If you’d asked me that question before I had kids, I would have given a pretty standard answer like, ‘If my children are happy and healthy’ or ‘If they have nice friends to play with’.
I never would have expected to say, ‘I will feel like a good parent if my children eat something other than a potato’. Nor did I expect to feel like the world’s WORST parent when they’ve refused to even try something I’ve made for them.
It all started out well. When my first daughter turned seven months, we did a mix of baby-led weaning (put baby-friendly bits of whatever you are eating out for them to try) and purees. The purees were more for my peace of mind, so that I knew she was at least getting something into her tummy. The baby-led weaning served as entertainment, and gave me enough hands-free time to enjoy a hot cup of tea.
In the early days, she gobbled up everything in sight. I remember thinking to myself what a good little eater she was, and feeling quietly smug on the matter. Around eighteen months, I woke up to a picky eater. Suddenly avocado – one of her favourites – was spit out, thrown across the room, or mushed into the table. It didn’t matter if it was on a spoon or in tiny bite sized chunks. Casually placed on a plate, or carefully arranged. It wasn’t going in her mouth. Ever.
The same applied to anything with sauce. Anything breaded. Anything with cheese. Anything too crunchy. Anything too soft. Too green. Too bright. Too bland. She was on a food strike, and absolutely loved watching me turn from a relaxed mum to one who obsessed over Every. Single. Scrap. Of. Food.
Anxiety like I’d never experienced before set in. I panicked about whether she was getting enough. Whether what she was eating was balanced. Whether she would grow up to only eat potatoes and bread. Whether she was vitamin deficient. Whether her cough was a product of a bad diet, or just the usual nursery germs. And what do parents do when they panic? They Google. When in reality, I should have just relaxed and waited it out. As it turns out, my daughter wasn’t the problem. In many ways, I was.
The more I obsessed, the more she refused. The more I cajoled and bribed with dessert, the more she would hold out for dessert. The more I piled onto a plate, the less she ate. So one day, I gave up. I put one, tiny piece of chicken in front of her and walked away to make a cup of tea. When I turned around, it had disappeared. I casually looked on the floor, then looked at her happy little face chewing away. I placed another piece of chicken in front of her and walked away again. Again, it disappeared. My gorgeous girl ate loads that night, and things improved from there.
I’m not saying ‘Let it be’ is the solution to all things parenting. A lot of other things helped - like reducing the portions I placed in front of her, allowing her to help herself when she got older, and buying plain baby-friendly plates that let her see the food clearly. But I will say that our food battle was a serious lesson in the need to keep things simple, and back off.
With my second daughter, I do still occasionally panic about what she’s eating. But the one thing I’m trying my best not to do is stress in front of her. Mealtimes are relaxed. I offer a mix of things she knows and things she doesn’t. I stand back, and let her explore. And when in doubt, I always have potatoes on hand and good pasta in the cupboard. And I tell myself that it is enough. After all, my daughters don’t care about eating Chille con Carne with organic beef. They care about whether I have five minutes to paint with them or read a book. The rest will come with time.