Does your kitchen provide an á la carte kids menu?
What do you do if your kids are picky eaters – cook separate meals or try to get them to eat what’s put on the table?
Cooking different meals and foods based on the likes and dislikes of the child can have huge consequences. Photograph: Getty Images
It is one of those things that before you became a parent, you never imagined you would do: cook different dishes for dinner, to suit individual tastes.
What a waste of time, effort and money, you thought – children should eat whatever is put in front of them, or go without.
But then life happens, presenting forceful personalities with particular tastes, irregular work hours, food intolerances, nutritional concerns and the appeal of the parenting path of least resistance Before you know it, you are producing different meals, often at staggered times to suit their schedules too.
I know, I am that mother sometimes. So too is Chrissie Doherty, mother of two boys aged six and two, for whom meal times had become a battle ground.
“My fussy/headstrong six year old was refusing to eat the family meal and my two year old was starting to follow suit,” she says. “I decided my ‘one meal suits all’ method wasn’t working.”
When she asked other mothers what they did, she was very surprised that most seemed to be cooking a variety of meals.
“That was a huge relief to me,” she admits. “It felt like I had been given permission to ‘bend the rules’.”
Now she will offer, for instance, mashed potato or rice, flavoured chicken or plain.
“The negative emotion previously attached to meal times is now replaced by positive enjoyment of coming together at the end of the day. Our meal gives us nourishment and our time together gives us great pleasure.”
Bending the rules
She knows parenting experts would preach “be in control, be consistent, don’t give in to whims”, but what happened to trusting our instincts, she asks, “even if it means bending the rules and letting my boys eat what they like.”
This approach to meal times is something that consultant dietitian Aveen Bannon is seeing more of but she believes is best avoided.
Even where a child has food allergies, as one of her three children has, you can often work your family diet around it so everybody is eating the same thing.
Often people are cooking separate dinners because they are eating at different times. “It is the quick meal for the kids and the proper meal for mum and dad later on,” she says.
However, the family meal has repeatedly been shown to be a key to healthier eating, as well as better relationships and lifestyles. She refers to a Harvard study that showed where families eat together regularly – five times a week – children will eat a higher amount of fruit and vegetables.
Her four-year-old son is going through a phase where he often won’t eat what his parents and sisters are having, “but I will not cook him something different. We have many a night with him when he will eat hardly anything”, says Bannon, who is perfectly calm about it.
“I do think kids will feed off your anxiety. I don’t praise him when he eats something either – it’s just a case of, it’s there and you can eat it, or you don’t eat it.”
Mother of three and dietitian Ruth Charles also says it is best if everyone shares the same meal “for many, many reasons”. Children learn to eat a wide variety of foods and tastes by watching their family. Developmentally, nutritionally and psychosocially, family foods are suitable for all from age one.
Cooking different meals and foods based on the likes and dislikes of the child has huge consequences, she warns. Not only is it labour intensive and expensive, but if a child gets the message repeatedly that it’s okay not to eat family foods and to expect/demand something else, then that becomes the norm.
“In my experience,” she adds, “this kind of phenomenon leads to an increase in faddy eaters, disordered eating and family stress.”
Sinéad, who works full-time outside the home, always assumed her children, now aged 11, nine and six, would eat almost everything, just like she does. “I also breast- fed my children and somehow imagined this would give them all wide and varied palates.”
The reality turned out to be different and she is cooking several meal options for her family three or four times a week.
“There is a limited number of meals that we all eat and enjoy and I can’t be serving steak or roast beef every day.”
She admits her husband is part of the reason – “he may not like what’s on offer for the rest of us” – as is her concern that the children have at least one decent meal a day. It is inconvenient but no big deal to fry some chicken or stick a piece of frozen fish in the oven as an alternative, she says.
“I find that by being reasonably flexible, then I can expect my children to be reasonably flexible in trying new things in return.”
Aislinn McCabe’s two children are aged just 18 months and two months, but she and her husband are determined to be a “one- dinner family”.
Having used baby-led weaning for the toddler, she estimates that already 90 per cent of the meals they eat with her are the same.
“We love eating our meals as a family, and we quickly realised she didn’t like it when her food was totally different to ours, so it has just become totally normal for us to eat the same meals,” says McCabe.
“I think fussy eating starts with parents worrying about what and how much their children eat and resorting to giving them what they know they’ll eat, which can quickly become a habit that’s difficult to break.”
Some days their daughter will eat everything, other days just pick at the food, but “we don’t worry too much once she’s tasting what’s on her plate. Our kitchen isn’t a restaurant and we don’t plan on it becoming one.”