Strawberries & cheese: The dilemmas of parenting a fussy eater

Three days ago, my son ate an omelette. It’s sad to say but this made me ridiculously over the moon. So much so that I had to suppress a squeal of delight and remain po-faced while my stomach did somersaults and I communicated the joyous moment to my partner in hushed tones.

Two days ago, my son ate chips. Yes chips. I’m sure most parents lament their child gorging on chips but for me, chip-eating represents a rare and most welcome incidence of vegetable consumption and therefore most definitely an occasion to celebrate.

Finally, yesterday my son ate soup. With VEGETABLES in it. I can’t tell you the joy I felt at watching him spoon the thick green liquid into his mouth. Gazing lovingly at him as he slurped awkwardly with the remnants dripping down his chin and into his tommy tippy bib. So mesmerised was I by the spectacle of the three of us sitting there, all of us eating the very same meal in true Goldilocks style, that I actually said out loud “It feels like we’re a real family now”. Unsurprisingly, in response Nathan looked sideways at me as if I’d gone completely and utterly nuts.

My, oh my, this really has been an exceptional week.

You may have guessed by now that my son is a fussy eater. Not just a “won’t eat vegetables or anything green” kind of eater. More of a “lives on a diet of porridge, bread (and associated products), goats cheese and fruit” kind of eater. As you can imagine, as a parent this can be challenging.

But then again, I am thankful for small mercies. After all, if it weren’t for the fruit (primarily strawberries) I would be tearing my hair out over the nutritional deficiencies of my otherwise healthy little boy. You see, strawberries are by far Zephyr’s favourite fruit. He can eat a punnet a day. – Fine in the summer when strawberries are in season and affordably priced. Not so fine in winter when you’re buying organic strawberries at around £3 a punnet and your child’s potentially £20-a-week strawberry habit is burning an unhealthly hole in your pocket, not to mention rendering your efforts at reducing your carbon footprint to a shamefully pathetic footnote.

lots of juicy, red strawberries

Thank goodness for strawberries: Zephyr’s favourite fruit. Credit: Antoine Bertier, CC license

But I digress. Zephyr’s eating habits (or perhaps more accurately, my obsessing over them) have caused me no end of parental angst. The fact that he has, until this week, refused to eat the vast majority of foodstuffs we try him with leads me to fluctuate between stomach-knotting anxiety and zen-like “it’s-just-a-phase-ignoring-it-is-bliss”. Sometimes I can go for weeks, merrily serving him up pancake after pancake, occasionally interspersed with a goat cheese sandwich or, from time to time, porridge. For dinner. But after a while I inevitably feel guilty that I’m not making more of an effort. And so another round of making him a healthier, perhaps even vegetable-containing, version of something close to what he likes, ensues. I obsess about trying out these new things for a while, I experiment with pizza, mashed veg or patties of some kind. I buy packets of salt-laden Lidl vegetable crisps just so that I can mix a handful of them with my own home baked versions and trick him into eating vegetables. (He likes packets of stuff you see – crisps, fruit bars and Ella’s pouches – but food made at home by my fair hands? No thanks.) And when he still won’t eat what I offer him, I give up again and go back to giving him what I know he’ll eat.

If all that sounds exhausting, it’s because it is. Oftentimes I’ve wondered whether I’m taking entirely the wrong approach. Certainly, I’ve found myself thinking about Zephyr’s eating rather more than I suspect is healthy. And in case you’re wondering, I do have an approach… or at least, I started out with one. It began with baby-led weaning, which I was drawn to because I wanted to be guided by my son’s interest in food and let him explore it for himself. For the first few weeks, it worked a treat. He ate everything we put in front of him and we enjoyed many a family evening meal together, eating the same food, only with varying portion sizes. I can’t pinpoint where it changed, but gradually Zephyr started rejecting what we were eating and I’d scramble around trying to find quick alternatives I knew he’d eat. Sweet potatoes, broccoli, avocados, bread and goat’s cheese became firm favourites. At some stage we mostly stopped giving him what we were eating save for a token trial at the beginning of the meal which he always declined in favour of what was to come. By the time he was 18 months old, he had ditched the vegetables all together.

As far as I can tell, baby-led weaning is based on the premise that trusting our child to know what their body needs and to eat accordingly is a good thing – and importantly, that it works in terms of supporting him or her to develop a healthy relationship with food. As this chimes with my overall approach to parenting – to trust and support my child, rather than to control him – it seemed to fit. And because my guiding premise is that I want my son to enjoy the food he eats, to develop a lifelong love of food, to be able to connect to his own dietary needs (both in terms of what he eats, when he eats and how much he eats) and to eat a healthy, balanced diet, I figured that the best way of doing this was to be led by what he indicates he wants, or indeed doesn’t want, to eat. But in reality, because what he wants is actually rather a narrow range of foodstuffs which rarely, if ever, coincides with what I am cooking for dinner (except on Shrove Tuesday), I find myself fretting over whether he will ever eat what I would deem a healthy, balanced diet. Maybe he will always be a fussy eater. Maybe my approach is enabling him to become more and more restrictive around what he eats?

Friends have suggested to me that I should just offer him what we’re eating and if he doesn’t eat it, let him go hungry. (I suspect as he’s still having breastmilk at night that this option is more likely to translate into filling himself up on milk at bedtime.) Part of me feels this is a reasonable approach and certainly one that would, over time I suspect, yield a positive result in that I would no longer have to cook separate meals, cart goats cheese around or obsess over Zephyr’s eating habits. But I can’t help thinking that changing tack and denying Zephyr the foods he wants to eat in favour of the ones we want him to eat could result in him developing negative associations with food. Would such intervention end up obscuring his natural tendencies regarding food and prevent him from connecting to his own dietary needs? For sure in the short term there would be lots of tears, but could such an approach actually lead to him have an unhealthy relationship to food? Can I trust him to find his own way and explore different foods in his own time? Or is it true that intervention is needed?

almost empty plate with nectarine stone in it, banans skin on the left hand side of the plate

Rather a narrow range of foodstuffs Credit: Rachel Zack, CC license

It feels important here to look at my motivations. Am I concerned about his unusual eating habits because I’m worried about his health? Am I driven by a fear of him remaining fixated by cheese and fruit into adulthood? Is it actually that I find the task of ensuring he has the food he likes too stressful, time-consuming or onerous? Despite my professed parenting ideals, is there an element of me needing to exert a degree of control over Zephyr’s food choices so as to simplify mealtimes and make him conform to what I believe he should be eating?

On the first point, I can honestly say I’m not worried about Zephyr’s unusual eating habits being detrimental to him health – he’s been eating this way for almost a year now and he looks and acts like a normal, healthy, vibrant little boy. Nor am I especially worried that his somewhat limited palate will continue into adulthood – lots of children are fussy eaters but few adults appear to suffer such an affliction. And whilst carting goats cheese around and spending an inordinate amount of time pontificating over a toddler’s eating habits can be a right pain in the butt, I wouldn’t say I feel overburdened by it.

…At least not today, which I admit is a good day.

Overall, we enjoy structured mealtimes and within the range of what I know he likes, Zephyr eats what he’s given. Setting aside one incident where he rejected the goats cheese sandwich I’d given him and made him porridge instead, which he then refused to eat, I’ve purposefully steered clear of making him elaborate meals, much less pandering to his every whim. Certainly, I am keen to be led by what Zephyr himself wants, but I am reluctant to take this to what my mum would call “the nth degree”. To an extent, I’d say there is part of me that feels the need to maintain some control over what Zephyr eats, which I guess demonstrates that however much I like the idea of trusting that he will find his own way with food, part of me feels that he needs me to nudge him in the right direction.

But is that really such a bad thing? At the moment, providing him with foods I know he will enjoy, whilst also offering opportunities to explore other gastronomic possibilities, feels like a good balance. He gets to lead the way while I stand alongside him showing him what else is out there. Broadly speaking, I’d found seven main things that seem to help Zephyr to enjoy and experiment with food:

  1. Engagement: involving him in food preparation (the whizzing up of the soup was what led to the eating of it) & involving him in preparation for mealtimes itself (setting the table)
  2. Community: eating together and making dinner time central to family life
  3. Ritual: having a little ritual around dinner time (lighting a candles at the beginning of the meal)
  4. Repetition: offering him what we’re eating every dinner time, even though he almost never ends up eating it (after six months of being offered rice pudding every week at playgroup, last week he finally ate it)
  5. Familiarity: offering him new foods that share some characteristic with existing favourites (strawberry yogurt is admissible on account of the strawberry element; he only tried the “omelette pancake” ‘cos he thought it was a pancake)
  6. Clarity: offering clear messages about food and maintaining boundaries as to what is acceptable (food preparation is fun and creative, food is to be respected, we wait until everyone has finished eating before leaving the table)
  7. Availability: making a range of food available to him in between mealtimes (putting a plate of fruit, vegetable crisps and oat cakes close to where he is playing)
smiling child with goat's cheese round his mouth, holding packet of goat's cheese

Zephyr chowing down on goat’s cheese

The truth is that incidents like the omelette encounter, the chip breakthrough or the soup-eating family idyll show me that Zephyr’s eating habits will change and that he will try new things, only at his own pace. That pace may be painfully slow to watch, but as with all things parenting, processes that seem at the time to take an eternity, appear with the benefit of hindsight to be over in the blink of an eye.

Zephyr enjoys his food and I’ve no doubt that with time, he will eat a hearty, healthy and balanced diet. In the meantime, I suspect it’s time for mamma to sit back, relax a little and worry less about changing Zephyr’s eating habits and more about readjusting my expectations.

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1 Response to Strawberries & cheese: The dilemmas of parenting a fussy eater

  1. Adeline says:

    I like your approach. Keep posting.

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