Elizabeth Pantley’s new book might have the answer. Lisa Salmon reports.

If your child is faddy with food, you’re not alone – nearly 85 per cent of parents say they have a child who is or has been a picky eater.

All parents who’ve experienced such fussiness know how frustrating it can be, especially if you’ve spent a long time cooking a meal only to have your picky child turn his or her nose up at it.

But there is a way to stop such pickiness, says author Elizabeth Pantley, who promises her No-Cry Picky Eater Solution can end mealtime battles and help children eat all the goodness they need.

Pantley believes the way to stop pickiness is not to impose absolute rules. Instead, parents need to introduce various positive changes such as making it their mission to get their child to eat and enjoy vegetables every day by both eating and enjoying vegetables together, and learning new ways to prepare and serve them.

She says: “When you have a picky eater, every meal and every snack is a battle, and creates a lot of stress throughout the household.

“Parents worry that their child isn’t eating enough, or doesn’t have a healthy diet. It can be a big issue for the family.”

Most faddy children outgrow their pickiness, she points out, although during their picky phase they may have missed out on some of the nutrients needed for optimum growth, could have formed bad eating habits for a lifetime, and will almost certainly have created a huge amount of tension within the family.

Indeed, as part of her research for the book, Pantley worked with 172 parents of picky eaters, whose most common description of the food situation in their house was “frustrating”. Other popular descriptions included “overwhelmed”, “defeated”, “tortured”, and “hopeless”.

The test parents reported many common themes, including their children eating the same few, unhealthy foods every day, vegetables being totally off limits, and the child refusing to try anything new.

Pantley says picky eaters usually only eat a few foods, and eat the same thing every day. “Typically it’s unhealthy food,” she says. “We’re not concerned if they’re eating too many vegetables, but usually they complain and fuss if you serve them vegetables or other healthy food.”

Some parents, says Pantley, will let their children eat unhealthy food because they’re desperate for them to eat something.

“It’s a big mistake,” she says, “but it happens all the time. They will let them eat unhealthy food because they think it’s better than letting them starve, but I want parents to know that their child will not starve.

“It’s better to be more consistent in your efforts to get them to eat healthily than to give in and give them the things they shouldn’t be eating just so they eat something.”

She says parents firstly need to understand that picky eating is normal and there’s no reason to get angry.

Instead of an instant change, everything should be slow and gradual, she stresses.

So, for example, if a child is eating white bread as a regular snack, give them half a slice of white bread and half a slice of wholemeal, or use a mixed brand.

In a similar way, if a child likes a sugary spread on their bread, initially use a mixture of the sugary version and a no added sugar variety, and gradually increase the amount of the healthier type.

Other gradual introductions of food could be bits of spinach in a homemade hamburger, or mashed up cauliflower into mashed potatoes, so children gradually get a taste for healthy foods.

“It’s OK to sneak some healthier foods into their regular foods, while at the same time teaching them about nutrition,” explains Pantley. She suggests having a drawer in the fridge or pantry containing healthy snacks that children can eat when they’re hungry, and stresses that such small changes can make a huge difference to family life.

“You can pick one or two ideas that might work for you, and start with those.”

The No-Cry Picky Eater Solution is published by McGraw-Hill, £12.99.

Tips to encourage healthy eating

Parents should read food labels with their children, and point out which foods are better for them, teaching them why it’s important to make good food choices with little nuggets of information rather than a lengthy talk.

Encourage children to eat vegetables by cutting them into interesting shapes, serving them with dips, and perhaps giving them a small serving of vegetables before dinner, rather than with their favourite food during the main meal.

Involving children in the shopping and cooking will make them more interested in the food they’re eating, she says.