One of the nicest parts about our job is that we get to meet some lovely people. Irish-born Ciara Atwell, the brains behind MyFussyEater.com, is no exception. Created after extreme morning sickness rendered her own diet and that of her two-year old daughter’s bland and beige, MyFussyEater is packed full of easy, quick and fun recipes that will entice even the pickiest of eaters.
MoKL went to sunny Kent to chat with Ciara about recipes that work, why kids hate green food and how to stay sane when mealtimes descend into chaos. Plus, find out Ciara’s top tips for dealing with fussy eaters and her never-fail family recipe.
Hi Ciara, what inspired you to start MyFussyEater.com?
When I got pregnant with my son I had horrendous morning sickness that lasted the whole pregnancy. I felt awful and I ate really badly as a result. I just wanted to eat really plain, bland food: basically anything white like pasta, bread, breaded chicken. It was the only thing I could stomach. As a result my daughter, Aoife, who was two at the time, picked up on what I was eating. Even though I was trying to get her to eat as much variety as possible I really wasn’t feeding her as best I should have been. I certainly wasn’t feeding myself very well. Unfortunately, my morning sickness coincided with a key time in the development of her tastebuds.
Weirdly, as soon as I had my son Finn, the urge to eat better just kicked in. Within a day, I was in the kitchen, cooking up this massive spaghetti bolognaise with loads of vegetables and I remember thinking “Yes, I’m back”.
I knew I wanted to write about my experience. I missed blogging and the blogging community (Ciara previously wrote a wedding blog) and I thought why not start a food blog.
What kind of fussy eating have you had to deal with?
Aoife’s diet became very limited. I could write on a post-it note what she would eat. She was limited to all the things I’d been eating when I was pregnant: white bread sandwiches, pasta, chicken nuggets. Yellow food I call it. Also, she still hates any green vegetables! If there are microscopic specks of anything green in her food, she will notice.
How do you tackle fussy eating?
I try to give a lot of choice in the meals I give my children. My friends call me the Snack Plate Girl, because I have these plates with different compartments that I got in Poundland which are intended for snacks. I don’t always serve a meal like this but quite often I will deconstruct what I’ve made. So one night it might be spaghetti bolognaise and maybe she will hate the tomatoes, so I make it plain and put the tomatoes on the side. I’ll then do three different types of vegetable so that if she doesn’t like one she needs to eat the others. There’s always a part of a meal she doesn’t like or will refuse to eat but by keeping on introducing vegetables there will always be something she does eat.
I never recommend doing that all the time though because I don’t want them to only eat their food that way. So it’s varied. Some days I will do lunch like that but dinner will be a full meal. It just depends on me – and how ready I am to do battle! Sometimes I think I just can’t have the fight today so I will do something easy.
What words of advice would you give to parents of fussy eaters?
The most important thing to remember is that it takes time. Getting your children to eat more variety doesn’t happen overnight, so don’t give up. Just keep offering different foods and keep reintroducing foods, even foods they’ve told you they hate.
The other thing is to keep calm. Now that my daughter has started school and I’m trying to get out of the house early, it can get quite stressful. This morning I could see she was messing about with her porridge and I felt myself getting stressed. But shouting is never going to encourage a child to eat. If you know it takes your child 35 minutes to eat their breakfast, rather than try to rush, maybe get up half an hour earlier just to give yourself time. If you’re rushed and stressed, then your child will likely end up not eating or eating the wrong thing.
I love my spiraliser. Spiralised vegetables look really pretty and interesting – and that’s a good way to get kids to try something. I bought a really sturdy spiraliser for £25. I make curly fries and fries using sweet potato. If we’re having spaghetti I mix a little courgetti in (as long as I remove the green bits!). Spiralised vegetables are also good as a side salad.
How do you know when your child simply doesn’t like something or is just being fussy?
You have to accept that your children are just not going to eat a certain percentage of food, either because they don’t like it or their tastebuds aren’t developed enough to appreciate it.
Other times, children won’t like something this week, but in two weeks’ time it will be their favourite thing. So don’t write something off because they’ve thrown it back at you today.
That’s why it’s important to keep trying. They might not like something now but will in a few weeks’ time.
How is Finn with his food? Are you having the same food battles as you had with your daughter?
I’m doing things very differently with Finn. He’s become the test baby!
When I had Aoife, I was working long hours as a lawyer in London. I went back to work when she was about six months old, at about the time she was weaning. Essentially the childminder weaned her and I missed out on that whole experience. When that gets taken away from you and someone else does that job, you’re kind of the back-up person. She ate all of her meals at the childminders and we just did the meals on the weekends and basically just did what the childminder told us to do. So I never had that experience of learning what my child liked or didn’t like. It was taken out of my hands.
It was only a year or so down the line that I realised how important that actually was. I never had that real grasp of feeding a child and then I got pregnant with Finn. Because I missed out on that whole weaning experience with Aoife I was quite excited to do it with him. But he has very much turned into baby-led weaning baby. He’s been really good. He tries a lot of things – he doesn’t like everything but at least he tries it.
All your recipes look so delicious. Where do you find your inspiration?
I get inspiration online from other blogs and magazines. I look at food magazines for adults and then try to adapt the recipes for younger families.
What’s the secret to a good family recipe?
Well, it needs to be quick and relatively easy. Busy parents just don’t have time to cook something complicated.
Also, while it’s great making and preparing food that’s appealing for a child, most of us don’t have the time to be making separate dinners. I try not to separate our meals; usually the evening meal is the most stressful when you’re trying to get something in the kids before they get too tired. I know a lot of people who cook something for the kids and then cook a separate meal when their husbands get home from work – but I don’t like the idea of cooking two dinners. I try to create something that everyone will like and that we can all eat. I like that the children can see we’re all eating the same thing.
It’s been lovely talking to you Ciara. Before we go, we’d love to know what is your one never-fail family recipe, one you can always rely on?
My fail-safe recipe is my Slow Cooker Ragu. I’ve been making ragu for years but only recently just got to using my slow cooker. The kids absolutely love it. I also sometimes use lamb – any kind of cut is good and I find that sometimes the cheaper the cut the better it is when it’s done in a slow cooker. Shin beef is also super cheap. I make this ragu a lot in the winter. You can just chuck everything in in the morning and leave it. It’s good for when you have people coming over. I don’t even brown the mince, it’s good as it is.
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