So what is your child eating, or not?

Researchers say kids being fussy about food is part of their developmental phase and a natural evolutionary response to things. They term it neophobia, a fear of the new

Representational image
Representational image

Denise D'Silva

People have nightmares about maths exams well into their 60s. Some people aren’t that lucky. Me, for instance. My nightmares jolt me awake with a racing heartbeat and cold sweat, simply because I have seen my little daughter eat her chicken curry and, hold your breath, ask for seconds. It’s just the opposite conundrum for most mums, since the more typical nightmare is getting your kids to eat veggies.

Not in my home. Born into a family of voracious, carnivorous, food-crazy people, my daughter turns out to love bhindi! Would I feel a little better if she loved Enoki mushrooms or even aubergine? Who knows! But lady’s fingers? I thought that’s exactly the kind of slimy vegetable most kids would run away from.

Legions of 5-to-8-year-olds crave crunchy fried bhindi, while mothers, fathers and cooks turn out stellar bakes, elaborate curries and exotic stir-fries, all thanks to the master chefs we have awakened in us, and what are we met with? Absolute sulks and disapproval at the dining table. That’s the thing I’ve noticed about children and food — there’s literally no accounting for their tastes.

So, what makes kids so peculiarly picky when it comes to eating? Reams have been written about young taste buds adjusting to new flavours, parental control, and even maternal eating preferences. I personally don’t think the last one applies to my daughter, because if it did, she’d be eating everything in sight.

The good thing that has come about because of my daughter’s fussiness, though, is an inventiveness to match. I hide chicken mince in potato tikkis, I plant spinach and carrots in idlis and serve them to my unsuspecting angel as pieces of the rainbow. Then there are my ‘really-evil-mum-muffins’ — savoury muffins that look deliciously unhealthy topped as they are with cream cheese but are, in truth, a healthy treat packed with millet flour and vegetables. What they cannot see really cannot hurt them at all, this is what I’ve learnt. Because once they see a plate with different types of food on it — oh heavens!

A picky eater with peculiarly personal tastes is one hurdle. A picky eater who doesn’t like food groups touching each other is quite another level of trauma. I mean, how do you serve an Indian meal of rice, rotis, fish and veg in a plate without a single grain of rice touching the veg, or some curry finding its way to the other side? Katoris or bowls are the answer, right?

But get this — they’re also a gaping trap set up by kids to fool you into thinking you’ve sorted the issue. Because once food is categorised into bowls, then entire bowls are returned as is, since there are ‘toooo’ many bowls and we cannot expect them to eat ‘sooooo’ much food.

I have been subjected to tirades about how blue plates are not good for boiled egg sandwiches or how white plates need to be filled with only white food and nothing else. I’ve even made the mistake of thinking that if chicken sausages are manna from heaven as is pasta in a pesto sauce — then this combination would actually make a great dinner. But of course not! How can sausages and pasta and pesto be touching each other?

Perhaps the famous chef Ferran Adria was also tortured by a toddler when he came up with the idea of deconstructed cuisine. I once had a friend call me at an odd hour of the night to ask how to cook French beans with onions which she had wrangled out of a farmer’s market somewhere in Spain, because her son had refused to eat anything else for a whole day and absolutely needed it at breakfast.

Scientists and researchers say kids being fussy about food is part of their developmental phase and a natural evolutionary response to things. They term it neophobia, which is a fear of the new. Part of me wants to award these scientists with their rightful due for studying this phase so minutely.

And the other part of me would like to introduce them to the many bottle caps, buttons and pens that have been frighteningly coaxed out of these tiny mouths, popped in when their mothers had turned away for three seconds. Absolutely no neophobia for small dangerous objects at all.

On mom self-help groups (yes, they’re very popular and most common), you’ll find mothers breaking down by the dozen via posts on how little their child has eaten in two-three days or how he or she refuses to try new things; mothers asking for tips, and which songs to play during feeding time. Apparently, Baby Shark and Señorita score high when it comes to the number of times the child opens his/her mouth while distracted by the song, and so, God bless YouTube, can be ‘force-fed’.

And while force-feeding sounds so inappropriate in the woke times we live in, timing morsels to a song hardly qualifies. I distinctly remember our mothers (from the 80s and 90s) listing the dire consequences of not finishing what was on the plate, ranging from being left out on the dark staircase to being sent off to boarding school. The trauma associated with cauliflower and spinach meals was very real and a cry-fest for both moms and kids alike.

Every child has a routine of fussing at meal-time. Surprisingly, this routine vanishes when it comes to playdates. The number of times I have felt completely stupid giving the other mother a list of things my child won’t eat, only to be told later that she loved the food and took thirds, has got me convinced that my daughter will indeed make an excellent politico.

I have been accused at 6.00 am on a school day for not making dhoklas like XYZ’s mom, when I had no idea that my daughter had embarked on a Gujarati culinary adventure with her current bestie. It is true that the more they see their friends try new flavours, the more they are inclined to do the same. It is also true that they do this only when the parent is nowhere in sight.

I’d also like to tell some of Mumbai’s seafood restaurants to rethink their décor. It’s a great idea to have a floor-to-ceiling aquarium, but how can we get our opinionated children to appreciate a wonderful coastal meal in such surroundings? First show them those beautiful fish swimming in the display and then have Nemo for dinner? Not on! When a five-year-old tells you incessantly about how uncool it is to eat food with a face, it cuts deep.

My advice to myself, and hopefully this works for those in the same boat, is this — take a deep breath, lie to your lovelies about the aeroplane in the sky for their mouths to open, and once a week, every week: serve them some fries for your sanity. It’s a phase, it will pass.

Oh and yes, don’t ever take them to a café which asks you: latte, single-shot, with milk, without sugar et cetera. Because then you’re setting yourself up for this lethal shot: “Mumma, you ask me why I’m so fussy, and the lady has to ask you so many questions just to get your coffee right?”

(Denise D'Silva is the author of Beyond Curry Indian Cookbook, and co-founder and creative head of Hyphen Brands)

Follow us on: Facebook, Twitter, Google News, Instagram 

Join our official telegram channel (@nationalherald) and stay updated with the latest headlines