Hunger games: getting fussy toddlers to eat

Toddlers can be picky eaters, but a visiting author says a lack of variety in their meals will only make them more fussy, writes Tessa Chan

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 28 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 May, 2013, 11:13am

Annabel Karmel is more petite than you'd expect from the colourful portraits beaming up from her cookbooks. One of Britain's top-selling cookery authors after Jamie Oliver, Delia Smith and Nigella Lawson, she's a leading promoter of child nutrition who has received an MBE for her contributions to the field.

In town to promote her latest release, Quick and Easy Toddler Recipes, Karmel talks rapidly and passionately about encouraging children to enjoy a variety of nutritious foods. Admittedly, it can be a challenge.

"Children are the harshest critics ever. If you can get your child to eat something new, it's amazing - it's like being a Michelin-star chef for adults," she says. "A lot of mums are working and don't have time, so they just buy a ready-made meal. Or they don't have the confidence to cook. In England, mums tend to cook five or six meals on rotation and never try anything else. But if you don't give lots of variety to kids they just become fussier."

Karmel's advice stems from experience. Her first book, The Complete Baby and Toddler Meal Plan, published 23 years ago, was produced in part as a response to her young son's increasingly finicky palate.

Toddlers are naturally picky, she says. "They eat really well in the first year and it all goes horribly wrong in the second. Before, they weren't able to move around, and now they can crawl or maybe even walk, so sitting in a high chair isn't what they want to do. Their rate of growth slows down at the end of the first year, so their appetite does, too, and we all think we've done something wrong."

If you can get your child to eat something new, it's amazing - it's like being a Michelin-star chef
Annabel Karmel, cookbook writer

There's no point forcing the issue when a youngster refuses to eat something, she says.

"Sometimes it's better to let them not eat. At the next meal, they will probably try something else. A hungry child will be a less fussy child. The trouble is that, very often, we never allow our child to be hungry."

Sitting down to family meals helps foster good eating habits in children but this is not always possible in Hong Kong, where in many households both parents work and helpers are the caregivers during the day.

But Karmel argues that it's important to try to eat together as a family, even if it's not every day. Helpers should also be instructed to give children healthy snacks. "Otherwise the child gets hungry and they'll just give them a biscuit."

Parents are often bombarded with conflicting nutritional advice. Many opt to buy expensive, imported, organic baby food products, for instance, but Karmel has not seen substantial evidence that organic foods are much better.

"Lots of mums don't give meat or eggs early enough, and these are very important foods for your baby," she adds, referring to widespread concern about food allergies. "You're doing more harm than good by withholding meat, because the iron your baby inherits runs out by six months.

"It's the hygiene hypothesis: maybe children are becoming more allergic because we're keeping them in such a sterile environment and don't stimulate their immune system.

"Parents are overly protective and I don't think it helps children. I believe in giving children responsibility, from when they're quite young, to go out and do things themselves. It gives them confidence."

These are brave words from a mother who lost her firstborn when she was three months old. Karmel's daughter Natasha fell ill with encephalitis, an infection of the brain, and died in her arms in hospital just days later.

"It was terrible," Karmel says. "I had Nicholas about a year later, and he was the world's worst eater ... I wanted him to eat well because I was worried. When Natasha got ill, she spent five days fighting for her life. And you want to make sure that they have a reserve to fight with."

That's how Karmel came to write her first book: it was, she says, a form of therapy and a legacy to Natasha.

"I guess I was vulnerable. So when Nicholas wouldn't eat I became quite obsessive about it. I started making lots of recipes." She began sharing them with members of a playgroup. Before long, they were urging her to compile them into a book.

That project turned out to be a career changer for Karmel, then a professional singer and harpist: "I thought I'd just do one book and then go back to music, but that book was so popular, everywhere."

Four million copies later, Meal Plan has become a go-to guide for mothers in Britain. "It dispelled the myth that babies only like bland food. They don't. I tested it on them and they liked the tasty food. I guess it changed the face of how we feed babies in England. Baby food manufacturers started to make more interesting tastes."

Now, having tasted food in school canteens around the country, Karmel is set on giving their menus a lift. It's important because a third of what children eat is in school, she says.

But she shrugs off any praise for taking her tragic experience and turning it into a positive thing. "People often do that. When you have a tragedy in your life you wake up and think, I want to do something that's more meaningful. I wanted to do something in Natasha's memory and that's what I did. I just never thought it would be like this."

Annabel Karmel will be at a Mums and Babies pop-up shop at Sal Curioso, 32 Wyndham Street, May 29, 11.30am-2.30pm.