This article is also being featured over at Mamamia.
One of my kids is a fussy eater. Meal times at my house are emotionally-charged events with striking similarities to the narrative arc of Ancient Greek tragedies, with melodrama, conflict, miscommunication and unhappy endings all round.
Dealing with fussy eaters requires an entirely different skill-set to parenting kids who will eat mostly anything you put in front of them (I have one of those too, so don’t even start with the “Make them go hungry” bullshit). The entire process is fraught with difficulty and meal times can be broken down into seven distinct stages:
Stage One: Preparation
Parents of fussy eaters spend lots of time trying to manipulate foodstuffs into appealing forms that might encourage their kids to eat something healthy.
Let’s debunk some common strategies:
Stick things on a skewer: The most stubborn fussy eaters are quick to realise that it’s just the same old food they already hate on a pointy bamboo stick.
Make a bento box: Fussy eaters will sneer at your clumsy attempts to create lunchbox art with the same disdain that art critics reserve for Ken Done prints.
Write things with food: Go ahead and carve their name into carrots or spell out Shakespearean sonnets with string beans, but it’s still going to make them gag.
Hide the vegetables: You could puree spinach in the Hadron Collider of food processors and truly fussy eaters will still detect the tiniest specks of green.
Fussy eating exists on a spectrum and extremely stubborn kids aren’t fooled by cheesy gimmicks. If an atom-smasher capable of destroying the entire planet can’t get broccoli into your child, nothing can.
Stage Two: Optimism and Emotional Manipulation
Insanity is often described as doing the same thing over and over again while expecting a different result. Parents of fussy eaters excel at this. We know these strategies don’t work but we persist with them anyway, driven by the hope that Little Bobby will one day discover he really does love brussel sprouts that have been carved into baby sheep.
Despite repeated rejection we cheerfully serve up plates of nutritious food, with faces frozen into exaggerated smiles. Love can overcome any obstacle. Love will make this happen. If you LOVE me you will EAT this, GODDAMNIT!
Stage Three: Resistance
Without fail the parents of fussy eaters will meet with resistance. Those forced smiles will sour into frowns as fussy children glare at the rainbow of delicious colour on their plates, sniffing at it suspiciously like they’ve just been served up a box of RatSak.
Any hopes for a quick resolution will die in the frigid atmosphere of that ice-cold stare, as you prepare yourself for the next phase of conflict.
Stage Four: Bargaining and Negotiation
Your child refuses to eat and you refuse to concede to their demands: it’s time for the bargaining phase to commence. Parents have three primary weapons when it comes to negotiation:
- Bribes: Create forward momentum in your negotiations by offering a commodity in exchange for cooperation (stickers, jellybeans, Lego etc). It’s basically a form of benign extortion, and it can be costly.
- Threats: Threats are like bribes without the happy ending, and should only be used when attempts to buy their compliance have already failed. Empty threats are a high-risk strategy. Use them wisely.
- Begging: Begging is a humiliating form of defeat. It’s best avoided if possible.
Note: All three strategies can be combined with minimal success.
Example: Your fussy eater is now banned from the iPad for 47 days and you owe him a $300 Star Wars Lego set because he ran his tongue over a piece of chargrilled zucchini. You beg him not to tell his father about the Lego.
Stage Five: Stalemate
Failed negotiations will force a retreat back to the kitchen, where you’ll spend the next 45 minutes turning expensive seasonal produce into a tempting selection of cartoon characters, circus animals and whimsical scenes from the Minions movie.
When nothing passes those tightly-pursed lips you will feel rage oozing onto the plate like a smear of shit-coloured jus. You swore you would never be the sort of parent who catered to the extreme demands of a fussy eater. You swore you would never be this weak.
The fantasy version of yourself would never back down.
The fantasy child you birthed had a much more sophisticated palate.
Reality is a bitch.
Stage Six: Surrender
Minutes turn to hours and your child still refuses to eat, standing firm with the unwavering willpower of a seasoned hunger-striker.
You can feel it coming….
GGAAAAAAAAARGGHHHH! ALRIGHT! I GIVE UP!!
Shoulders drooped in defeat, you reach for a box of frozen fish fingers.
Stage Seven: Appeasement and Guilt
You silently hand your child a plate of exactly what they asked for at the very start, and you refuse to meet their eyes because you know they will be shining with the smug exuberance of victory.
Dinner is finally served: fish fingers marinated in frustrated tears, with a whopping big scoop of mummy guilt on the side. Fussy child scoffs the lot then swigs straight from a bottle of tomato sauce like it’s a stubbie of beer.
You savagely bite into one of the leftover fish fingers. It tastes like failure.
Only 23 hours before you have to do this all over again.