A Dad's View: Picky eaters
TomD

Faced with a pair of picky eaters, Tom Dunmore wonders how to stop mealtimes becoming a battleground

Erik looks at his dinner with disgust. ‘No!’ he snaps, pushing the plate away from him. ‘What’s wrong?’ I ask. ‘It’s cheesy pasta, your favourite.’ Erik narrows his eyes and points at the two branches of broccoli that lie apologetically beside it.

‘You must have something that’s actually good for you,’ I say, before remembering my mother’s advice: kids think food is yummy
or healthy – the two are polar opposites – so always tell them it’s yummy. ‘And it’s delicious. Just try it!’ Erik clamps his mouth shut.

It’s been almost a year since he decided, in the middle of his terrible twos, that he hated broccoli. Which is unbelievably frustrating because until then it was the only green veg that both he and his sister would happily eat.

‘Imagine it’s a tree,’ I say, picking up a floret from my plate. ‘And you’re a dinosaur. Can you eat a tree?’ I do my best approximation
of a brontosaurus snaffling a sapling.

‘Dinosaurs don’t eat trees!’ says Erik, with an uncertain smile.

‘Dinosaurs don’t even exist any more,’ says his big sister. I shoot her a warning look. It works. ‘But giants eat trees,’ she says, and gobbles her own broccoli. Since turning six, Ava’s become my enforcer: eager to please, eminently bribable and – most importantly – still an idol for Erik.

‘I’m a giant!’ says Erik, picking up the broccoli and chomping it.

‘Well done!’ I say, too enthusiastically. ‘Can you eat another one?’ Erik stops chewing and smiles. He knows he’s been cheated. He’s going to make me pay.

For a good three years our kitchen looked like a grisly crime scene, with lurid spatters on the walls and ceiling. Eventually, after three years of chaos, things calmed down. But that’s when the pickiness began.

The sausages are too big, the chips only edible if drowned in ketchup. The soup is too hot (even when it’s cold). The plate is the wrong colour. The fish fingers taste of fish, and now ketchup is the yuckiest thing on earth. The only constants are that plain pasta is always good, vegetables always bad. Our attempt to combine the two – by blending tomatoes, spinach and carrots into a light passata – failed after two sittings.

Meal plans go from optimistic (kids eating healthily) to pragmatic (kids eating hot meals) to desperate (kids subsisting on breadsticks).

All of this plays havoc with my diet too. I can’t stop myself from finishing my children’s leftovers so, after a decade of being meat-free, I’m guzzling chipolatas by the bucketload. What’s more, my children are taste-averse – Ava believes peppercorns are the devil’s work – so when we eat as a family we’re reduced to bland stodge. Consequently, I’ve developed a terrifying addiction to red-hot chilli sauce.

When I bump into a fellow dad at nursery, he tells me not to worry. ‘Sometimes they eat like snakes – one big feed sees them through for a few days. And Erik,’ he says, nodding at my boy as he bounces off the walls, ‘doesn’t look malnourished to me.’

One of the carers laughs. ‘Erik? Have you seen how much he eats?’ I shake my head. ‘Pick him up at 4pm sometime.’

I turn up early the next day, and find him face-deep in a bowl of noodles laced with carrots, peas and peppers. ‘It’s his third helping,’ says the cook, who’s come to watch. ‘Boy, he loves his food!’

Then it dawns on me – it’s not about the food, it’s about control. Now it’s my turn to smile: revenge is a dish best served cold. With broccoli.

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