My fussy eaters are wearing me down

My children are six and eight and they don’t eat. They look healthy, they grow and, thankfully, they are happy, but yet they do not eat. I did it all right when they were babies – introduced the tastes, whizzed up the spinach and all the rest – but they both started to turn their little noses up at about a year old.

Since then, it has been a diet of “yellow” food (handy for when they have to draw a picture of their dinner at school) such as fish fingers and pasta for one child and chicken goujons and wedges for the other. Any healthy food they consume tends to cost us lots of money because it comes in the form of fancy fruit purees or smoothies made by people who make money out of situations such as ours.

If I can squeeze a teaspoon of homemade tomato (with hidden vegetables) sauce on to their plate every few days, it is a victory. All of this effort is making me tired, and I would like to spend less money on fruit mushed up in a factory and more on shoes, for me.

I become downhearted when I read advice columns about picky eating: pretending broccoli is little trees or making “eyes” from pieces of cucumber doesn’t work for me. Nor does the “they’ll eat when they’re hungry” approach, which translates into “they’ll be irritable and less likely to eat when they’re hungry, and then everybody will get cross” in our house.

New ideas would be most welcome. I am on the point of introducing a tonic laden with vitamins but have doubts about the long-term merits of this.

In recent times parents are more aware than ever of the problems of childhood obesity and of the importance of ensuring children eat healthily. Many good parents such as yourself make great efforts to give their children healthy foods, only for these attempts to be resisted and for children to adopt limited eating habits focused on largely processed foods.

In the wider context of easier and tastier foods being marketed at them and in the context of them witnessing their peers eating the same foods, it can be a hard sell to convince them of the benefits of fresh fruit and vegetables.

Though it requires a great deal of patience, there is still a lot you can do to improve their eating gradually, over time.

Get your children on board
At ages six and eight, perhaps the most important thing to do is to get your children to buy into the goal of healthy eating. Read children’s books about food and healthy eating with them, or look up some fun interactive websites.

It works really well to explore this topic when it is covered in school; for example, during a healthy-eating week or if there is a specific project on the constituents of food.

At this point, sit down with your children and set a goal for healthy family eating. Some specific goals could be to try even just a small piece of a new fruit each week, or to ensure each meal has an item from each food group, including a vegetable.

Tune into each of your children’s preferences
Try to understand each of your children’s preferences and tastes. Some children object to certain textures rather than tastes; some don’t like food with lumps, or food that is too runny, or that is mixed with other things.

Food can be presented in a variety of ways: for example, carrots can be eaten raw and crunchy, diced and cooked, or as part of a juice or a smoothie.

It also helps to do a careful audit of the foods your children already eat. A good activity with children is to do a picture list of all the healthy foods they like already, and then the ones they would like to try at some point in the future.

Some parents are surprised that their children eat a bit better than they think, or are willing to try new things when offered without pressure.

Always start small
Never expect a child to suddenly like a new food or to even try it the first time. Research shows that some children might be introduced to a food more than a dozen times before they will try it and enjoy it.

You might start out with them tolerating a few peas on their plate before they lick one and eventually try one. Set very small goals of children trying a taste of a new food without them eating the whole amount.

Have disciplined eating habits
Having regular mealtimes and cutting out snacks can help a lot. It is good that children come to the table a bit hungry as this is a time when new foods will be more attractive.

Consider offering healthy food as a first course, saying “You can have wedges after you have tried some of your peas,” and so on.

Be careful of overusing emotional pressure to get children to eat. Instead, having healthy food on offer and encouraging good choices is best.

Be creative and try different methods
In helping children try new foods, it is often about trying different methods and being creative in how you present foods and get the children on board with the healthy-eating goal. Whereas presenting broccoli as trees may work with preschoolers, other approaches may work with older children.

For example, you could set the fun goal with your children of eating a food from each colour of the rainbow in the course of a week; search for food-rainbow-activity online.

You could teach your children how to cook or even do a healthy cooking class together. Or you could set up a vegetable patch and plant an array of vegetables to get them curious about each of them.

Be patient
Finally, healthy eating is a long-term project and you often have to be satisfied with small victories. If you get your children to try out one or two new healthy foods, or to include one or two vegetables in their diet, this will be a success.

Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, October 2014. John writes in The Irish Times Health+Family every Tuesday.