Make mealtimes fun

Tips, recipes, and activities to change fussy eating a day at a time

Imagine you invited a friend around for dinner, whipped up a delicious bowl of homemade pasta sauce and they yelled “yuk” and threw it on the wall. That friend wouldn’t be welcome for dinner again anytime soon. But my fussy dining companion (aka my daughter) is here seven nights a week with her weird requests. I’ve given up on homemade sauces and she eats sausages, pasta with tomato ketchup and fish fingers on rotation.

That’s why I leapt at the chance to chat to Emily Leary. Creator of the award-winning blog A Mummy Too, Emily has documented her journey transforming her own fussy eaters. And now she’s published Get Your Kids To Eat Everything, a 5-step plan packed with recipes, tips and activities to make mealtimes fun.

Emily shared her tips with 5 Minute Fun in 5 easy and practical ideas. Scroll down for advice on how to troubleshoot specific fussy eater problems, too.

1. Put the unfamiliar into the familiar
2. Educate
3. Discover the fun in food
4. Step into the unknown
5. Cement variety

 

1) Put the Unfamiliar into the Familiar: add a little bit of variety to well-loved meals.

Emily says, “The overall concept behind the book is that children are reluctant to try new things. You can start to introduce new flavours gently, such as adding spice into the crumb of a homemade fish finger.

Children have a fear of the new – if you give them something they know with a little bit of change, you can build trust and go on from there.”

Try Emily’s recipe for Curried fish fingers with sweet potato chips. Get your kids involved in helping to prep the food, too.

Curried Fish Fingers with sweet potato chips

This recipe is great when you start to introduce your family to more exciting foods because it looks familiar, but has great new flavours to explore. Sweet potato fries are a great colour and naturally sweet, so will win over younger palates with ease.

SERVES 4

PREP TIME: 30 MINS • COOK TIME: 25 MINS

For the chips

500g (1lb 2oz) sweet potatoes
1 tablespoon cornflour
1 teaspoon garlic granules
1 teaspoon paprika
1 tablespoon olive oil
pinch of pepper

For the fish fingers

240g (8½oz) skinless cod fillets
50g (1¾oz) plain flour
1 medium free-range egg, lightly beaten
50g (1¾oz) dried breadcrumbs
pinch of pepper
½ tablespoon garlic granules
½ tablespoon ground cumin
2 teaspoons ground turmeric
½ tablespoon ground coriander
oil spray

Instructions:

1. Preheat the oven to 200C (400F), 180C fan, Gas Mark 6.

2. Peel the sweet potatoes and cut into chips about 1cm (½in) thick. Put them in a bowl and mix in the cornflour with your hands. Add the garlic granules, paprika and olive oil, and mix again, then tip onto a non-stick baking tray in a single layer and sprinkle with pepper.

3. Bake for 10 minutes, then turn and bake for a further 10–15 minutes until crispy on the outside and soft in the middle.

4. Meanwhile, slice the cod into 2cm- (¾in-) thick fingers.

5. Set up 3 bowls: the first containing the flour, the second the egg and the third the breadcrumbs. In a small dish, mix the pepper, garlic granules and spices together, then stir half into the flour and half into the breadcrumbs.

6. Dip a fish piece into the flour to lightly cover. Shake off the excess, then dip into the egg to coat, then into the breadcrumbs to cover. Repeat with every piece of fish, placing on an oiled baking tray as you go. Spritz all over with oil spray.

7. Bake for 12–14 minutes until just golden (break one open to check the fish is cooked through). Serve with the chips.

TIPS:

  • If your family are keen on spice, try upping the cumin level and adding a little chilli powder for a more pronounced kick.
  • Once you’ve got the hang of the crumbing method, you can flavour the crumbs to your liking. How about a lemon and herb crumb for breaded chicken goujons?

2) Educate: help children understand where their food comes from.

Emily says, “Kids are so suspicious when they find a bit of leaf in their food. But if they plant the herb, nurture it and look after it then they know what they’re eating.

If you empower children with a little more understanding about their food, you’re not just saying you have to eat it, and that’s that.”

Try this! Adopt a herb

What you’ll need: a supermarket herb plant (parsley, mint, thyme, basil, chives, rosemary or another – see what your child can spot! Look for full, perky and healthy plants.) Plus, paper and pens.

What to do:

1. Let your child make a label for their plant.
2. Now tell them the plant is theirs. Help them find out more about it in books or on the Internet. How often does it need watering, does it like to sit in the sunshine, and what does it taste good with?
3. Encourage your child to water their plant, keep a check on it, and collect leaves for recipes when required.
4. Include the herb in a meal that your child can help to prepare.

3) Discover the fun in food: brighten up your meals and decorate your plate.

Emily says, “When you’ve got children to this phase and the whole family is invested, it’s a really good point to have fun.

Kids are more interested in things that are fun and strange. It’s a sneaky way of opening them up to new foods. Kids are really open to try just about anything with food – if you think about it. They eat cheese and onion crisps and chocolate. Ew! They’re more creative than we could ever be.

It’s also good to create lots of opportunities to build family time together.”

Try Emily’s recipe for Pancake Plate Art with the whole family this weekend.

Pancake Plate art: get creative!

SERVES 4

PREP TIME: 15 MINS • COOK TIME: 15 MINS

We’re going to start Phase 3 with creative breakfast plates that are as arty as they are tasty. In this recipe, you’ll learn to make a floral scene and an underwater scene, but why stop there? There’s some fiddly cutting, so you might want to pre-cut some of the elements for your children, or give them safe scissors to work with.

For the crêpes

150g (5½oz) plain flour
50g (1¾oz) icing sugar
4 medium free-range eggs
270ml (9½fl oz) whole milk
2 teaspoons slightly salted butter

For the toppings

2 green apples
slice of watermelon, cut into thin batons
2–3 mandarins
20 red grapes
a few pomegranate seeds

Instructions:

1. Sift the flour and icing sugar into a bowl and make a well in the centre. Add the eggs and milk to the well and whisk, gradually drawing in the dry ingredients from the sides to make a batter. Leave to rest for 5 minutes.

2. Melt a little of the butter in a large frying pan over medium-high heat. Pour a small ladleful of batter into the pan, just enough to cover the base. Fry for about 1 minute, then loosen the edges with a spatula, flip and fry for another 30 seconds or so until golden brown and speckled on both sides. Repeat for the remaining crepes.

3. To make the underwater scene, slice one-third off the side of an apple and place it, skin side up, in the centre of your pancake. Arrange 2 long melon batons to form the stalks of the eyes and 2 shorter batons to form the ‘arms’. Place 4 mandarin segments to form the pincers. Slice 2 grapes into quarters lengthways and arrange them to form the legs. For the eyes, slice a grape thinly and place a disc at the end of each eye stalk. Place 2 pomegranate seeds in the centre of the eyes to complete the scene.

4. To make the floral scene, slice the edge of the remaining apple thinly to create 4–5 flower stalks and arrange on the pancake. Slice 2–3 grapes into quarters lengthways and arrange in pairs to form the petals of the flowers. If you’d also like to add a bee buzzing around the flowers, place a mandarin segment at the top of the scene to form the body of a bee. Use thin strips of grape to form the stripes, eye and sting. Cut and shape small pieces of apple to form the wings.

TIP

  • Explore the supermarket and encourage your children to look for bright colours and unusual patterns to add to their scenes. This is about creating a positive, enthusiastic relationship with as wide a variety of foods as possible.

4) Step into the unknown: surprise yourself

Emily says, “It was really important to me not to just introduce new recipes and challenges, I wanted to push it to the limit. I wanted everyone to experiment together and for even parents to be surprised.

I recommend doing a family fridge raid at this stage. You try different foods together. We got to the point where we were daring each other. The kids loved it, trying to find the funniest things to make us try.

My recipe for strawberries and cream pasta came out of this experiment. It’s a new family favourite.”

Try this! Fridge raid

You’ll need: your fridge and everything inside it

What to do:

1. Choose two foods to try together. It might be a spinach leaf dipped in double cream, a boiled egg with fruit yoghurt or peanut butter and gherkins.
2. Either try your weird combo or dare someone else to!
3. Ask your child to write (or draw!) what they thought of the flavours together.
4. If you really liked something, remember it and introduce it into a meal soon.

5) Cement variety: experiment with your own meal ideas

“The aim is to continue to experiment with food. I provide the main recipe and lots of ways to riff on that. So, people can continue to be creative for a really long time.

There’s a mystique around creating recipes. I wanted to say: this is how I do it, you can do it too and it’s great fun.

The ultimate idea is you can look at the ingredients in the fridge and think I’ll make this, that or whatever and your kids and partner will be totally up for it. I know most people would be very happy with that.”

Try this!

Experiment with your own recipe ideas. Start by creating a family salad – it must be a salad that you’ve never eaten before. Let everyone choose what to put in it. Include:

Two-parts fruit and vegetables (as many varieties as you like).

Two-parts bread, rice, potatoes and/or pasta

One-part meat, fish, egg or beans.

One-part dairy (any kind of cheese)

A sprinkling of high-fat or sugary foods (e.g. nuts, dried fruits, fried croutons)

Try to include a mix of textures (soft, crunchy), flavours (sweet, salty, umami) and include aromatics (herbs and spices).

Troubleshooting

Emily explains the best way to tackle your fussy eating problems

  • My son loves chips so I gave him sweet potato fries. He did try one but spat it out. I worry he won’t eat enough if I give him new things so I stick to what we know.

It’s perfectly normal for your son to expect the flavour and texture of a chip and to spit it out if it’s not what he was expecting. He tried it, which is great. So give him lots of praise for trying new things. Say, “That’s brilliant, we’ll try it again some time.”

I can understand the worry of kids getting enough nutrition but try not to make the process stressful. Your son might just need to try a new food a few times. Or try serving it in different ways – he might prefer it well done or with more seasoning. You might try sweet potato fries again but with a different meal, so it becomes part of a different experience. If he’s interested, get him to help scrubbing the potatoes, too.

  •  My daughter won’t eat food that has different textures, e.g. stews, mashed potato, pasta and sauce. She just spits it out.

Don’t worry. It’s natural to spit something out of your mouth if it’s not the texture you’re expecting. Even at 36, if there’s something hard in a sandwich I’m not expecting, I’ll want to get rid of it right away. Keep trying, but slowly, starting with things she’s already familiar with. Introduce texture gently. For example, make a really, really smooth mash. Involve her in making it. Get her to play with the mash with her hands and help you mash it, so she knows why it is the way it is. Do it softy, softly with tiny tastes, little by little over time.

  •  We never eat as a family. My husband works late so I make my kids something they like (pizza, chicken nuggets!) and then cook convenience food for us (curry kits for example) when he gets home. How can I make more family meals?

It’s really difficult to say sit down together if you can’t. But you can tackle why you’re putting out lots of different meals. Your children and you become used to different meals, so it takes a bit of work. Curry sounds great. Why not try adding a little spice to your children’s food over time (see the curried fish finger recipe above). Or make something curried for you and put a bit on their plate or in a bowl on the side. Introduce the flavours slowly. It’s not the literal process of cooking the same meal for everyone that you have to solve, it’s the psychological relationship people have with the food they eat.

  •  My daughter was allergic to eggs. She grew out of her allergy but she refuses to try them now. I think they’re really good for you. How can I introduce them to her diet?

Where you have allergies there’s an obvious a mistrust of the food. My son was allergic to dairy and it was a really strong smell and texture that he’d been protected from. He wasn’t keen. If your child really doesn’t like something that’s OK – we’ll allow them not to like certain foods.

But it might take playing with that food a little bit. Make an egg mayo, and give her the job of peeling and mashing the eggs. She doesn’t have to eat them. But when you do, make a show of how good they are, “Mmm, these are the best eggs I’ve ever tasted. You’re really missing out!”

  • My children only want to eat snacks, what can I do?

This tends to be the children who don’t want to sit down. It’s very common with toddlers. And why would they want to sit down at the table? They want to get back to playing. You could make fun food that in itself is entertaining. Something like fajitas, where you come to the table and build it together. They’re sprinkling cheese, rolling the tortilla. It helps to engage them a bit more.

 Get Your Kids to Eat Anything by Emily Leary is published by Mitchell Beazley, £16.99 and is available to buy online and in all good bookshops.  

Image credit: Tom Regester

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