As I have written about previously, our little vegetarian girl actually eats well. Sylvia loves lots of vegies, legumes, cheese and nuts. After my childhood of hating brussels sprouts I still find it strange that she loves brussels sprouts so much that she will eat them first and often chooses them over other greens. My challenge with her is to share dinner because I am not willing to eat such plain food as she enjoys and I want her to be able to eat with other people.
- Kids struggle to articulate what they like and don't like. One of her friends ate some sour strips at our place and said she didn't like them because they were "too spicy". Sylvia recently decided she didn't like a vegan cheese and described it as '"too vegany".
- Kids all have their comfort zones. A mother told me how well her child ate and then he ran screaming from Sylvia when she sat down to eat a plate of raw carrots. "Oh no," she said as though it was quite normal, "he only eats cooked carrots". I see some many recipes that claim to be child-friendly but the reality often is that any new meal can be a challenge.
- Kids are fickle. One day they will love a meal and the next refuse it. I remember a tomato and alphabet spaghetti stew that on the first day Sylvia would only pick out the pasta to eat and rejected the rest, on the second day she ate two bowls and asked me to make it often, on the third day she refused to eat it as it wasn't warm enough.
- Kids need to try foods many times to get used to it. Sylvia and I have discussed this a lot. Sometimes when she will not eat certain foods I say she will need to taste it another 19 times to like it. When she doesn't like a meal I often ask her to eat 3 or 5 mouthfuls. Sometimes she will end up eating a lot more. Not always!
- Kids seem to divide into those who want everything mixed up and those who want their foods totally separate and not touching. Sylvia is in the latter camp. It means very few opportunities to hide food in soups and stews. Yet it also means that when she likes a vegetable she really knows what she is eating.
When talking about children's eating, I often refer to the bell curve. When they start on solids, food is so odd to babies that it takes a while for them to taste and embrace different foods. Within a year or two they are eating lots of foods and then they start to refuse foods that they previously loved. Suddenly by the time they are 4 or 5 years old they are eating a far more limited diet than when they were curious toddlers.
Sylvia's food journey might be explained through her relationship with pumpkin. Pumpkin was one of the first foods I gave her and she loved it. She ate lots of pureed pumpkin as a baby. She ate pumpkin scones and pumpkin cake. Then she decided she didn't like pumpkin. It didn't make sense as pumpkin is so sweet and she loves sweet food. I have talked to her about how much she loved it as a baby. Recently I put some in her with roast vegies and she tasted some by mistake. She told me that she might actually try pumpkin if I could add it into some meals where she can't taste it very much. That is fantastic progress even though I am yet to find the opportunity except in pumpkin sauce.
One reason for increasing her meals Sylvia will eat or try - other than because it is tiring to make her a separate meal from ours - is to make it easier when she visits other people or goes out to cafes. So for example I recently made her garlic bread with lots of melted butter but no garlic to get her used to the idea because garlic bread is sometimes shared in a restaurant. Mostly she eats out on cheese and tomato pizza, zaatar pizza, sushi, and chips and I hope she might try pasta with tomato sauce some time. I probably need to work on chopped herbs on dinner which she hates but is something that chefs love to do, even on kids meals.
Over the past year I have made a big effort to push Sylvia to try some of the foods we have been eating. It means I have tried to use very little spice and eat the same meals over and over. However I do love to try different meals and so Sylvia does try quite a range of dishes. It hasn't been easy. We have had nights where she has told me what a terrible mother I am or just howled in frustration.
Here are some of the strategies that have helped her try new dishes:
- Trying new food is easier when dinner is early, and neither I nor Sylvia are too tired. If we don't have the energy it is better to just open a tin of baked beans.
- She is given a small bowl with a few spoonfuls of a stew and asked to eat it before she has her usual plate of vegies. Or sometimes I have given her some pasta with a bit of sauce and kept her some plain pasta to eat once she had eaten some with sauce.
- Talking about how she needs to taste things a few times to like them has helped, as has my emphasis on tasting the food rather than her needing to eat everything. Hence some days, I give her a number of mouthfuls to eat which seems to help her. It doesn't mean she has to stick to it if she really hates or loves something but it is something we can negotiate and make it seem manageable for her.
- It interests me that she understands that sometimes when she sees food she doesn't like it but when it is in her mouth she is fine. Some days I have fed her so that she can close her eyes while she eats.
- I gave Sylvia some soup that other night with lots of rice, chickpeas and other vegies. She hated it. But she loves rice. So next time I gave her rice I mixed enough soup through to season the rice but not overwhelm it. Sylvia happily ate that. I hope it will get her used to the flavours for next time.
- She loves some vegies more than others. Some days when I give her a stew she will decide on vegies she will not eat and picks them out. I am ok with this if she also chooses some vegies that she will eat. I try and include her favourite vegies in these dishes.
- There is no dessert if she doesn't eat her main meal. I know this is an old strategy that has its critics but I still insist that if she is not hungry enough to eat her main meal there is no dessert.
- Celebrating the progress. This week I served her Mee Goreng that she loved as a one year old. She ate the noodles and tofu but hardly ate her vegies. I was pleased however that she enjoyed the flavours and that she just pushed the leek off the noodles rather than shrieking about it. A year ago it would have been more of a struggle for her to eat any of it.
Here are some of the meals Sylvia eats (other than a plate of vegies):
- Sausage rolls
- Pizza with tomato sauce and cheese
- Fried rice
- Tofu nuggets
- Glazed tofu
- Plain sushi (nori and sushi rice)
- Tinned baked beans with toast
- Vegetarian sausages (from the supermarket)
- Hummus with sourdough flatbreads and vegies
- Cheese, potato and onion pasties - these were very popular
- Chickpea pilaf - loves this and seems ok with a little curry powder here
- Corn fritters - I left out some of the spices
- Lentil and tomato soup (a bit like this) with tofu bacon
- Mee goreng (she had it as a child but have had to reintroduce it)
- Ombre potato and cheese torte - ate a little
- Red lentil koftas - she surprised me when she ate these up with no protest at all
- Smoky cheesey peas pasta - loves this as long as not too many vegies
- Spaghetti with vegetarian meatballs and tomato sauce - ate it kicking and screaming
- Tofu besan omelette - she will taste but is not so keen on it
- Teriyaki tofu - loves it
- Vegetarian bolognaise on pasta - has been ok about this as long as there are not too many vegies
- Voracious vegan pate
I have made some good progress. Sylvia has gone from only eating plain pasta with grated cheese to now eating pasta with some tomato sauce or creamy cheese sauce. She is more open to trying new recipes. Sometimes I get too confident and put too many vegetables in a dish. Sylvia never hesitates to let me know! Or she will eat red lentil koftas with delight one week and the next tell me she hates lentils.
I have hope that I wont be making her a separate meal forever. She is doing well. You are welcome to admire her progress because it is such hard work at times. However it is also a joy to see her gradually eating more complex and interesting meals and to know that I can take some credit for this.
Over to you
What works for you (and those around you) with children? Do you have tried and true vegetarian kids meals? Do you have strategies for encouraging them to try new food?