Dinnertime dramas ... "No thanks, I'll just play with what's in front of me."

Dinnertime dramas ... "No thanks, I'll just play with what's in front of me."

My children ate cereal for dinner tonight. Just as they have every night this week. Actually one of them ate cereal, the other had nothing but a few sips of milk and a biscuit. Funny how no matter how ‘full’ they are, there’s always room for biscuits. Or ice-cream. Or hot chips.

Welcome to the world of fussy eaters, also know as any family with at least one child under the age of 10. It’s a stressful and irritating place, but one I’m sure we all know well.

I really don’t want to be one of those families for which dinner is a nightly battleground 

The thing that’s so annoying about my recent bout with fussy eating is that it’s only a new occurrence. Up until a week ago my toddler was known as Garbage Guts, because she’d eat anything. She got excited at the sight of food and would shovel in copious amounts, all despite being at the bottom end of the weight chart.

Once she'd finished taking her food apart, Maitreya from Wallagoot looked pretty bored by the whole thing. Click for more photos

EB kids eating

Once she'd finished taking her food apart, Maitreya from Wallagoot looked pretty bored by the whole thing.

So when I served her dinner last week, and was met with a firm ‘Noooooo’ and the whole bowl of spaghetti dumped on the floor, it came as quite a shock. Since then it seems she’s taking her entrance into the terrible twos this week to heart. Everything is met with a ‘NOOO’, or an ‘I done’, or an attempt to throw it all on the floor. And I’ve got to say that it’s already wearing thin.

As for my six-year-old, he’s never been a garbage guts, but he isn’t the worst kind of fussy eater either; he sits somewhere in between. Like most kids, he has favourite meals he’ll wolf down but others he won’t even try. And, like most kids, he would eat two serves of everything at childcare but then refuse to try the exact same thing at home. He would eat Mr Rob’s carrots (the childcare cook) but never Mummy’s carrots. Oh, how I loved those childcare days. I knew, thanks to peer group pressure, he would eat a nutritional meal for lunch, so I felt less guilty if he had cereal for dinner. But these days, when lunch is a quarter of a Vegemite sandwich, I do worry his dietary intake is somewhat lacking.

I’m hoping that it’s just a stage, that it’s because they both have colds, and that they’ll go back to eating their usual repertoire of mince, tuna and pasta done as many ways as possible. Because I really don’t want to be one of those families for which dinner is a nightly battleground.

I’ve seen my sister go through this with her step-son, a seriously fussy eater. They’ve tried everything but dinnertimes always end in tears, tantrums and stress on everyone’s part. And who needs that after a long day?

So what’s the solution? Some people swear by the ‘eat what you’re given or go to bed hungry’ philosophy. But I have to admit that I’m a bit soft for this stance, and will always offer at least bread, fruit or cereal as an option. I know my son won’t starve, but I also know that after three visits out of his room to complain that he’s hungry I’ll end up giving in anyway, so I may as well do it earlier and save us both the trouble. Weak, but true!

I also don’t like the idea of forcing a child to eat anything, with memories of my own mother forcing me to eat a god awful Rice-A-Riso microwave mince dish she made that still makes me want to vomit. My mum really embraced microwave cooking in the early ‘90s, and the taste of broiled meat is still fresh in my mind. Urgh.

To this day I’m not a big meat eater and am picky with what I’ll eat, so I kind of understand my son being picky too. And the last thing I want to do is force him to eat something he genuinely hates and have him put off a type of food for life … although I can’t say my life has been an empty place with the loss of Rice-A-Riso.

But I do love food and eating out, and want my kids to be able to come to a café or restaurant with us and enjoy a meal together – and not just a restaurant that serves happy meals. So here are a few tips I found at the Better Health Channel, for those who are currently in the same boat. Some of them are easier said than done, but overall it’s a good guide.

  • Remember your child will never voluntarily starve themselves. Children are very good at judging their hunger and fullness signals.
  • Keep calm and don’t make a fuss of whether your child is eating or not. Instead, concentrate on making mealtimes enjoyable family events. 
  • Be realistic about the amount of effort you put into making your child’s meals. Don’t feel resentful when they refuse to eat. 
  • Don’t threaten, nag or yell.
  • Don’t use lollies, chocolates, biscuits, milk or desserts as bribes.

Mealtime strategies include:

  • Be a good role model. Eat a wide variety of foods yourself and eat with your child.
  • Ask your child to help prepare a meal. They're more likely to eat a meal they helped make.
  • Offer a range of colourful foods on the plate and allow your child to pick and choose what they'll eat from there.
  • Encourage self-feeding and exploration of food from an early age. Don’t worry about the mess.
  • Offer alternative foods from every food group. For example, if your child dislikes cheese, they may eat yoghurt.
  • At the end of the meal, take your child’s plate away. If they haven’t eaten much, offer them a healthy snack a little later on or wait until next mealtime.

Finally, it suggests you assess your child’s food intake over the week, rather than daily.  I particularly liked that point, because it means I’ll only have a weekly guilt trip and not a daily one. It also didn’t mention the fact that a glass of wine in your hand often calms a mother’s frazzled nerves while negotiating stressful meal times, but I’ll give you that tip for free!

Good luck, fellow chefs.

Have you got any tips to share, or would you like to join Amity as she tears her hair out over her kids' eating habits? Comment in our forums.