Mixed foods for fussy eaters
Sienna’s mum had spent a good while in the kitchen preparing dinner. She had made Sienna’s favourites, sausages, oven chips and raw carrot sticks. Sienna’s two younger brothers would be delighted.
Uncle Dave was visiting so he popped into the kitchen right as mum was finishing the cooking and offered to help. He loaded up Sienna’s plate first and carefully carried it to the dinner table.
9-year-old Sienna took one look and totally freaked out, pushed the food away, burst into tears and refused to eat anything.
Was it because it was food Sienna didn’t like? – No.
Was it because the food wasn’t cooked properly? – No.
So, what was wrong with the food?
The sausages were touching the fries and the fries were touching the carrots.
Now if you have a fussy eater in your house you could quite possibly be nodding and identifying with the scene. You’re probably not surprised.
Or, you may be thinking perhaps a little smugly, well my child would have coped fine with that. But then on reflection you admit to yourself that if you added sauce to the pasta or tried to mix the mince, the corn chips and the sour cream there would be a flat refusal to eat.
Many picky eaters do not like mixed foods. In fact, many children who eat a good variety of foods don’t like them combined.
Why don’t fussy eaters like mixed foods?
If a child is not particularly comfortable around food, then even just one food touching another food introduces complications.
If the fries touch the carrot will it change the texture slightly, will it mean that it tastes different? Most of this will not be conscious thoughts though. It will be a hard-wired, automatic ‘stay safe’ response that warns them not to go near foods that are mixed in any way.
Integrated foods are, in general, the most difficult to contemplate. For example, in a lasagne:
i) There are multiple ingredients – not knowing exactly what’s in there is discomforting. What if one of the ingredients is something that is not liked? Once foods are mixed they often aren’t easily identifiable.
ii) There are different textures – coping with different feelings in the mouth can be really uncomfortable, particularly for a child with sensory sensitivities.
Foods that are touching are obviously no where near as challenging as integrated foods, but they are still introducing the unknown and so are often avoided by fussy eaters for ‘safety’.
If you have a plain pasta eater or a deconstructed sandwich or wrap only child you will be very familiar with this and the frustration and inconvenience it frequently causes.
However, as mentioned, you may also have a child who happily eats a whole range of foods but doesn’t like them mixed together.
Sadly, I also know adults who do this. Why? Often because they never learned to mix foods.
Yes, I believe this is a skill you can learn to do.
Teaching a child to mix foods
So, if a child can learn, it means you can teach them.
When I work with families I always advise that they spend some time consciously focused on gently teaching a child to mix foods. Even those children who are really uncomfortable or food anxious can learn to mix as part of their general progress.
I think combining foods as a very important part of their learning to be eating competent.
There is no one perfect way to do this but I have a range of suggestions to try. Many of these are a process, not a one-off magic button. It’s like consistently serving our child carrots does help them get eaten but it’s not going to guarantee that by next week they are scoffing handfuls
1. Connecting. This is definitely a longer-term strategy, but one that pays off over time. Think of foods that you would automatically put together, like fish and chips. Why? Because traditionally they are served together.
That same concept can support your child to mix foods. For example, pasta and sauce. For many children plain pasta is okay and pasta with sauce is a no. However, generally, pasta is served with a sauce so it’s a handy skill to learn.
If we consistently serve a sauce next to the pasta – even if it doesn’t get eaten – it starts to build a connection between the two foods. You could put a tiny dish (like that used for soy sauce or salt in restaurants) on top of the plate and next to the pasta. It’s there, but it’s in a separate dish so it’s not touching.
Dipping in is generally easier to contemplate than having food smothered, so the tiny bowl could double as a dipping bowl. You could make this fun by role modelling dipping yourself. On the end of a skewer can make it more exciting.
2. Use desired foods. Using a cookie to scoop out ice cream, for example, could be easier than mixing pasta with sauce. Or perhaps it’s pouring chocolate sauce over the ice cream in a dish or cone.
Doing this is mixing and it’s something that we can casually mention. I like to do this in the third person though. So I may say something like “I love eating ice cream and cookies together, it’s a delicious way to mix my foods”.
Casual conversations that don’t put any pressure on our child are great ways to gradually change their thoughts around food and chip away some of those ‘rules’ they have built around what is going to be good and what is not.
3. Move towards. Many children can eat foods separately but putting them together is too challenging. Sometimes we can scaffold the move from separate to mixed.
For example, sandwiches with fillings can be a no. In this case I would advise putting a square of bread on one end of a skewer, a slice of cheese/ham or whatever in the middle and another slice of bread at the other end. It’s the bridge between separate and combined.
You can translate this same concept to other foods. For example, pasta and a grate of cheese on a mini skewer. Yes, they will probably still get eaten separately to begin with, but we can move them slowly closer together and we’re providing ongoing opportunities to mix together.
4. Mix, but gently. This will depend on how food anxious your child is. For some children this would ‘contaminate’ the food and so derail the whole meal. For many others it wouldn’t be something they’d vote for, but they would cope.
Like much of the advice around picky eating this is a grey area and requires parents to decide what is and isn’t appropriate for their child.
For example, you may have a child eating plain pasta, but they also eat cheese. You may be able to place 2 tiny cubes of cheese on top of the pasta, which they can easily remove and eat separately, should they wish.
Doing this repeatedly (as long as it’s not making them miserable) can be a good strategy for gently supporting them to accept pasta mixed with cheese.
5. Add something tiny. I remember working with a boy who was not open to mixing in any shape or form. We decided to add extra salt to his corn chips. We discussed how there was already salt on them and we were just making them like other chippies that had noticeable salt.
From there we were able to move to garlic powder and eventually to grated cheese, but it was a process!
Similarly, perhaps you can add a splash of olive oil or butter to pasta, or a smear of lemon juice (great for Vit C) to a fish stick. Or perhaps it’s something that seems ‘treaty’ like cocoa powder to the cereal or porridge.
Remember this is almost always going to be a process so go into the exercise with that front of mind. If you have a young child you have years to teach them how to do this.
If your child is older it is still absolutely possible and it’s important. Not mixing foods is socially limiting and can be very frustrating as you age. Many foods are ‘pre-mixed’ and not being able to manage combined dishes rules out lots!
Judith, MA Cantab (Cambridge University), Post Grad Dip Psychology (Massey University), is an AOTA accredited picky eating advisor and internationally certified nutritional therapist. She works with 100+ families every year resolving fussy eating and returning pleasure and joy to the meal table.
She is also mum to two boys and the author of Creating Confident Eaters and Winner Winner I Eat Dinner. Her dream is that every child is able to approach food from a place of safety and joy, not fear.
Learn more about Judith here: https://theconfidenteater.com/about/