Parents, take note
By Annabel Karmel
Credited with starting a food revolution with her trusty recipes and methods, Annabel Karmel has become the UK’s No.1 children’s cookery author, best-selling international author, and the mother of all feeding experts with 41 cookbooks…
With Christmas comes numerous party invites, after-school commitments, outings to Christmas markets and, of course, trips to see Santa! Any hope, or attempt at, maintaining a routine when it comes to meal times, can quite quickly go out the window. Christmas can, however, actually be a great opportunity to try and encourage your child to be a more adventurous eater.
The festive season is such a magical time for children, with lots of new experiences and a constant sense of excitement in the air. So, if you have a fussy-eater on your hands (and trust me, I’ve been there – I know how you feel) you can use this feel-good factor to encourage them to try new foods too.
One of the main reasons a toddler gets picky about food is because, at around 18 months, but often sooner, they start trying to assert their growing sense of independence. Unfortunately, food is one of the easiest ways for them to take control. When they reject the meal you’ve lovingly cooked-up in the kitchen, they feel like they are in charge, and very quickly realise they enjoy this feeling!
With a whole host of festive celebrations taking place during December, food buffets are in abundance, and the good news is, these could even work to your advantage. Allowing them to serve themselves (with some help from mum and dad for younger children), they offer a more relaxed, informal setting which can be empowering for fussy eaters. This way, you both win. You get to choose a selection of healthy, nutritious foods and your toddler gets to make the big decision about which ones to eat.
The Christmas canape
Children often like to eat with their fingers, so canapes are the ideal bite-sized meal for tiny hands! More manageable mouthfuls are also less overwhelming for a small child. My signature Chicken and Apple Balls recipe is where it all began and helped encourage my fussy eating son to eat chicken for the first time.
As there is no start and end to this sort of festive meal, there is no pressure to eat in the first place, so your child is also in control of when to eat. Your toddler isn’t being put into a highchair and expected to eat when the food is ready – they just get to eat when they are ready. And even the pickiest of eaters will eat when they’re hungry.
Time it right
When your guests arrive, there will naturally be a frenzy of excitement so remember to allow plenty of opportunity to play first. This means that by the time you bring the food out, your toddler is ready to focus on it.
Make food look good
Try to make sure their food not only tastes good but looks good, too. Decorate baked potatoes to look like Rudolph with a cherry tomato for the nose and pretzels or twirly crisps for antlers. They can help you with this too – get them to work by filling their own wraps or decorating a Christmas tree shaped pizza with healthy toppings.
Decorate the table too, with whatever looks bright and colourful – the more interesting the spread looks, the more your toddler will be drawn to it. The more they look at the different foods on offer, the more familiar they become. When they are ready, they might pick up a food and put it down again a few times or squish it between their fingers. This physical interaction with food is often the first step towards tasting it.
Get busy in the kitchen
Christmas is a time for crafting lots of festive creations in the kitchen, so why not get them to join you? You’ll stand a good chance of instilling a love of good, healthy food when preparing simple meals together from scratch. Getting children to take an active interest in what they’re eating is essential for their general health and wellbeing. Some simple mini Christmas muffins are a good place to start.
Plus, kids can join you in the kitchen earlier than you might think. Whether it’s counting out ingredients or washing them, cracking eggs or rolling dough, little ones can give you a helping hand. Give them bowls of various ingredients and let them explore.
Make new foods fun
Tis the season for Christmas party games! Why not try a bit of festive food trivia with the whole family? Try playing a game and blindfold each child before introducing a food and ask them to guess what it is. Giving them facts is likely to make them more interested about what they are eating. Give them hints with a festive twist e.g. if carrot is part of your trivia game you could give them a hint of ‘this is Rudolph’s favourite snack’. Making trying new foods fun will work wonders.
Watch and learn
Children learn from other children so, if you have friends with older kids who are past this picky-eating stage and tuck into whatever is on offer, invite them round. Simply by watching other children and adults eating the food on offer, your fussy-eating tot will see that it tastes good, and be motivated to try it themselves.
No food off-limits
It’s really important that all the finger foods you serve are safe for your youngster to eat, so there’s nothing that’s off-limits, and they are fully in control of their choice. Young children should never be left alone while eating. Toddlers love to put anything and everything in their mouths, and it is very easy for them to choke on such foods.
Avoid these foods that could cause choking:
- Whole grapes
- Whole cherry tomatoes
- Whole or chopped nuts
- Fruits with stones such as cherries
- Bony fish (always check thoroughly for bones first)
Finally, we all know that at Christmas there are lots more temping treats around and children will favour a chocolate Santa over a lovingly crafted homemade meal. Make sure you have a good range of different foods on offer and a supply of healthy snacks on hand at all times, and, make sure treats are still treats even though it’s Christmas!