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Family

Jo Seagar on taming fussy eaters: 'Parents should not be cooking two or three different meals every night'

Call me old-school, but I worry that by relinquishing decisions about food – such as what to eat, when to eat – to children, we could, in the long term, be damaging them.

By Jo Seagar
Have children today got fussier with their food likes and dislikes or are we just pandering more to their foodie whims?
I can't believe the number of young mums who are preparing two or three different versions of a family dinner to appease fussy eaters. They complain that this one won't touch anything green or that one's decided at four years old he's a vegan.
When did "shut up and eat it" go out of the parenting vocabulary?
I think it's really unreasonable to be cooking alternate meals for different members of the family. I understand that if a child's highly allergic to nuts or is a coeliac they would need modifications to their diet but just to please everybody's likes and dislikes seems a tad overboard to me.
Call me old-school, but I worry that by relinquishing decisions about food – such as what to eat, when to eat and how to eat – to children, we could, in the long term, be damaging them.
I know how difficult it can be. My son Guy would shriek if the peas were even touching the carrots; if left to him, his daily diet would have been a dozen cheese sizzler sausages and strawberry ice-cream. But I was definitely the boss here and I did insist on my children actually eating what was put in front of them.
No one was allowed to say, "Yuk, what's this?" or "I don't like it," until they'd at least tried. If they didn't like it, I would reintroduce the item a few months later, because your tastes develop and change as you grow.
As a child, I hated oysters, blue cheese, olives and avocados but now I would list them way up in my top 10 faves. Funnily enough, kidney, liver and sago I'm still not so crazy about... but everyone is allowed a few personal dislikes.
When it comes to what children like, they need to be encouraged to eat the right foods from a very early stage, and they need to sit up at the table and see their family doing it too. I know for certain that children who help prepare the meal are more adventurous about trying new things. And even better is allowing them to grow and harvest their own vegetables – this is a real hit.
My little grandsons are keen gardeners now and terribly proud of their broccoli and digging up the spuds they've nurtured along. They've just got a simple raised garden plot and the spuds are planted in old tyres, so nothing fancy or expensive. Quick growing radishes have proved particularly successful and they roast them in a splash of oil so they can be eaten like little potatoes – very mild and crunchy but minus all that radish peppery punch.
When my children were growing up I used to make a big bowl of what was affectionately known as "Mum's vege soup" and the deal was a cup had to be eaten by everyone – my husband and I included – every day. That meant I was then more relaxed and less bossy about eating your other vegetables if you were having a bit of an anti-day on them.
The soup had a high content of carrot, kumara and pumpkin, but essentially it was full of all kinds of vegetables – lots of spinach, broccoli, cauliflower, parsnip, mushrooms… Everything was gently boiled up then whizzed to a purée with plenty of salt and pepper and butter.
It was delicious and I made it through their teenage years too. Containers were sent off to university and taken home when they were flatting. Now my daughter makes her own version. It freezes well and remains a part of our family foodie heritage.
When the children were little I gave them their cupful for breakfast, when I knew they were hungry and would eat more than at the chaotic end of day when arguing over eating your greens was the last thing you needed for family harmony.
If all else fails with getting kids to eat family meals, get a big padlock for the pantry. Would that be such a bad idea? Don't let them eat noodles, and say no to biscuits or bowls of cereal when they claim they're starving half an hour after they've refused the meal you've cooked. Tell them the café is closed until seven the next morning.
My last tip on this subject – resort to bribery. This is a vastly underrated parenting tool. I told my children they weren't brave if they turned their noses up at new foodie tastes.
Why would I even consider mountain biking, camping, kayaking or making mudslides when they weren't brave enough to eat a tomato or whitebait fritter? Sneaky, but believe me, it worked every time.

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