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  • Writer's pictureAnika

Beyond Chicken Nuggets and Pasta: Tips, Tricks and Tasty treats for picky eaters

I don't know about you, but sometimes cooking (and eating!) in our house becomes a bit of a struggle. My youngest is a truly picky eater and would eat plain pasta with cheese for dinner every day, if he was allowed to. This means that I either often have pasta as a 'stand by' meal for him, in case he (predictably) turns down what the actual meal is, or we end up having lots and lots of variations of pasta meals to the extent that even his siblings will say: "Not pasta again!"

I think his resistance to trying new flavours and textures is to do with the fact that I made far less homemade purees for him as a baby and he is just not as used to all the different flavours and textures of a well balanced diet as the other two were at his age (especially my oldest tends to be quite adventurous). So, over the past few years, we've done some experimenting to encourage him to give more new things a try - with varying degrees of success.

This blog covers my top tips and lessons learnt, plus my favourite 5 recipes that work a treat at the moment.

The main thing I have learnt is that too many new textures or flavours at once, especially when they are mixed together, overwhelm him:

Therefore I often will have a 'modular' plate for him. With items of food that I know he'll eat (sometimes pasta, cucumber, salami, humous etc) along with new flavours or textures - like a sauce he hasn't tried before, or a new vegetable. By having them in separate compartments, my son is able to pick and mix and try at his own pace.

We also have a 'rule' where we all have to at least try something - if we don't like it, that is fine, but you have to try during that meal. I will serve the same new item regularly and ask them to try again each time, as I know that it can often take children a while to get used to a new flavour or texture. This was the case for carrots for my youngest. For ages he didn't like them until finally he decided he did - although only cooked and with some butter on them, not raw as veggie sticks...! Which leads me to my next point, of experimenting with how you prepare the food as well - if they don't like a certain veggie steamed, try stir frying or boiling it instead.

Another thing that I know is a standard piece of advice parents are given - and something I remember from my own childhood - is to make food more fun, by serving things in shapes or looking like smiley faces or animals. I recently tried alphabet potato cakes and to my astonishment he ate the lot, because they were arranged as his name. Normally he won't go anywhere near potatoes, unless they are skinny fries (even chunky chips are not eaten).

When I have the time, I try to cook with my children to get them to explore and understand the different stages of preparation and flavours as they come together to form a dish. Often they are too busy playing and are not interested, in which case I try and have foods that they have to add to at the table - so for example we might make pizzas and everyone can add the toppings they like, or pancakes for breakfast and the children experiment with different flavours from lemon and sugar to savoury things. Another good one are fajitas - often the children will have just chicken and cheese on theirs, whereas my husband and I will add guacamole, salsa and spicy toppings - making it a great family meal for us, as everyone gets to eat it 'their way'.

Finally, I am really keen not to make mealtimes too much of a battle. I think a lot of the struggles we have are linked to my children asserting their own preferences and choices, which I want to support within reason. It is important for me, that my youngest (and the other two as well of course) doesn't start to associate negative experiences with trying new foods, while at the same time encouraging him to continue to explore all the wonderful flavours this world has to offer. (I know, I know, sometimes easier said than done!)

The following 5 recipes are my favourite 'go to' solutions.

Daddy's Spaghetti Bolognese (serves 5)

  • 500g of beef mince

  • 1 large jar of Lloyd Grossman Bolognese sauce (or whatever your kids like)

  • 1 small jar of passata

  • Garlic bread to serve

  • grated Parmesan cheese to serve

  • you can also finely chop carrots or tomatoes to 'hide' in the sauce if you wish (but make sure they are really small!)

Gently fry the mince in a pan and fork it (with a fork or potato masher) to make it really tender and small - this is the key to Spaghetti Bolognese that is eaten in our home! Add the sauce of your choice (we love Lloyd Grossman) and a jar or passata. Let it bubble for twenty minutes until the oils rise to the top. Boil your spaghetti and serve with garlic bread and grated parmesan cheese.

Quesadillas (serves 5)

  • 10 plain soft tortillas

  • grated cheese

  • additional toppings of your choice - ham, salami, tomatoes

  • oil for frying

  • Guacamole, Sour Cream or Ketchup to serve

  • Cucumber sticks/ Carrot sticks/ Salad on the side (for some veggies)

Place one tortilla into a large frying pan with a little oil and scatter the topping on top. Then add a second tortilla on top and carefully press together (don't burn yourself! I tend to use another pan) until the bottom tortilla starts to crips up and the filling melts, then turn over and fry for a couple more minutes until the other tortilla crisps up and they both stick together. Move to a serving plate and cut into small triangles for the kids to eat. My oldest likes to eat this with Guacamole or Sour cream, the younger ones prefer Tomato Ketchup.

Pancakes (serves 5)

This one is more of a breakfast thing, but my three absolutely love them! And so do my husband and I.

  • 225g of plain flour

  • a pinch of salt

  • 2 eggs

  • 300ml of water and 300ml of milk mixed together

  • oil for frying

Mix all the ingredients together with a whisk until it gives a smooth batter. Spoon a ladle into a hot pan to fry, flip once set and fry until cooked on both sides. Serve with a topping of your choice. My children love lemon and sugar, or nutella. :-)

Sausages and co. pick and mix

This one is more of a European platter of foods that I know my children will eat - at least some of the items that I put on the plate. And then the idea is that they pick at least one food that they either haven't tried before or don't particularly like and eat that as well. The more often I do this, the more they get used to the different flavours and textures which then helps to introduce these food items into a 'normal' meal as well. Ideas for what to add to the plate could be the following. But I'd always make sure there are enough things that they like already for them to pick from.

  • Sausages

  • Crudite - Carrots, Cucumber,Peppers

  • Hummous

  • Pasta or new potatoes

  • Strawberries, blueberries or grapes in the 'desert' section

Grampa's creamy sauce (serves 3)

My Dad makes this for the kids when we visit and they absolutely love it. Rupert, who is the picky one, will sometimes need some persuasion to try the sauce, but when he does, he enjoys it just as much.

  • 1-2 chicken breasts cut up finely (or you can use vegetarian chicken pieces)

  • salt and pepper to taste

  • 100ml stock

  • 100ml creme fraiche or cream

  • rice, pasta or mashed potato to serve

  • Veg of your choice to serve

Fry the chicken pieces in butter and season them well. Add 100ml of stock and let the chicken bubble in the mix for 2-3 minutes so all the flavours combine. Add the creme fraiche or cream and taste again. Serve with the pasta/ rice or mashed potato and veg of your choice.

I am sure every family has their 'go to' recipes which work and I love talking to other mums and dads to swap notes and try the meals that work in their families to see if my children like them too. That way, I slowly build the list of all the things that my children will eat!

For more ideas, especially in terms of snacks, take a look at our free online mini booklet here.

If you want regular inspiration on all things kids, including food, parenting, activities and quality time for yourself and your partner, come join our free FB group or our Membership of likeminded parents.

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