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Can tech help when your child is a picky eater?

By Gary Crossing

My five-year-old asked me if he could take packed lunches to school the other day. A reasonable request, perhaps, if he wasn’t such a picky eater.

School meals offer him a varied choice of food that five days of sandwiches cannot. But, because he is so fussy, at least two days a week he doesn’t eat lunch at all because he refuses to try anything new.

And it's the same at home.

We have tried many tactics over the years. We have ignored his picky eating. We have complimented his play date guests for clearing their dinner plates. We have tried to get him to try new things from our plates. We have served up smaller portions and praised him on the rare occasions he does eat a meal.

Even arranging food to look like funny faces and my world famous Jenga carrots TM (batons of the boiled vegetable stacked in a tower) have failed to entice him.

A few weeks ago I thought I’d see what help tech can offer to parents of picky eaters. After all, these days we assume that there must be an app for everything, right?

There weren't many to choose from in the App Store but I thought I'd give a couple a go.

The Kids Food Adventure app says it 'encourages kids to challenge their tastebuds'. Once downloaded for free, you select your region (US, Canada or Europe) and the app presents you with seasonal monthly food suggestions, colourful pictures and fun facts about the food and a reward stickers system for children who try new things.

A noble and brave try but, sadly, for a boy who plays Minecraft and watches The Simpsons, there's very little here to hold the attention, especially when you're championing the wonders of cauliflower, polenta and blue cheese. 

I had high hopes for the How to Help Your Child Overcome Picky Eating app. The title alone promised so much. That's the one for me I thought, £2.99 well spent.

One page, 'Righteous Fit Mom's Healthy Eating Guide For Picky Eaters', had suggestions such as 'If you don't like bell peppers try oranges', 'don't like lettuce? Try carrot and celery sticks',  while 'Superfood Swaps' said things like 'don't like kale, try spinach'.

That may well work on other children but my boy is vehemently, religiously opposed to fruit and has been known to retch at the smell of a kiwi. Or any other fruit his brother deigns to eat at the meal table.

Vegetables and legumes receive the same zero tolerance treatment, with the exception of chips, crisps and baked beans.

The app has tips on how to handle a picky eater, which  may prove useful to parents of younger children, but a young man nudging the ripe old age of six is pretty much set in his ways.

The '10 styles of parenting' was worth a read, as was the list of foods that contain the most sodium. But our problem is getting the boy to try new things, we'll worry about the salt content then.

And he's definitely not going to snack healthily on 'ants on a log' (that's celery with peanut butter and raisins to you) no matter how often he's offered them.

It became more apparent that this app wasn't helping, though I started to take great pleasure in the daily quotes section, with such gems as 'Patience is the companion of wisdom' and 'Be thine own palace or the world's thy jail'. Tried reading a couple of them to my son but they didn't motivate him to eat broccoli.

I have deleted the app.

I told my son that if he wanted to take a packed lunch he would have to prove that he could eat at least five different fillings before we would even consider letting him.

So, he started to list them, a cheeky grin slowly spreading across his face: ‘Cheese and tomato sauce, sausage, cheese and tomato sauce, fish finger and… cheese and tomato sauce.’

Funny, I know, but he already has a cheese and tomato sauce sandwich (hold the butter) for breakfast every day without fail.

Apart from that, all he eats are fish fingers, chicken goujons, sausages, sausage rolls, sausage pizza and sausage sandwiches. Occasionally, we manage to convince him to eat our homemade spaghetti Bolognese – the ideal Trojan horse for all kinds of evil veg.

Left unsupervised, he will bury his food under obscene, mountainous dollops of tomato sauce. Attempts to persuade him that ketchup is made from tomatoes and perhaps he should try an actual one have, so far, forgive me, proved fruitless.

Undaunted, I turned to the My Fussy Eater blog, where smiley mum Ciara dishes up a non-preachy mix of healthy, appetising recipes, lunchbox ideas, weekly meal plans and helpul 'how to' videos.

We tried a couple of recipes: baked cheese and tomato risotto and quick sausage spaghetti.

No success. Dare to serve him something that he doesn’t like or steadfastly refuses to try and his determined frown and stubborn pout descend immediately, a little black cloud at one end of the dining table.

If we're out at a restaurant and his fish and chips arrive contaminated by a spoonful of vibrant green rolling peas and a tiny pot of tartare sauce, he throws a wobbly until a crack hazmat team have swooped in and removed all traces of the offending articles.

Experts advise parents to be patient and not to lose their temper. That is proving difficult. They also say that families should eat together as often as they can. Sadly we only get to do that at weekends.

At a friend’s recent 5th birthday party at a local soft-play area, he watched as the food was being set out on the table - pasta with tomato sauce, fresh fruit, breadsticks, that sort of thing. Not a single bowl of crisps or cheese sandwich in sight.

The frown and pout appeared and he mumbled ‘I’m not eating that!’ before stomping out of the reserved enclosure. He sat down, folded his arms and waited for the piñata.

His elder brother has never had a problem with food. He’ll happily sit down to eat everything that is put in front of him. He trys new things. He doesn’t get the huff at family meals because something green has been put on his plate. 

We introduced tacos to the boys recently, thinking that the DIY aspect of assembling your own meal might appeal to our youngest. But, while the rest of us reached for the guacamole, tomato salsa, lettuce and other trimmings, he created a cheese and tomato sauce taco, albeit with a few pieces of chicken.

We're also trying some recipes that we found on Pinterest. We just searched for 'picky eater recipes' and found hundreds of ideas. 'Hidden veggie sausage rolls' were a hit, 'lentil veggie nuggets' not so much.

But basically, tech can't help parents with picky eaters. Unless you count getting your child to sit down to dinner by promising to allow them to play on their iPads afterwards. Or getting them to behave at restaurants by letting them play Pokemon Go on your iPhone on the way there.

It's an ongoing battle of wills. But you can’t force the issue. We just hope that in time, he will explore the world of delicious food that he has been missing out on down his ketchup cul-de-sac.

And until then, he won't be taking sandwiches.