I once read a blog aimed at tired parents who were looking for recipes their fussy toddlers would eat. According to this blog, if you smother anything in cheese, the child will then devour it. Not having this recourse to hand – what then?
I have worked out, that in the short day in the life of a toddler, a hefty 40 per cent of their time will be spent at the table, with food. You can add on another 10 per cent to the time they spend around food, if you want to factor in the time a parent might spend in meal preparation, planning, shopping and possibly even clearing up the resulting mess.
Notice the wording. A toddler (or a baby from seven months upwards) will spend this amount of time at the table around food… I do not say, a toddler will spend this amount of time eating. Oh no.
When we moved into this house a few weeks ago, I was adamant that before we brought the children along and introduced them to their new dwelling, we would have their bedrooms in some sort of coherent order, and the kitchen would be nice. And I meant nice, not functional. I needed it to be more than just assembled in a way that I could find everything but still stuffed with boxes and rubbish. I knew that I would be spending most of the next few months in this room and that it would therefore have to be nice – pictures on the walls, blinds up and so on. And it is no coincidence that in my kitchen I have the popular ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ poster firmly in place in the centre of a wall, its bright red matching the two bright red high chairs which are sat in, sponged down and replaced in their corners thrice daily.
And it is certainly the case that we spend a lot of time in there together, and of that huge chunk of her toddler day, Jess spends very little of that time actually eating. I have known her be in her high chair at one ‘meal time’ for well over an hour and to be actually conscientiously putting spoon to lip with the intention of (and actually) imbibing the food for about 10 minutes of this, in total.
Many mealtimes in my house I feel like I have turned into a character from Alice in Wonderland and have been invited to the Hatter’s tea party along with the March Hare where my dear daughter is the Hatter. Time slows to molasses and I repeat myself over and over in order to make the slightest headway. And I cannot use cheese, as other parents might, but I do rely on the following tactics.
Most of the conversation below has been translated from German for the benefit of English readers but some ‘Germanglish’ Toddler Speak has been left as it was spoken.
A gentle start:
“Wish Florian a good meal, Jess,” I suggest, at the beginning of a basic meal of fried smoked tofu, homemade potato wedges, and broccoli. Sometimes I will offer a more exciting fare but who has time for that three times a day?
“Nein,” she responds. It’s a good start.
“Oh that’s not nice for Florian. Say guten apetit, Jess,” I add.
“Guten apetit Jess,” says Jess, willingly enough.
Meanwhile, my dear son, who I will refer to as the Cheshire Cat (I don’t know for certain that Caroll’s Cheshire Cat was a big eater, but I have always imagined him as being one, so humour me here), is having trouble controlling his enthusiasm that dinner time is actually here. He is waving his arms around as if he were trying to fly and saying ‘Pft Pft’ over and over again. It’s his frustration sound and it means I am taking too long to get down to the business of serving his food.
In this mealtime aspect, motherhood has turned me into an octopus, trying to get everyone fed with the Hatter refusing and needing every mouthful to be supported and talked about whilst making enigmatic comments about time, temperature, the weather, and my clothes. Meanwhile, Cheshire wishing to eat all the meal in one go, to hell with the consequences (although he still refuses vegetables). During this, I must somehow still manage to catch the food that he drops religiously and on purpose from his highchair, despite my admonitions to the contrary.
Then we move on to discovering what is on her plate.
‘Look, there is some lovely smoked tofu that you loved when you were a baby. And wedges.’
These seem benign enough and are greeted with cooing noises.
So, I conclude, bravely, ‘And some broccoli.’
In our house, there never was a sentence more likely to be the advent of spontaneous shrieks and wails than this. And there they are. Jess is now sobbing and wailing. ‘Will ich nicht! Will ich nicht!’ It is good to remember at this point that nobody has yet mentioned eating anything. We are merely making introductions of what is on our plates.
Bribery is as essential an ingredient to our mealtimes as the food itself. In fact, I am upfront about it. From the start this evening, Jess will have her strawberries with maple syrup and soy yoghurt only IF she eats some broccoli. So bribery abounds, but there are ways to be sly about it.
“Don’t Florian’s strawberries look nice, Jess?”
“And look, he has lovely maple syrup too!”
(I have managed to hide broccoli in Cheshire’s tofu and wedges so that he has eaten some, not entirely without complaint, and so, as he has eaten his broccoli, he may have strawberries. I am aware that this will not always be available as a bargaining tool.)
“I want strawberries!” (Clearly falling for my plan…)
“Only if you eat some of your broccoli.”
“But I am so tired.”
“Broccoli and strawberries will help you sleep well!” I say brightly, clutching at straws.
“Um, five, six, seven, Mamma.” Jess adds at this point, with emphasis.
Timeframes help and are necessary in my house where the Cheshire has eaten all his food, plus his back up food before the Hatter has managed to negotiate beginning her main course. This means that he is cranky and wanting bed and she is still eating.
“Right Jess,’ I say, feigning an air of authority but speaking gently, “we have five more minutes and then we must go and have a bath and go to bed. Flori has already finished his food so we need to hurry up.”
“Don’t shout Mamma.”
I am absolutely sure that I am not shouting at this point.
“I am not shouting but you need to finish your tofu, try some broccoli and then you can have some strawberries.”
“Mamma I am fork and spoon and first I must sleep!” says Jess exasperatedly in response to this, holding up a knife.
I am a little confused at this point.
This can continue a while.
The whole chapter of our tea party reaches its climax when Hatter realises that I am serious about the broccoli, and with many tears, it is consumed. By this time, I am exhausted and in need of a time out, but I know that two tired children need a bath and bed. Do I feel bad that my dealings with my children are tinged with bribery? Not as bad as I would feel if my daughter never ate any vegetables or went to bed hungry.
For now, I can live with it.
Hidden vegetable pasta
This is great for picky kids, as the veggies are so well hidden in the sauce. Chopping them finely (or grating them) means toddlers just enjoy the dish as a whole instead of picking bits out. This recipe serves 4 kids.
- 115g child-friendly pasta shapes (penne, fusilli, or farfalle work well)
- Splash of olive oil
- ½ small onion, chopped
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- ½ courgette, grated
- ½ green pepper, minced
- Small handful finely diced mushrooms
- 85g (3/4 cup) cooked Puy lentils
- 200g (1 cup) tinned chopped tomatoes
- Good squirt tomato puree
- Sprinkle of nutritional yeast (optional)
- Heat olive oil in a large frying pan. Add the onion, garlic, and other veggies. Gently saute for up to 10 minutes. Gently mash the cooked Puy lentils, and add to pan. Stir well.
- Add the chopped tomatoes and tomato puree, stir and leave to cook for 10-15 minutes.
- In the meantime, cook pasta according to pack instructions. When ready, drain, and stir into the sauce, coating well.
- Lightly mash the pasta and sauce together (if necessary) then top with a sprinkle of nutritional yeast (optional), allow to cool, and serve.