Five things I've learnt about feeding kids

Children eating tomato sauce and pasta sneaky veg photo

In a couple of weeks time Mr R, he who invented fussy eating and the inspiration behind this blog in the first place, will turn four and a half. FOUR AND A HALF! How has this time passed so quickly?

This fact has got me thinking about all the things we've been through together, the good and the bad (and indeed, sometimes the ugly) and then it hit me - things are really good right now. Especially when it comes to food. Yes, we still have bad days. Yes, I throw away more food than I'd like to. No, he won't eat any fruit AT ALL. Yes he eats more fish fingers than he probably should. But really, honestly, I can say that he is not a terrible eater.

When we weaned him, over four years ago now, we got off to a good start. He took to food immediately and pretty much ate anything I offered him. Broccoli, smoked mackerel, spinach, chicken, strawberries, cheese - you name it, he ate it. But somehow, and I can't really remember how now, things changed and we reached a horrible stage where he wouldn't touch any fruit or vegetables at all, and even tomato sauce or pesto was deemed unacceptable.

Mealtimes turned into a battleground and were a far cry from the relaxed family occasions that I'd imagined. And so Sneaky Veg was born. Sneaking fruit and veg into food is much less necessary now than it used to be but I still find it helps to encourage both my kids to eat things they might not otherwise try. The main difference now is that I usually tell them what is in their food.

R's little sister, who is almost three, is definitely fussier than him now. As many children do, she loves all fruit, but she avoids most vegetables and is highly suspicious of anything she hasn't seen before. The main difference though is my attitude. We aim for low pressure mealtimes, where I offer up healthy meals, often containing hidden fruit or veg, and leave it up to the children to decide whether to eat it or not. The important thing is that they know they won't get anything else later on.

Here are five things I've learnt about feeding my kids, which I want to share with you in the hope that it makes life a little bit easier in some way.

1. Things get better with age Things R has actually said to me in the last few weeks: "Mummy, this broad bean pasta sauce is really yummy." "I chose mushroom spaghetti at school today." And to his sister: "You should try this, I think you'd really like it." If I'd known that by the age of four we'd be in such a good place with eating, I would have relaxed a lot two years ago.

2. Snacks are your enemy, hunger is your friend (though snacks can be very useful) I learnt a couple of (what seem now) rather obvious lessons from a book called War & Peas. The main one being that it's okay for your child to feel hunger. Obviously I'm not talking about serious hunger or malnutrition here. But really, do you remember having as many snacks as a child as you offer to your own children? I certainly don't. Our local supermarket has a whole aisle dedicated to baby food, at least a third of which is snacks, not to mention the lunchbox fillers section, the crisps and biscuit aisles and so on. It's not surprising that kids don't want to eat their dinner when they know they'll be given Pom Bears, YoYos, raisins or a banana a bit later on. (Don't get me wrong, I still give my kids snacks especially en route to swimming lessons after school - often the most difficult part of our week - or on long public transport journeys. But I have cut them out as much as possible, and in particular on days when we're trying something new for tea.)

3. Peer pressure can help (but not always) When R started pre-school in September 2012 the teachers all looked knowingly at each other when I mentioned him not eating fruit. "Just you wait until he sees all the other children eating it, he'll soon join in". Two years later I had a case of déjà vu when having exactly the same conversation with his Reception teacher at primary school. The only person who's going to convince R to eat fruit is R himself. And that might not happen until he's an adult. And I'm cool with that now. On the other hand he's taken to eating school dinners like a duck to water and Little Miss R loves corn on the cobs because R's friend W loves them and they have fun spiky handles to hold them with at W's house. So having meals with friends who are "good eaters" is worth a try.

4. Eating the same thing as your kids at the same time isn't always possible but does help and is a good idea It's just not realistic for us to have family mealtimes every day. I would really, really love it if it were but it's just not going to happen. Whatever you think about routines and early bedtimes my kids are ready for their bed at 7pm, especially on school nights. Their dad usually gets home from work around this time and so there just isn't time for us to all eat together. We do try and have family dinners on the weekends and I've noticed really good results when we have done so (see above re: broad bean pasta!)

5. Reward charts don't work for under-fours and have limited results even then R has a reward chart for trying new food. It's been on the go for over a month now and in that time he's earned eight stickers. When he gets ten he'll get to go to the toy shop and choose a small, new toy as a reward. He'd already be up to ten if he hadn't lost a couple for hitting his sister (and believe me I'd tried everything else that I could think of on that front - this is the only one that's worked!). He's eaten red peppers, a whole portion of sweetcorn and one mouthful of broccoli amongst other things to earn his stickers - but of course no fruit. Little R also has a reward chart. She is not even remotely motivated by getting a sticker for trying something new. She does have a couple but that's more through luck than anything else. So it's been worth doing for R, in that he has tried some new things, but most of the time when I've served them up again he hasn't been interested - as he only gets a sticker the first time. So I'm not sure whether there are any long terms benefits here - I'll let you know.

So in short, if you're having a difficult time with feeding your toddler or pre-schooler, try to remember that things will improve with time and some fights just aren't worth having. Good luck!