If you’ve got kids at home, it’s likely that at some point they’ve refused to eat what you’ve cooked for them. It can be extremely frustrating and add unnecessary stress — not to mention extra cooking time — to your already packed schedule, as you try to find dishes that will both please their palate and get them the vitamins and nutrients they need.
So how do you deal with a fussy eater? Nadiya Hussain, a British television chef who rose to fame after winning The Great British Bake Off, is an expert in cooking for families, publishing multiple books including Nadiya’s Kitchen, Nadiya’s Family Favourites and Time to Eat. Her passion for healthy and hearty meals has come from her own experiences of growing up in a Bangladeshi family, and bringing up three children.
When Nadiya was a headlining guest at Parenthood: The Unconference, an event organized by Abu Dhabi Department of Education and Knowledge in November 2022, a parent in the audience asked the million-dirham question: how to get kids to try new foods that are good for them.
“I grew up around food in my home kitchen and my dad’s restaurant, so it was an integral part of our life,” she said. “But I didn’t really find independence in the kitchen until I had my own home and was pregnant with my son. Only then did I realize how important it was to think about what I was eating. When my son was six months and I was weaning him, it really made me think about what I was putting in his mouth — what ingredients was I using? How am I cooking at home and preserving nutrients? And I never really thought about food like that until I had my son.”
Her first tip is to develop a child’s relationship with food and immerse them in the kitchen playing with cutlery as soon as possible.
“Start getting them in the kitchen from the moment they can sit up and have motor skills strong enough to hold something, and then get them chopping a banana with a plastic knife,” she added. “I used to boil carrots till they were soft and that would be my son’s lunch, so even at six months old he worked with his own food. He would chop and eat whatever he chopped. So, it’s not just about the physical action of cutting things, but it’s also recognizing what he’s eating, touching, smelling, and feeling, and then putting it in his mouth.”
With this natural way of learning, your child feels they are part of the responsibility and that you have the confidence in them to handle it. This also goes for lunch boxes.
“To make a well-rounded lunch box, the first thing I always say is get the kids to make lunch boxes themselves, so they’re making the decisions,” she explained to the conference. “Because they know they’re going to enjoy the contents, it’ll come back empty”.
But what if your kids hate the idea of cooking or food preparation in general? Hussain has a solution that she has used with her middle son, who doesn’t enjoy time in the kitchen.
“I needed a way for him to still feel included and a part of the family, so when we were cooking together as a family, he would wash the dishes, which he is really good at.”
Feeding the stubborn ones
You’ve tried all the threats, the bribery and everything else to get your child who loved pasta yesterday to try and get a bit of fusilli down them today. For some reason nothing works, and your dinner becomes a stressful period and becomes less about the family as a whole and more about one individual at the table. What would Nadiya Hussain do then?
“I tried everything,” she told Livehealthy in an interview.
That “everything” even included putting a timer next to her son, creating more urgency in an already heightened situation.
“What I found is that we were creating a bit of a circus at dinner time where all the attention was focused on him because he didn’t eat,” she said. “And the second we took that tension away from him, we saw a huge change. On the first day and second day there were lots of tears, but by the third day he ate entire plate of food and we have never looked back.”
While changes like that might take time to yield results, there is one thing Nadiya is adamant about: stick to your plan and do not make another meal for your child. Eventually your little one will get to the point when they realize they are actually hungry, and there are no other options.
She goes back to the importance of getting them involved in food preparation, and from a very young age, so they can begin to understand the full story behind their food.
“You can be safe in the kitchen and create beautiful things,” she says. “It’s a long game, but you will see years later how that will come to fruition. And it does. It takes a long time, but it really does work.”
Asha Sherwood owns Abu Dhabi Review, an online and social platform that gives you the scoop on everything happening in the capital.