My five-year-old, Eric, used to be a brilliant eater. As soon as he hit six months old we served him up all sorts of pretentious food – chilli, falafels, salmon stir fry, lentil curry, beef tagine, chicken with apricots (no prizes for guessing whose weaning cookbooks I wasted all my maternity pay on…). And he pretty much downed the lot.
He consumed so much houmous and avocado in his first year that he permanently stunk of garlic and guacamole. In between this, he topped himself up with banana and Greek yoghurt.
Our freezer was stuffed to bursting point with tiny pots of frozen crap, leaving no room for any ‘grown-up’ food. My partner and I ate like peasants, because we’d blown the food budget on Eric’s dinners. But I didn’t care, because my son was a brilliant eater. I actually became one of those smug parents whose child eats EVERYTHING.
Then Eric turned two, and all of a sudden he decided variety was for losers. If it wasn’t plain pasta with vegetables then he wasn’t having any of it. No meat, no houmous, and definitely no bananas with Greek yoghurt. As for anything ‘wet’, don’t even go there. Dry cereals were now the order of the day, and if his dinner so much as walked past a spoonful of tomato sauce then he was happy to survive on fresh air instead.
My partner and I assumed Eric was going through a normal faddy phase. We assured ourselves he’d grow out of it. Before we knew it, he was four years old and pickier than ever.
Like many parents, I blamed myself – I should have done something differently, I didn’t offer enough variety when he was 18 months old, blah blah blah. Then I put it down to my son’s egg allergy restricting his diet. Finally, we linked it to his recurrent tonsillitis and the fact his tonsils “feel like chicken nuggets” when they’re swollen.
We tried to not make an issue out of mealtimes. Besides, he’s probably not as picky as I imagined – he ate certain fish, vegetables, a few fruits, Sunday lunch (without the meat), chicken curry (but it has to be the homemade recipe we acquired from his chef at nursery), plain rice and pasta, and typical ‘kids’ food, like sausages and fishfingers. Plus, he’d down anything related to bread, garlic or cheese (but not melted cheese, because that’s gross, apparently). But I couldn’t help wishing he’d be a little more adventurous. Or at least have something wet, like pasta with sauce.
I’ve since spent hours of my life reading books, websites and articles about how to deal with picky eating, most of which offered conflicting advice: don’t use bribes/ use bribes; don’t offer rewards /make a reward chart; don’t punish your child/let your child know who’s boss.
Then, last weekend I decided to see whether the power of Lego might convince Eric to expand his palate. I seriously didn’t think it would make a difference … It was at this point my life shifted (not even an exaggeration – anyone raising picky eaters will understand).
Here’s how it works:
I served Eric up his typical Sunday lunch – sweet potato, sausages, egg-free Yorkshire pudding and carrots, all of which he’s fine with, but with the addition of a corn on the cob. After telling me he didn’t like it, wouldn’t try it and wanted it removing from his plate, I explained he didn’t have to eat it, but that if he did want to try it he could have a Lego ‘token’. Eric thought about this for all of two seconds, then put it to his mouth and licked it. After realising this hadn’t killed him, he went ahead and took a bite.
I had planned to make some fancy tokens using card, Sharpie pens and creativity, but all I had to hand was some sticky notes, scraps of paper and a biro, and so that’s what I used. Amazingly, it did the trick.
The promise of a Lego ‘token’ has since seen Eric try a different food every day, including crockpot chicken, haddock and the dreaded broccoli (which he hated, but still). He’s even taking the initiative and asking me how he can earn more tokens, haggling over whether five portions of the veg he does like might count as one taste of a veg he doesn’t like, and looking for foods he could try for the first time . This is from a child who hasn’t tried anything new since February (a cucumber, in case you’re wondering).
The funniest thing is, Eric hasn’t yet thought to ask me how much a Lego token is worth. I was initially thinking 10 tokens might warrant a new Lego set, on the assumption it’d likely take him three months to accrue that amount. But he’s already collected 9 and we’re only just out of week one. Clearly, I’ll have to rethink, although until Eric has the sense to ask what the deal is I’m just going to go along with it.
I still stick to the usual mealtime ‘rules’, for want of a better word: no pressure, no angst, no pleading, and I’ll always make sure new food is accompanied by something he likes. He doesn’t have to eat the food, he just has to try it (which is pretty much the same thing, but he’s not yet worked that out). I try to focus more on the behaviour than the food itself, ie the token is for “trying something new”, “doing something different”, “having an adventure” (yes, seriously), etc, so it’s not all about eating. It doesn’t always work, but that’s fine: Everyone is happy and everyone gets fed.
I’m not saying this will work for every child, and I’m sure there are people who think it’s a terrible idea, but so far it’s working for us. Long live Lego tokens.