Monday, 14 September 2009

A different approach for fussy eaters?

Following on from last weeks post and the comments on fussy eaters (you have to love them or you would end up flinging their rejected macaroni cheese across the room), I've been doing some thinking.

Adam is, indeed, a very fussy eater. When we were in the process of moving to Bosnia I worried about this a lot. Not only would he only eat a very limited range of food, we were moving somewhere where most of that range of food was unavailable. What, I thought, am I going to do without fish fingers, sausages or baked beans? That boy is going to fade away, and there's not much of him at the best of times.

Of course, as it turned out we found other things he would eat and he actually is eating a wider range of foods here than he ever would in the UK. I took a disciplined approach of 'if you eat it, great, if you don't, well fine, but you're not getting anything different for supper' which combined with an absolutely no snacks at all during the afternoon seemed to work. He's better now than he was and I think he will continue to improve.

But in Bosnia I noticed something. They don't seem to have very many fussy eaters here. Almost every child I have come across has eaten a full range of fruit and veg with enthusiasm. They also eat chocolate and sweets with enthusiasm, but (and this is the key here) I've also seen the kids say 'no thanks' to offers of chocolate.

Now, my two, with limited access to chocolate and such delicious banned substances, have never, ever, been known to say no to chocolate. In fact, Adam has on one occasion managed to get his little hands on so much of the stuff that he made himself sick. He gorges on it, absolutely gorges and has no ability to stop eating it.

This has got me thinking. Is it possible that we've got our approach to food all wrong? By banning or limiting some foods do they become all the more enticing and desirable? If we were to allow the kids more access to chocolate and the bad stuff, would they work out for themselves how much was enough? Would giving them this responsibility lead to a more responsible attitude towards food?

I'm not sure I'm prepared to try out this theory. Adam would eat nothing but cake and chocolate for weeks and I would fret fret fret. But, the Bosnian kids here all eat their fruit and veg and all tuck into their food with gusto. I've not seen any really fussy eaters, and given how much the nursery staff fret about Adam's lack of lunch consumption, I don't think they are used to it either. You don't tend to see fat Bosnian kids either, they live active lives running around burning off that calorie intake.

I am however interested to know whether anyone is bucking the 'ban the goodies push the veggies' trend out there and has tried giving their child a more free rein on having whatever they want to eat? Did it actually lead to a child with a healthy attitude towards food, who was able to say no to chocolate if they didn't really fancy it, and who tried out other healthier food? Or is the reason there aren't too many fussy Bosnian children because they are simply not given the opportunity to be difficult over food? Comments welcome!


Dino Zelenika said...

Hi Emily,

My name is Dino Zelenika and I moved to the UK from Mostar (Herzegovina) at the age of 8; I'm 18 now so that's 10 years ago.

I've been following your blog for quite a long time and have been interested (and at times amused) about your experience's in living in my home country. (Though if I am honest I cannot understand why you moved there, as the economic situation is so terrible and pretty much everything else is awful as well).

But anyway, in answer to this post; as a child in Mostar I was bought up in the sense that I was given everything to eat (including lots of fruit and veg as well as the "unhealthy" stuff such as chocolate and various Bosnian pies).

Essentially, I had access to everything and ate all types of food for as long as I can remember, and my grandparents (who lived with us and did most of the cooking) never banned something from my diet because it was "unhealthy".

But as a child (and to this day) I was never that keen on chocolate and only eat it in small amounts. Sure I did like it and enjoy it, but only occasionaly, and I never asked for it more then I did for other types of food. At times I would also refuse chocolate.

One of my favourite meals as a child was "Grah" (traditional Bosnian broad bean stew), which is a very healthy, vegetable based meal. I remember grandad going to the open air market and buying a big bagful of fresh broad beans, which I would spend hours shelling with my mum and/or grandmother, before my grandma would take the freshly shelled broad beans and make them into the most delicious Grah. This would often be accompanied by fresh onions and a bit of bread.

To conclude, while I was given everything to eat as a child, I did find myself often personally preffering the healthy stuff (e.g. fresh vegetables) to the uynhealthy stuff (e.g. chocolate). Even when I used to eat Cevapcici (which many consider calorific and unhealthy), I would HAVE to have them with fresh bio yoghurt and fresh onions or a side salad or some sort; to me, Cevapcici wasn't edible unless it was served with these side dishes. When I used to have my friend's round and we would get Cevapcici, all of them would have these side dishes with their meal as well and if these side dishes were not there they would immediately ask for them.
Contrast this to the UK, where most kids here would never have a side salad or anything "healthy" with their beef burger's, which are as popular in the UK as Cevapcici are in Bosnia & Herzegovina.

I hope this was of some help to you!


Mwa said...

My children are like the Bosnians in this - they quite like their sweet stuff, but they love all the other things. They are not always given pudding or sweets - there are often days when they don't get any - and I'm quite consistent about "this is what you're getting and if you don't like it, you go hungry". They never go hungry. Except for that one time when the curry was (woops) a little too hot. I gave them some bread after that. :-)

I think I give the children chocolate maybe five times a year. They like it then. (We do have chocolate spread on bread more often.)

When I go to see my in-laws, I'm always struck at how institutionalised pudding is in Britain. There is just a lot more of a chance to eat sweat stuff. Maybe that is one of the contributing factors to fussy eating.

Mwa said...

Oh, and we like fruit snacks and "vegetable sweeties" (sticks of carrot and pepper, and cherry tomatoes).

Half Mum Half Biscuit said...

That's what Susie Orbach in Fat is a Feminist Issue said - let kids get attuned to what their real needs are - by insisting they eat some food and denying other foods we are creating binge eaters. I let Dylan serve himself dessert (often fruit), chocolate or biscuits (after a meal). He can have as much as he wants, but he needs to eat it all, so it's better, I tell him, if he takes a small amount and then comes back for more if he has room...He has become a boy that turns chocolate down, he knows his own limits. He's still not great at eating veg tho...

Nobby and Me said...

Very interesting question. I have a fussy eater too who is now wailing about having to eat school dinners again after 10 weeks with 'free' access to the fridge. This Hungarian fare is a bit too weird for her. Left to her own devices she goes for the biscuit tin or the bread bin but she will add a raw veg or two if I suggest it - I make sure I follow her into the kitchen and as someone else said, cut down on quantity and insist she eats all of it. She's a terrible food waster. I've been really praising her for trying something new and trying not to react if she turns her nose up at something, just not offering an alternative and not allowing dessert. You see, her fussy behaviour gets a corking reaction out of her dad who was brought up by a tyrant and now blows a fuse if he has to watch her eat (read, 'mess with') a meal so I have to be Good Cop to his Bad Cop... and try to get the kids fed before he comes home from work.

On the chocolate front, we don't tend to do much of it but I don't ever say no, I just ration it or serve it with something healthy. They love a bit of chocolate with a banana for example.

Oh the joy! but it's nice to know I'm not alone. I always think everyone elses kids eat better than mine. Maybe their mums are just better cooks with better imaginations than me!! I do wish I'd never gone down the 'kiddy food' track with all the fish fingers and sausages (that I now can't buy here) and put them straight onto coq au vin, goulash and curry. Then I wouldn't have to cook twice every evening!

whistlejacket said...

I have a very fussy eater too, his range extends to pasta, bread sticks, yoghurt and bananas. I've worried about it for a long time but I try not to fret too much and hope he'll eat more as he gets older. He's allowed some sweet stuff if he eats his healthy food (the usual rule), to be honest he's not very fussed about sweet food either (unlike me!). If I allowed him to eat anything he wanted he would probably stick with what he eats now, he's very stubborn and doesn't like trying new things. If you decide to buck the trend I'd be interested to hear how you get on!

Victoria said...

Hello, long time no comment. All back at school/nursery now, so time to catch up. Mine all LOVE sweets and chocolate, so I try to limit it as per dentists instructions, but I do wonder whether it would be better if I just let them have it every day. Having said that, I do think sugar is addictive and it starts early with our sugar laden cereals (even cheerios are about 25% sugar). Mine are pretty good about veggies and love fruit and am fairly strict about saying if they don't eat it they'll go hungry. It mostly works and they are good at trying stuff even if only a nibble. Definitely gets better as they get a little older (5ish) and start to understand about being healthy.

cartside said...

very interesting question. My daughter is a good eater and won't overeat on sweet things. In fact she'll get excited at the prospect of ice cream and then not touch it at all because she's full.

Her cousin however is a very fussy eater and it's worrying. He's not denied sweets, but it's moderated. And he will go hungry rather than eat, say, pasta, rice, meat or any vegetable other than carrot.

I was raised as eat what's on your plate (allowed to leave stuff if I really didn't want it which I usually did for meat), chocolate was rationed, there were plenty of foods I'd eat, but plenty I wouldn't touch, now I eat better but I still binge eat on chocolate.

Island Mum of 2 (or 3 if you count their Dad!) said...

Interesting to hear of the Bosnian children's attitude to food. One would have to witness their mealtimes and parental attitudes to food to know how it developed but it certainly sounds enviable.

I definitely believe that if you ban a food, you create a longing for it - if only a very natural curiosity to taste the forbidden fruit. So, despite training to be a nutritionist, I freely give my own two children chocolate (organic, dark) and (home-made) cakes, flapjacks, muffins, biscuits and pancakes. No sweets though - short cut to tooth decay. The deal is though that they have to eat their main course and a good portion of veg/salad/fruit before they can have the sweet stuff. They definitely enjoy their sweet treats but have been known to leave their pudding/chocolate unfinished. And will frequently ask for raw carrots, red peppers, cucumber to snack on.

Like everything in life, I guess it's all about a balance.

Mummy said...

As my little one is still quite small, we've not really got to this stage yet. She went off puddings about 6 months ago and now except for jelly and the odd fromage frais, she is uninterested. I wonder if it's because we don't really eat sweets, chocolate, cakes and biscuits. I don't have a sweet tooth and don't much like crisps so we just don't have them in the house. As a result, she doesn't see them as treats or special because she is never denied them, but neither ever really offered them.

Interesting stuff but, as with so many things, they are unlikely to starve and tend to sort themselves out in the end.

Brit in Bosnia / Fraught Mummy said...

Dino - thanks for your comment, it's brilliant to have a Bosnian commenting on the food habits here. I'm obviously so sad that Pita is unhealthy as it is my favourite food here. You are right, I never see Bosnians eating cevapi without the side dishes too. My youngest is a big fan of Grah when it is served up at nursery (Adam just dips his bread in, but that is quite an achievement for him!). Anyway, I'm pleased you enjoy the blog, I hope you'll continue to comment and come to see your home country in a more favourable light soon (just as soon as the economic situation picks up and the politicians sort themselves out hey?)

Mwa - probably fair to let them have bread after a too hot curry! Mine get pudding, but it is fruit or yogurt. Only very occasionally do I cook something bigger - like for Sunday lunch or something. And every once in a while, when I really need a big treat to entice the food down, they get banana with some nutella - which is as close to heaven as my small boys get. ps - you been watching LazyTown with all that 'sports candy'?

HMHB - I never have any problems with mine eating all their chocolate or biscuits, it is the other stuff that is more of a battle!

N&M - ah yes, the reaction of Dads. A whole other blog post this one... You are not alone. I also spend hours wondering if it is because I'm not a good cook. And I do feel for Adam. Some of the Bosnian fare at nursery would be a bit much for me too - it can look like gloop.

WJ - Am hoping someone else will do the groundwork. Adam would just eat vast quantities of chocolate and nothing else given the chance (although he is showing some interest in what is 'good for you', doesn't mean he wants to eat it though, but I live in hope!.

Victoria - welcome back to bloggy world. My rule is they absolutely must try something if I have cooked it. I try not to stress, but it can be very difficult at times!

Cartside - Go Cubling! We didn't get that much chocolate as children. I'll eat it if it is there, but won't really go and buy it and don't feel the need for something sweet after dinner (unlike my husband who is a terror for puddings!)

IM2/3 - you trained to be a nutritionist, I'm so impressed! Adam just starting to eat cucumber and now is getting into tomatoes. And he is now pretty good with most fruits (kiwis the latest hit here!) so I feel we are getting somewhere. Good to remember about the sweets though. We do the homemade stuff too - just discovered Annabel Karmels best ever banana bread recipe, which well deserves its name! Balance is what we are trying to teach Adam. So we don't ban the chocolate but we do say that you need to eat a little bit of lots of different things, not a lot of one thing. We shall see, he is getting better ...

Mummy - They are unlikely to starve and we will get there in the end as long as we keep offering the good stuff. I'm sure what you have in your house, which is what they get used to, is exactly what they then go on to eat.

Muddling Along Mummy said...

I'm reading this with interest - Mr Muddling is beyond fussy and I am trying to ensure that Toddlergirl doesn't follow in his footsteps but really unsure how to prevent it (lots out there about dealing with fussy eaters, not lots about how to head if off) - would be interesting if there are cultural differences that lead to children being less likely to be fussy

Catharine Withenay said...

I want to say that my children eat nothing unhealthy and the biscuits and chocolate are only treats.

But I'd be lying.

Son is fussy, but loves cucumber (hence we've grown cucumber plants this year!)

Daughter is only fussy when she sees her brother being fussy.

I find both try new food much more readily when they are offered it by other mums, not me. And, with age, my son is getting much better at eating a varied diet. Eventually, one day, his hollow legs will get the better of his fussiness, I'm sure of it.

Iota said...

I have heard the theory that you let children choose their own stuff, and it comes good over time, but I wasn't brave enough to try it myself! The theory is that you make food delectable by making it a treat, but frankly I think some food is delectable by virtue of its appeal to the taste buds (ie chocolate, not cabbage).

I am a firm believer in removing stress at mealtimes, though. I have done a deal with my 8 year old, which is that he can have broccoli every day and never any other veg, but he has to eat the broccoli without complaining and eat as much of it as I put on his plate (at least 2 child portions, I reckon). I hoped he'd get bored and start asking for other veg, but this deal has lasted more than a year. Oh well. At least he's getting a couple of portions of veg a day with no nagging.

I think Victoria has hit the nail on the head. Without wanting to, we bring up our children with a sugar addiction, just because it is in so much processed food, even 'healthy' stuff.

Dino Zelenika said...

Hi Emily,

Yes I will see it in a more favourable light when the economy and the politicians sort themselves out...which will be never, considering the way in which things are going at the moment. (And that's without going into all the issues about unemployment, which is currently 45% in Mostar alone). That's not to say I don't like B & H though-I love the food, the nature, the climate, people's warmness etc. but unfortunately the poor political and economic situation puts a dampner on all of this.

I will definetely continue reading your blog and make comments-I think your blog is one of the best I've come accross out of any subject, keep it up!

By the way, are you still having a hard time with cooking down there? (I remember you posted something about that a few months ago).
If you still are, I'l be happy to share traditional Bosnian (and Herzegovinian) recipes with you, many of which have come from my grandmother. Feel free to email me at if you are interested.


Brit in Bosnia / Fraught Mummy said...

MAM - It is so difficult when there is a fussy eater around. I'm trying to stop Luke from getting fussy but he is starting to copy Adam and it is infuriating!

CW - same problem with younger brother being fussy. I do hope that they grow out of it soon. Adam must have hollow legs, he's so tall and I don't know where he gets the calories from!

Iota - I'm not brave enough either. Your 8 yr old is doing well with broccoli. I'm getting better at the stress free dinners, but it can be so infuriating to cook something that he liked last week to have it rejected without even trying it.

Dino - I'm always having a hard time with cooking but I think it might be my lack of culinary activity rather than anything to do with BiH! Thanks for the comments and I will be in touch on email.