FROM an early age, my two eldest sons have eaten pretty much everything which was put in front of them. I’m not sure if this was down to a curious nature, a desire to be the same as their parents or simply because I gave them every opportunity to try different foods from the start.
My youngest son Rodhan, however, was not as adventurous as his brothers, preferring plain, simply cooked food – pasta without sauce, meat without gravy and if he had to eat vegetables, there was no way they could be mashed.
Over the years, his taste-buds developed but nonetheless, he still baulked at anything too out–of-the ordinary.
We did our best to encourage him, commenting on how delicious certain dishes were and how good particular foodstuffs were for your health. But it all fell on deaf ears.
Whenever we were on holiday or out for dinner, my older boys would choose something unusual from the menu, unwittingly encouraging their little brother to follow suit. He would always try a mouthful of their meal but, while pronouncing it “quite nice”, never really seemed to enjoy it wholeheartedly. So it was somewhat surprising that on a recent visit to northern Spain my nine-year-old decided to throw his culinary inhibitions out the window and sampled everything that was on offer, even favouring local dishes over the usual “safe” international options.
I watched in amazement as he tucked into whole baby squid, octopus, mussels and various other delicacies. The more he tried, the more adventurous he became and by the end of the holiday was as proud- as-punch of himself and open to tasting anything on offer, safe in the knowledge that it was perfectly fine not to like certain foods but was always a good idea to try.
Like most kids, he still loves pizza and chips, but it was great to see him branching out into something a little less ordinary.
However, while an adventerous palate is undoubtedly a great social asset, it is key for growth and development.
Dr Cliodhna Foley-Nolan of Safefood says a diverse diet is the best way for children to get all the nutrients they need for health and development.
“Encouraging a varied diet for children develops good eating habits for life and provides a wide range of nutrients,” she says. “For example, you won’t get fibre if you just eat meat, nor will you get iron if you just eat fruit.
“A broad palate helps children in terms of being both adaptable and flexible, but more importantly, for physical and psychological health, it’s important for all of us to have variety in our diet.”
Child psychologist, Peadar Maxwell says encouraging children to broaden their tastes is important but the child should not feel pressurised.
“Fussy eating is a problem – but not really in Mediterranean societies and even less in countries where food is scarce — so maybe Irish families offer too much choice or have become too reliant on the convenience of processed food,” he says.
“So if parents are trying to encourage more adventurous eating, they should let the child see them trying and enjoying new things. It doesn’t mean you have to lie — just play down any bad reaction you might have and highlight if you genuinely like it.”
The Wexford-based psychologist says it is important to stay positive about new foods and encourage variety, but don’t expect your children to automatically love every new dish they try.
“Don’t assume children only like fast-food,” he says. “Give them what you are eating and when eating out ask for a half-portion of a real meal instead of a children’s menu and vary their diet with different healthy options.
“But remember that it takes repeated presentation without too much pressure to get used to a new taste so encourage experimenting with new foods without the pressure of having to love it or have it every day.And don’t let them snack throughout the day. Children full on juices and snacks are unlikely to be hungry enough to want to try new foods or have an appetite for healthy options.”
Aisling Larkin of The Academy for Junior Chef’s in Kildare says allowing youngsters to prepare their own food has a great effect on their willingness to eat the end result. And it’s easier than you think.
“Children are actually more open to new flavours than you might think,” she says. They should be involved in all food-related decisions at home, allowed to flip through recipes and brought shopping.
“Picky-eaters should be encouraged to start a little edible garden at home which will excite and encourage them to try new things. They can also get involved in the kitchen — washing, peeling, chopping, stirring and tasting.
“Children revel in these activities, it gives them a real sense of ownership over meal-time and a huge sense of pride and gratification.”
* Children love to dip, and healthy sauces like hummus, low-fat ranch dressing, sweet chilli, honey and mustard dressing can be great for getting them to try new foods.
* Serve creamy tomato soup with interesting garnishes, like cheesy popcorn.
* Pop a layer of stewed fruit and jam into an oat flapjack, make pasta sauce from pureed tomato and butternut squash. Serve meatballs in a whole-wheat wrap with hummus and grated carrot.
* Add spice or fruit to food, and serve with some cooling side dishes.
* Make food fun.