Someone asked me the other day, where the line is between varying a child’s safe foods in a small way (an effective approach to helping them feel confident with change) and sneaking in ingredients. It was a thought-provoking question and got me reflecting on the values underpinning my negative feelings about hidden veggies.
I can boil this down (love a cooking analogy) to three key principles:
Children need to trust you
Telling your child that beef is a kind of chicken, that chicken doesn’t come from a bird and that their pasta sauce is exactly the same as the one they usually have (when really it is 50% finely minced spinach), is confusing and misleading.
Trust is central to a positive feeding relationship, and if children can’t rely on the information you give them about the food on their plate, this will make them more wary about what they are eating and will increase their need to cling to familiarity.
Children need to trust themselves
If children’s senses are telling them one thing - “this sauce is different” / “this ‘chicken’ doesn’t taste like my normal chicken” - but you are telling them another, they begin to doubt themselves. This will only lead to more confusion and anxiety in an area where they are already lacking in confidence. Many children who are very picky eaters have a high level of sensory sensitivity; most can spot a tiny change a mile off!
Your child needs to progress at their own pace
Unless you have been advised by a health professional that there are concerns about your child’s weight, growth or nutritional status, make your priority helping them build confidence and trust in you as the person providing the food, rather than making the optimisation of nutrition your number one aim. Of course, when meal planning, you need to think about how best to balance foods in relation to nutrition, but this is different from hiding ingredients to the potential detriment of trust.
What about introducing variety?
Back to the question about the difference between making small changes to safe foods and hiding ingredients. It’s simple really - when you make a small change, your child knows about it. This might be because you’ve prepared the food together. It might be because they can tell by looking at the food. For example, one very small change I suggest to help extremely limited eaters begin to get comfortable with novelty, is something as simple as cutting toast into fingers or triangles instead of squares.
Understanding food anxiety
When we think about some of the features of food anxiety - children wanting things to be predictable, children wanting things to be familiar - we can see that introducing difference in a way that is not transparent has the potential to make anxiety worse.
I’m not saying you need to read your child a list of the ingredients of everything you make, but if you are planning to change a safe food, make sure you are transparent and open. This will allow you to build that essential trust AND if your child is on board with the change, it can have a very positive impact on their eating confidence too. This is because they will have learned that something was a bit different and yet they were able to handle it. Much more of a win than sneaking in some goodness when they are not looking.