Written by Justine Brooks

In The News

Let’s stop making a fuss about fussy eating

Justine Brooks was a picky eater and so was her daughter. And forcing them to try things they didn’t want achieved nothing.

child eating
Recent research into toddler behaviour has indicated food fussiness could be partially genetic, a question of nature as much as nurture. How entirely refreshing.

I think all those parents of fussy children (who it now turns out were probably fussy eaters themselves) should ditch the star charts, reach back into their own childhoods and remember those feelings of having to eat something they didn’t want to. Really remember them before they sit pleading, cajoling and threatening their children. It’s not worth turning into a drama.

I remember once sitting in a restaurant with my ex-husband and my daughter. She was about two. We’d ordered soup for her and we were trying to encourage her to eat it. (I have to admit it didn’t look particularly appealing to me either.) We were arguing with our daughter and with each other. It wasn’t going well.

A woman from a nearby table came up to us and said, “My boys ate nothing but baked beans until they were 10 and now they eat anything and everything. My advice to you is to stop worrying and just let them eat what they want. That’s just what children are like.”

“I remember so clearly how it felt not to want to eat something. The sensation of having something in your mouth that was so vile it made you want to vomit.”

She was right. I was a fussy eater. Most of all I remember lunchtimes: my mother would sit me down, an hour before my father came home for his lunch, in front of my plate on which typically sat a lettuce leaf, a piece of tomato, a slice of salami, a small piece of bread.

I remember contemplating this plate, still full and uncomfortable from my (enforced) daily boiled egg. Looking at it, not wanting to eat it. Really not wanting to eat it. These memories are very clear.

The situation would escalate once my father came home. I was a skinny kid and I guess they were worried. By this time I’d sat in front of the lettuce leaf, tomato and salami slices and the piece of bread for an hour. (My mother’s hope clearly was that, at some point during my father’s lunch hour, I would eat this food.)

Perhaps I might have taken a bite. They would plead, cajole, threaten, all the usual things adults do to children who refuse food. It would end in tears.

I remember not understanding why I had to eat this food when I wasn’t hungry and when I didn’t even like it. I was always happy when my grandmother came to stay (not often, as she lived several thousand miles away) and I’d say, “Grannymum, please can you help me?” and she’d surreptitiously pop something into her mouth and we’d laugh conspiratorially and when my mother came back into the room, she would shoot suspicious glances in my grandmother’s direction.

Lo and behold, my daughter is a fussy eater. And I absolutely pander to it. She likes pasta. I feed her pasta. Because you can mix a universe of things into pasta: lettuce, tomatoes, salami. Or even peas, chicken, ham, pesto, cheese, beans: anything. As long as it comes under the umbrella of ‘pasta’.

She also has food fads – there have been scampi, scones, char sui dumplings, cucumber sushi, apple sauce, crumpets, Ready Brek. She’ll refuse to eat much else and then she’ll move onto another fad.

child eating corn on the cob
Why do I not force her to eat everything else? For a number of reasons. Firstly I think a varied diet is something we grow into. It’s also a middle-class construct. Many people round the world have far less variety in their diets than us supermarket-spoiled consumers.

Secondly, because I remember so clearly how it felt not to want to eat something. The sensation of having something in your mouth that was so vile it made you want to vomit. I remember feeling a hatred of mealtimes, a dread that almost gave me a very unhealthy relationship with food.

Thirdly, because I went to an all-girls boarding school where one girl died from an eating disorder and there were many more who starved themselves. I saw how in times of unhappiness and anxiety, relationships with food can be turned into battles for control and power. (Incidentally, I also do not ever complain about my weight or proclaim that I’m on a diet in front of my daughter.) I just want my daughter to have a healthy relationship with food.

Now she’s 13, I watch her growing fascination for cooking and her burgeoning adventurousness and I feel happy that she is finding out for herself. That no one has pushed her into it and, like every other part of growing up, she has had a voyage of self-discovery backed up with encouragement and enthusiasm on my part.

For her, food is not a dread, not a weapon, not a horror, not an instrument of control. It’s nice to have the perspective of time. Like nappies, dummies, tantrums and afternoon naps, kids grow out of being fussy about food. I say, let them do it in their own time.

@JustineFBrooks

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Written by Justine Brooks

Justine lives in beautiful north Leeds with her 12-year-old daughter and a lurcher called Lionel. She runs a PR and marketing agency and is writing a novel.