I was a terrible eater as a child. My favourite dish was plain pasta with grated cheese on top. I would also have meat, potatoes and veg, provided there was no sauce involved and none of the foods were touching each other. Everything needed to be just so: my porridge quite runny, my slices of cheese neatly tiled on my bread, orange not apple juice, not too much milk with my cereal, and definitely nothing spicy or new.
My Mum was at a loss. She would attempt to get me to try new things by using Jedi mind tricks on me: “You will like this.” Unfortunately, I was of strong, sound mind and eager to prove my mother wrong. She tried shaming me – “I can’t take you anywhere” – but I was impervious. I went everywhere anyway and just asked the waiter to bring me a plate of chips while my mother cringed in a corner.
My father tried playful encouragement. My limited diet made it tricky if I went to stay with a friend or relative, so he made the “Big Fat Yummy Book” for me. It was a homemade notebook with an optimistic number of pages on which I could write all the food I did like. I could show this to my host to help plan the menu – and I think my Dad hoped I would try new things because I would want to fill up the book. This also sadly failed to do much good.
I am loathe to admit it, but this is how I ate until I was nineteen years old. What happened then? I moved out of home and had to cook for myself. Cooking plain pasta and grating some cheese on top got old fast, so I learned to cook and eat more interesting things to avoid dying of boredom and/or starvation.
Having gone from being a very picky eater to someone who enjoys food – cooking it, eating it, experimenting with it – I am determined that my children will not spend the first eighteen years of their lives going on sleepovers with a hopefully named Big Fat Yummy Book under their arm.
When it was time to start our son on solid food, my husband and I decided to try something called Baby-Led Weaning, which basically does away with purees and jars and encourages babies to eat with the family from the start. The thought is that babies are designed to feed themselves: the maturation of their digestive system, ready for solid food, coincides with them learning to sit up, grab things and bring them to their mouths. They naturally want to try to chew and eat everything they see. So you provide them with easy to grab titbits from your plate and let them get on with it. It takes a month or two for them to start actually swallowing some food and realising that it is not just a plaything but that it fills you up and stops the hunger-feeling. Then they are away and you can start dropping milk feeds.
Part of the idea behind baby-led weaning is that you provide them with a wide range of different types of food but let them decide what they want to try. You don’t put any pressure on them, there is no “here comes the aeroplane” or “just one more bite, darling”, they munch what they want to munch. And because it is like playtime for them, they really do want to try everything.
My son took to baby-led weaning like a duck to water. By eight months, another mum at a toddler group was gaping at him as he munched on a piece of toast and said: “I have worked in nurseries for ten years, but this is the best eating I have ever seen a baby do”. He devoured everything: he was eating hummus and tzatziki, mango, trout, avocado, chickpeas – you name it. I was really hopeful that he would avoid being a picky eater altogether.
But no. It appears picky eating and what they call ‘neo-phobia’ is just a natural stage of toddler development, and now my son likes eating plain pasta with grated cheese on top. It is seriously his favourite dish. Oh, and he loves pancakes.
I keep offering him other types of food and I am told that he will return to them. He has already discovered that actually, meat balls are quite nice and chicken is good too. Also, if he refuses to eat dinner we don’t offer alternatives, just an extra beaker of milk. Hopefully in time, he will broaden his repertoire again.
I’m sure that was what my parents kept telling themselves as well.
So, what will we do with the Baby? We will definitely be doing baby-led weaning again – to me it seems more natural, easier and it really helps foster independence. But I won’t hold out hopes that it will avoid picky eating. That is just a phase we will need to weather.
For more information on Baby-Led Weaning, I can recommend this book. As with all parenting books, do read it with a pinch of salt. Spoons are not as evil as the book makes them out to be.