How do you tackle a fussy eater? With a tough, uncompromising regime and a fridge full of inspiration, I reckon.
At my wits' end over my sons' refusal to eat anything except pasta, cereal, yoghurt or toast, I recently initiated Fussy Eaters' Bootcamp in our house.
My methods were controversial but they worked like a charm.
The plan was to kick my kids' fussy eating habits into touch and employ a zero-tolerance approach to anyone who dares to utter 'Yuck' as they approach my kitchen table.
Firstly I consulted the doyenne of getting children to eat - Annabel Karmel. Or at least her books. Strangely I never actually bought her books or paid much attention to her advice when my sons were little and just starting solids. I think that's because they were generally good eaters but also because I had book-fatigue as a result of fanatically consulting every baby book going for inspiration on everything from where to let my baby sleep to when to feed him. I could recite Gina Ford's routine off by heart and give a polished presentation of the Baby Whisperer's theories on demand. So by the time it came to introducing my children to food I was determined to give up my over-reliance on the sacred books and go it alone, figuring out how to feed my children all by myself thank you very much.
For the most part it worked. I have fond memories of shopping for organic meat and vegetables (which we could ill afford) and lovingly slaving over pots of lamb casserole and chicken stew. Both my boys were good eaters and I got a huge surge of maternal satisfaction out of the sight of them slurping up good home-cooked grub.
Then somewhere around the age of three everything changed. I sometimes think it was my own fault. I know they used to happily gobble up smoked mackerel and bowls full of rice, which thrilled me because of the thought of all that oily fish doing their growing brains good. But suddenly the next time I dished it up after a few months of letting it fall off the menu they recoiled in horror and pleaded to be allowed to leave 'the stinky fish' on their plates. And so it went on until they were refusing to touch any of the healthy-home-cooked meals on which they'd been weaned.
Tea rapidly descended to a dwindling repertoire of plain pasta (even a few grains of salt or a drizzle of olive oil could put them off), boiled eggs and soldiers, or a platter of pitta bread, hummus and cut up cucumber and apple. All healthy enough but hardly an adequate diet for growing boys.
I'm convinced that if that's all you serve up, that's all kids will consider eating. Breaking fussy eating habits is all about redrawing the boundaries - and not taking No for an answer.
So first of all I armed myself with a few of Annabel's recipes. Next I involved the boys in buying and preparing the food, which makes me sound like Mary Poppins but the truth is it's a process that often ends in tears. They lose interest, I lose patience and before bedtime we're all losing the will to live. But this time would be different, I resolved. And it was. Before we started the new regime I sat them down and broke it to them that fussy eaters would no longer be welcome at my table.
I conceded that I needed to start cooking different meals if they were going to start trying new foods, so together we drew up a list of food they like, food they hate, and in the middle, food they were willing to try. We added desserts to the menu list, and I realised, to my shame, that I'd be serving them yoghurts for pudding since time immemorial and then wondering why they weren't more adventurous when it came to things like custard or sponge puddings. One child never quite got over his horror at being served a pot of jelly at the tender age of two. I can only surmise that he wasn't expecting it to wobble. But suddenly they were blithely throwing meringues into my shopping basket and suggesting we whip up a chocolate pud together for afters.
Essentially we put the fun back into feeding. After all, that's how I'd approached it when they were little, but we'd all lost a little of that magic. Instead of lovingly preparing meals and enjoying sharing them with my sons as I had when they were little, I'd started to dread mealtimes and had practically started shouting before they'd even perched their bottoms on their seats. It was a recipe for disaster. Pun intended.
The first meal I served in Fussy Eaters' Bootcamp was Annabel Karmel's Fruity Chicken Curry. I upgraded the kids' bowls and utensils so they were bright and appetising, and I served mango chutney and baby poppadoms on the side. They ate the lot without so much as a Yuck or a comedy vomiting face. Chicken and apple balls were less of a hit although Dada happily polished off the leftovers. And then this week we finally braved their ultimate horror: cheese. We made home-made pizzas together. They planned their toppings and made their own dough, and although they did shudder as I threw cheese all over the top, thus 'ruining' their creations, they had only praise for their pizza come tea-time, and begged to make it again.
Tonight we're making Chicken Soup, and it's a thrill to realise that I'm finally back to looking forward to family mealtimes, safe in the knowledge that the fussy eaters don't live here anymore.