The family table: fussy eaters

Categories: Expert guidance

In this series, Nicole Pisani, formerly of Nopi and now a school chef at Gayhurst Community School in Hackney, answers food questions asked by parents and offers a family-friendly recipe to try out

Dear Nicole, one of my children loves veg and the other won’t touch it. Any ideas for help with fussy eating?

Give peas a chance!

I believe that without being able to see the funny side of my job, I would have lost my mind by now. Children at school will in unison love broccoli on Monday, but then Tuesday arrives and all bets are off—we couldn’t pay them with ice cream to go anywhere near broccoli.

I have realised that what counts most with young children is their willingness to just try things out—that is the part we praise. What seems to make the biggest difference to this willingness is knowing where food comes from, and whenever possible seeing things growing and being pulled out of the soil. This is what stops vegetables from being the ugly green monster at the dinner table.

Shared experience
Lucy Cooke is a good friend and child feeding specialist. She works at Great Ormond Street and has helped us out at school with parent and child tasting sessions. She always reminds me that “no child will voluntarily starve themselves”, which takes a lot of the pressure out of worrying about fussy eating. Lucy stresses instead the importance of meals being a time to nurture relationships and make food a sharing family experience rather than a battle of wills.

I remember vividly from my own childhood crying for what seemed like a whole afternoon into the evening because I was told I had to finish what was on my plate before I went to play with my friends. Maybe it is something many children experience, but I’m not sure it does anything to improve our relationship with food.

My advice with veg
—It needs to be cooked in a way that you would enjoy eating. In other words, nobody likes over-boiled vegetables. I tell parents, “If you are not going to eat it yourself, why should your children?” 

—Try simple veg like peas and broccoli just lightly steamed or blanched. Children seem to be more averse to ‘squishy’ textures, as I have discovered when trying to serve aubergine at school.

—Make vegetables exciting, and balance the flavours. For example, I have found the vast majority of the children at school enjoy sweetcorn, especially on the cob, with a little ginger butter. Roasting carrots with mild spices is popular and they seem to love anchovies blitzed into olive oil as a dressing for steamed broccoli.

—Try different shapes and textures and let your children say which they like—for example, cooked peppers over raw peppers. Raw peppers always win at school and they seem much happier with carrot sticks versus circles.

—Last but not least, have loads of patience and do not give up. Try to make all of this fun—and do it with a smile.

Good luck!

Read Nicole’s recipe for corn on the cob with ginger butter