Lucy Thomas is founder and director of Mange Tout and also offers private 1 to 1 coaching for children and families with more specific needs. Lucy is also Spokesperson for the Organix Taste for Life Programme.

How is it that something as essential and natural as feeding our children has become so difficult and fraught with problems?

Often, we start making choices about our baby’s food, before they are born – breast or bottle, feeding on demand or by the clock, when to start weaning and many more. Then when baby arrives, it soon becomes apparent that not only has she not read any of the baby manuals, but also that she isn’t happy with the choices that we have made!

And so we begin the long and winding road of parenthood. Out of all the decisions that we make about our children’s future there can be few that are so emotive, pressurised and influenced – from within and outside the family – than that of nourishment.

  • Most parents worry about the food that they offer their children.
  • We often set such high goals that we cannot attain them.
  • Many parents feel guilty that they give in to crisps and sweets when they would prefer their child to eat more salads, vegetables and fruit.
  • When faced with a child who refuses many foods, it is difficult to get a balance.

However well intentioned and strong minded we are at the beginning, we all end up making compromises, taking shortcuts and sometimes even doing a complete about turn in order to get some food into our children’s mouths. When you are up against a brick wall, don’t make yourself feel worse by banging your head against it! As parents we may well have to accept that often, we do the best we can in particular situations.

“I’m not going to tell you what it is…but I want you to eat it!?”

Picture the following scenario:

As a parent we take time to flick through various specialised recipe books and select something interesting and nutritious that might entice our child’s appetite. We also spend a great deal of time deciphering and preparing the recipe to get it right, placing particular effort on the final presentation of the meal. At this crucial moment the hungry child in question responds to the offered food with great suspicion, and might even refuse to touch or eat any of it.

Sound familiar?

This situation is often the cue for a tired frustrated parent to feel annoyed, exasperated and disappointed, whilst the child continues to feel confused, upset or even scared. So what can we do next time?

It might be helpful to put ourselves in the child’s place. Imagine that you have been invited to dinner at a friend’s house and you are served an unidentifiable and unfamiliar dish. How do you feel? How do you respond? You cannot risk offending your host, so you probably say something like. “This looks interesting – I don’t think I’ve ever had it – Did you make it yourself?”

Most young children have yet to develop such sophisticated language skills to help them cope in a stressful situation. However, regardless of their development, children still experience the same feelings of fear and perhaps loathing in response to something new or strange.

Cast your mind back to early memories of certain foods you disliked but were perhaps forced to eat. How many negative associations do you still have with a particular food that even now maybe prevents you from serving it or perhaps trying it again all these years later? If the food in question had been presented in a less intimidating way or with more consideration for your preferences perhaps it would never have caused an issue?

A friend of my mums was forced to eat lumpy mashed potato at school and suffered a dreadful experience. Now, to this day she will not eat potato, regardless of what form it’s presented to her on a plate! Similarly, I have an enormous aversion to beetroot which stems from having been sick on the particular day that I had eaten it when I was six years old. The sickness was down to a bug that was circulating school, however to this day I hold such a dislike for beetroot that I will retch on chewing it. Believe me I suffered a traumatic time the week we explored beetroot in class!

Now try to picture yourself at a Bedouin desert feast, being offered an array of delicacies that could be anything from sheep’s eyes to monkey’s brains! Would you be worried and scared? Would you lose your appetite? I’m sure I would! So why do we hold such high expectations of our children when it comes to trying and experimenting with new foods?

It is so important that as parents we recognise our own insecurities and hang ups about new and different foods in order to appreciate how daunting a plateful of vibrant vegetables might be for a toddler. Especially one who doesn’t understand – “But it’s good for you!” and who perhaps doesn’t recognise it from the orangey-green mush he was gulping down six months ago?!?!

Children don’t like unexpected surprises on their plates any more than we do. The key to encouraging them to love fruit and vegetables is to make sure they are prepared and ready for something new.

To help children feel confident about new foods we must involve them in the whole process from planning, selecting and shopping for meals to preparing and eating foods together 

8 Indispensable Insights

 1) There is no such thing as a Perfect Parent

Mange Tout is NOT about being a perfect parent or leading the perfect healthy life style…

…But it can be a fun and interesting journey of discovery! Mange Tout takes away the fear, the stress and the pressure that is perhaps associated with the meal table or eating and instead puts in some excitement, fun and discovery!

2) Try to recognise your insecurities and hang ups about new and different foods.

 It is so important that as parents we recognize our own hang ups about food in order to appreciate how daunting a plateful of vibrant vegetables might be for a toddler.

Does your diet honestly reflect the range of food you’d like your child to be sampling? Perhaps there are particular foods that you exclude from your child’s diet because it’s something you don’t enjoy?

3) The Golden Rule for Mange Tout success: NEVER ASK A CHILD TO EAT, TRY OR TASTE ANYTHING.     

At Mange Tout we go back to basics and start at the very beginning having fun with discovering food and exploring the origin, shape, colour, texture or smell and no one is ever asked to TRY EAT or TASTE the produce.

Mange Tout offers lots of different ways to experience fruit or vegetables before suggesting that you or your child might kiss lick or even crunch them.

4) Children do not like unexpected surprises. Prepare children for what’s to come on their plate. You can do this by letting your child help you to get the meal ready, sing about the food or maybe play a game, even tell a story about the particular food.

5) Work together and involve your child in the Whole Process. To help children feel confident about new foods we must involve them in the whole process from planning, selecting and shopping for meals to preparing and eating/sampling foods together.

6) Get a little messy. Children learn through play, and best of all when they are actively involved, which may well cause a bit of a mess! But sometimes we need to provide the opportunity for children to take part in some messy play (cooking, art and craft, gardening) and let them know that it is ok to get dirty. Play is every child’s serious work it is how they learn about the world around them.

7) Work in Progress. Always allow your child to watch YOU carry out an activity do not force them to join in. Watching you will allow their confidence to build and once they realise you are having fun they will want to join in too. Remember that mange-tout is always about work in progress and that getting your children to read, play, talk about and explore fruit and vegetables during a daily routine will increase their knowledge and confidence along with gradually building acceptance.

8) Offer Positive Experiences that encourage your child to be confident and adventurous with food. Children need the opportunity to understand the fundamentals of fresh produce and have the chance to get their hands on food in a relaxed and fun setting, and above all, be praised for their involvement, even if only a small step is taken.

Remember that exaggerated actions and enthusiastic examples will always help to encourage your child to join in the fun. Forget that you want them to eat something and get them having some fun. Do not panic if your child does not follow suit with your first attempt just continue the exercise and have fun

Can you smell it? What does it smell like? Do some big deep breaths and exaggerated sounds “Mmmm beautiful!”

Can you kiss it ? Can you do a baby kiss? Can you do a loud kiss? Can you do lots of kisses all over?

Can you lick it? Like an ice cream? Is it bumpy or smooth? Does it tickle your tongue? Can you paint your tongue and turn it a different colour? Paint tongue red with beetroot!

Does it crunch? Listen to see if it makes a loud or quiet sound? Is it hard or soft? Soft food makes a sound that only you can hear in your head – can you hear it when you munch?

Can you make some scarey/funny monster teeth? (Tuck green beans, carrot batons or pepper strips under top lips to secure them in place.) Once secure put on your best monster noise along with googly eyes and encourage your child to join in.

Can they scare your monster? Or make mummy laugh? When your child joins in continue to encourage them by admitting how scary or funny they look. Demonstrate how your monster munches up his scary teeth, followed by “where did my scary teeth go?” “Whoa – you’re too scary I’m frightened – can you munch and crunch them all away.” Cover your eyes and explain that once the scary monster has gone you can play another game. (Don’t worry if they do not eat them at least the food had made contact with their mouth! Tasting on a very basic level has taken place!)

Can you brush your teeth? (Open wide – ahh ahh. Teeth together – Cheese) Brush hard and ask if it squeaks on your teeth? Can you hear a mouse?

Can you suck it hard and see if there is any juice inside? Leave a piece hanging out so that it looks like a long tongue!

Can you (or your monster/rabbit/lion) make teeth marks in the food? Demonstrate with vigorous munching and sound effects how you can see your own teeth marks in the food. Follow this with some enthusiastic exclamations to encourage your child to join in the fun.

Can you get it to stick to your tongue? (This works best with raw and cooked leaves such as cabbage, spinach, lettuce or brussel sprouts) Can you do some magic and get it to disappear – demonstrate the magic yourself first!

Can you make a smile? This works well with anything, particularly slices of things such a carrot, cucumber, courgette, tomato, melon, kiwi. Take a bite to reveal the shape of a smile, or even a moon. Slices of fruit with the skin still on make great funny lips. Slice them small enough so that your child can practice holding them in place with their teeth so that the skin makes a funny mouth.

Can you use your carrot/mushroom/broccoli like a brush and paint your lips, put some beautiful lipstick on or make some monster lips. Sometimes useful if it’s a food that’s not been tried before to have some of it ready pureed. For example, pureed asparagus with a lightly steamed asparagus stick to paint with? Fruit is good for squeezing and juicing into a bowl so you can see and collect the juice. Use fingers to paint lips with juice or with loud noises suck the juice off. Offer a straw to drink the fantastic juice you have just made!

TIP: Always have a small hand mirror ready when your child is following some of the activities so that they can see to paint on some lipsick or to brush their teeth.

“I have been working with children with feeding difficulties for some years as a clinical psychologist, and have long wished for a good preventative programme to manage small children’s selective eating habits.  Here it it!  I know that if this class had been locally available, for many children a long wait to see a paediatrician, dietician or psychologist could have been avoided.

Lucy uses soundly based psychological principals in her classes.  Key to her approach is desensitisation and anxiety reduction.  She shows parents and children a way to familiarise themselves with new food in a playful, non judgemental and supportive manner. She gives parents, who are often at the end of their tether with their child’s eating, a method for moving on, above all everyone has fun!”

Lucy always points out – there is a big difference between “playing” with food and “exploring” food – activities are always carried out away from the mealtable and as a fun activity where children “explore” together with their parent or carer. With children under the age of 3years, it’s always better to get the food being explored and sampled and worry about table manners later – these can be integrated once the child is old enough to understand and respond effectively (once a good diet is established). If children decide they want to brush their teeth with a green bean at Granny’s birthday dinner or paint their lips with a strawberry at Aunt Flo’s tea party – Lucy always recommends it’s acknowledged and praised – especially if that food has never passed their lips before – after all what’s more important – good manners and eating very little if nothing or exploring and having a positive experience with new food?

Mange Tout doesn’t advocate painting the walls with prunes or juggling with sprouts, so if the tone set when exploring is right then there shouldn’t be an issue with continued exploring at mealtimes.

Dr. Catherine Dendy:  Clinical Psychologist Children’s Feeding Specialist formerly of Great Ormond Street Hospital