Tips to turn picky eaters into foodies

Forgive my naivety, but I really thought I had this whole three-year- old’s breakfast thing in the bag when I brought home a big box of Coco Pops for my little fussy eater. It was always a big hit in my house when I was a kid – easily my favorite cereal for the way it magically transformed ordinary milk into a chocolate shake – but watching my girl stir them around in her bowl with mild disinterest for their being “too cold and sweet” was for me the final confirmation that I’m the father of Southeast Asian children. This is a girl who’s happy to leap on her mother’s bike in the evening to go out for some snails and balut, and yet there’s barely anything on the menu she’s even remotely interested in at McDonald’s. True, I guess it’s good news that she’s not saturated in processed food like she would be if she were born in my country, but it’s still a sobering moment when you look into the eyes of your own daughter and realize that to a significant degree, she’s a foreigner to you.

Those issues aside, being an expat parent in Vietnam can give rise to some unexpected complications – especially when it comes to dealing with the dreaded picky eating phase. Somewhere in between the ages of one and four, a significant percentage of children go through a period of sudden, uncharacteristic aversion to eating, sometimes driving their parents to despair that they don’t even seem to be consuming enough to keep them going throughout the day (which is, perhaps, part of why they do it – parents in despair can look pretty funny). Identifying the reasons why your kid’s not eating and remedying the problem is a whole lot harder, however, when you’re not even sure yourself about what they’re being served. When my daughter tells me she doesn’t want to eat the pig’s bowel porridge she’s supposed to be having for lunch, it’s extremely difficult for me not to say, “Yeah… I wouldn’t touch that either.”

The trouble is that it wasn’t always like this. My one-year-old is an enormously enthusiastic eater and my eldest was the same at her age, whether it was French toast or pho. Somehow, at some point, things changed – and it was difficult to understand why. Was she too immersed in the Vietnamese culinary universe that Dad’s food suddenly seemed tasteless by comparison? Or was it that she just wanted to leave the dinner table as quickly as possible so that she could get back to her Play-Doh?

The first answer may not be intuitive, but it’s true: a three-year-old just doesn’t need to eat anywhere near as much as a toddler half her age, for the simple reason that she’s already undergone that miraculous growth spurt which changed her from a baby into a little girl, and her dietary needs have gone back to the normal level sufficient to sustain the body of a very little human being – which is a lot less than you might think. Most parents make the mistake of feeding a preschooler meals that are roughly half the size of an adult’s – which, even if your child may have dealt with those proportions while they were learning to walk, is just too much by the time they’ve turned three.

Fussy Eaters

Mood food

While a young child’s physical needs are changing at around that age, this rather inconveniently coincides with some fairly acute emotional and psychological developments that make it even less likely that he or she is likely to grace your carefully-prepared, highly-nutritious child-sized meal with anything more than a cursory sniff. You’ll have noticed, for example, that a very short while after kids learn to walk they start running around like crazy things – that’s just part of how children match the rate at which new experiences seem to launch themselves at them every day. By the time it comes to sitting down for dinner and quieting down a little, they’re spent. Many kids at that age develop a (temporary) syndrome called food neophobia – a natural tendency to reject anything unfamiliar they find on their plate. There’s only so much new stuff a young thing can take and familiar meals at regular times of the day are part of what a child needs for comfort’s sake. If you’re parenting a kid of that age, probably the easiest way to introduce new tastes is to give them a sample while they’re running around discovering things at play – that way, by the time it comes to a full meal, it won’t seem quite so strange.

While there’s no greater frustration than watching a child wiggle and fuss for an HOUR instead of eating something you know she loves, no amount of pushing and cajoling is likely to be of much use. Kids that age just don’t have the reasoning and language skills to be able to explain why they’re not interested in eating, and there are lots of things it could be – food fatigue (adults get sick of their favorites too), a stomach ache, attention seeking, asserting independence, not being in the mood, or my personal favorite – subconsciously trying to get a rise out of you. Kids (and actually, this holds true for children of pretty much any age) are easily impressed by their ability to affect your mood, especially when they discover that they can make you angry – and while they may not be able to put it in so many words, your intense irritation at their mild misbehavior is a very interesting payoff, even if the experience isn’t exactly positive. Put simply, the more drama, frustration and tears created, the more awesome it is.

The smoothest way to steer your child out of the fussy eating stage – whether they’re a preschooler or a grumpy tween – is actually pretty easy here in Vietnam. Whether you eat out or you eat in, it doesn’t take much effort to be close to food and the way it’s prepared. It can be a delight to introduce your kid to the whole process of creating a meal – from buying food at the wet market and selecting ingredients through to preparation and cooking – and it can be done together in your own kitchen or by carefully watching the chefs at a curbside restaurant. The Vietnamese diet (for all its dubious choices of animal parts) is exotic and diverse and it’s not all that difficult to draw your child in to the nuances of cooking. Generate a little enthusiasm for what you’re putting on the plate, and they may just be interested enough to eat it.

That problem solved, I have only one thing left to do – go and finish that whole box of Coco Pops by myself. No complaints there.