As a parent of three kids under 13, I have learned a lot about kids eating. Some things are so obvious it is slightly embarrassing to admit to never knowing. Other things have just been learned through experience. Mostly, they have saved me time, money and stress. So in no real order, here is my list of five things I wish I had known about kids’ eating habits when I was a new mum.
1. Kids’ dinner is best served at 5:30pm
Too early you cry? Nope. It is not always possible or practical, but if you can, try and get the meal on the table around 5:30pm. It means you have some hope of getting them to bed at 7:00pm. What it needs is knowing what you are serving before the day so you can whip it up easily or take it from the freezer. Up until three years ago my 5pm conversations with organised friends canvassing what they were cooking for their family would result in a last minute dash to the supermarket to conjure up a meal – which is expensive and time consuming and served after 7pm to irate kids. Sit down once a week, plan your meals and go to the shops once. Do some cooking in advance and freeze double portions, or plan for easy meals to cook on the day. I came to this late in the piece, but it has changed my life. I even built an app to make this easy for others who are hopeless as me. Sorted.
2. Kids’ eating habits change, so don’t stress when they refuse certain foods
I used to pride myself on the variety of food my kids ate. Then one day, our eldest stopped eating lots of everyday food. Bananas. Baked beans. Avocado. Carrots. Ham sandwiches. Tomatoes. Mostly they were the things that were easy to take out and feed him. Introducing new foods or meals became so frustrating I would despair. So then I started cooking to meet these limited tastes, which was mind-numbing and tastebud-numbing for everyone else in the family. Cooking for the lower common denominator in the house was the wrong approach. If I saw another bolognese meal I was going to go nuts. What has saved stress is finding meals that are interesting enough for the adults and not too challenging for the kids. One meal for the whole family. Leave new foods on a platter in the centre of the table for them to taste rather than on your kid’s plate. This way they won’t find it too intimidating and get turned off all the food. And try not to go crazy when they sort through the food to avoid things they don’t like.
3. Kids don’t need gourmet food every day
Trying to get your Ottolenghi on for your 18 month old is admirable, but don’t worry if they your kids don’t know a Jerusalem artichoke from a fennel bulb by the age of 3. If you have multiple kids under 5 like I did, don’t let the lack of gourmet offerings in your house concern you. I myself grew up on a solid diet of meat and three veggies (supplemented by fish and chips once a week). Neither my mum nor dad could cook very well and my diet was quite limited, and yet I now eat everything as an adult. A good repertoire of around 30–40 meals that your entire family will eat is a great base. Experiment once a fortnight with new meals if you want. Save your Masterchef aspirations for dinners with adults who will appreciate the effort.
4. Kids are unlikely to eat 5 + 2 every day
The only kids that I know who eat five serves of vegetables a day are children of vegetarians. I try my best. I put vegetables in the lunchbox every day to get a start so I only need to attempt 3 serves at night. But I fail most days. Generally only half of the veggies I send to school are eaten. I rarely manage two serves of fruit either. But it is not worth stressing over on a daily basis – look at it over the course of a week not every day. There are some great techniques like serving some of the vegetables before dinner when the kids are hungry and wanting a snack. Tinned beans or corn are also a great snack from the cupboard. A tin of baked beans counts as two serves of vegetables – BOOM! If you serve home cooked meals and offer extra veggies on the sides your kids will have a healthy attitude to vegetables and come to them in their own time. You can hide the veggies if you want, but it is not going to develop a very good approach to taste and experimentation if they never know they are there.
5. Kids’ birthday cakes are not worth losing a marriage over
I’m not sure why we go all Donna Hay with kids parties. It is not like our parents ever put on interesting parties for us. Maybe that is why we feel the need to now. With many kids’ parties under my belt, I can safely say THE CAKE IS NOT WORTH THE STRESS. How many times have I found myself up at 1am on the day of the party still trying to decorate the cake or make another batch of homemade sausage rolls? Too many. But here’s the kicker: kids don’t really appreciate all the effort. They just want to catch up with their friends, play a few games, eat some special occasion food, blow out the candles, cut the cake (but often not eat it), and open their presents. Stressing over the catering is wasted effort. Very few parties look worthy of a magazine spread, so don’t try too hard to emulate them. They are not real either. I once spent four days (yes FOUR DAYS) in a cake decorating project. It was amazing, I learned many a thing, but the biggest take out was that I will never again spend this much time making a cake. The bakery down the road does a lovely sponge cream cake with kids names on it for $25 and a great range of sausage rolls. Done.
So there are my tips, gleaned over 13 years of parenting and counting. I should re-read this regularly, as I still stress over some of them. But if you’ve read this when you are new to parenting, you might just cruise through the eating caper relatively unscathed and much less stressed as a result. Bon appetit!
Gaby saved her life and years of stress by teaming up with a chef and mother of two Jen to build meal planning app PlanBuyCook. You can check it out at www.appstore.com/planbuycook.