Another mum recently asked me for suggestions to help her to encourage her three children to eat fish.
They used to enjoy a variety of fishy dishes.
One by one, for differing reasons, they’ve now started to reject it.
Sounds like they might have got a bit spooked, scared of finding a bone, does this sound familiar?
It certainly does to me. It’s not so much reminiscent of my own children. This fishy phobia reminded me more of me, when I was a child.
I remember being a child in the eighties and sitting in the back of the car eating fish and chips. I found something hard in my mouthful of fish and my (vegetarian) mum muttered absentmindedly “It’s probably an eye”…
Well, that was the start of many years of me being scared of eating any fish whatsoever. Eventually I became a vegetarian at 11 and didn’t eat fish again until I was at uni. My friend and housemate Helen, (Hello Helen!) took it upon herself to open my eyes, mind and taste buds to it again.
I knew that nutritionally for me it was the right thing for me to do. But I had years of imagined fishy phobias to undo. So, Helen (bless her!) meticulously planned my re-introduction to fish, starting with a Fillet o’ fish at Mcdonalds. I know! – I’m cringing at this thought! We had decided that this was the least scary form that fish could take! I think we were right.
It was…. O.K, what more can I really say?
So, where it lacked flavour, texture and general foodie excitement, it was at least safe. The experience successfully de-armed fish in my mind. It really wasn’t the monster I’d built it up to be.
My next fishy foray happened a couple of weeks later at lunchtime when we shared a tuna melt toasted sandwich.
Yeah! That was nice, I was converted.
I’ve continued to eat it ever since, but never really been hugely ambitious (definitely no food served with a face … or fins for that matter!) however I wouldn’t be without it now and absolutely love cooking with it. Thankfully my children have always been open minded with fish and my eldest regularly enjoys sardines on toast for breakfast.
So actually I think I’m quite well qualified to help with this dilemma – I’d like to think I know how these children feel.
Here are my top five tips for getting children to try some new fishy foods, and I’ve included a few recipes / meal ideas at the end to help you get started.
Take away the pressure.
Don’t force it at meal times … in fact don’t even mention it!
I believe that tasting and trying new foods should be light hearted and fun, an experiment and experience and not an ordeal.
Some ways of introducing fish and other new foods are below:
- Play the tasting game. Set up a platter of teeny tiny tasters maybe just one or two being fish, start with ones that you think will be least offensive to your children, and make sure they are attractively presented. Some nice ones to start with might be: smoked haddock, salmon, tuna, prawn, crab, mackerel pate – imagine the pretty pastel colours of those on a white plate. You could perhaps give your child some mini crackers to taste each sample with. Make sure to mix the fish tasters in with some others that are a little less scary. Then number each sample and put little numbered pieces of paper in a bowl and play the tasting game by taking turns to pick a number and taste a sample. Here’s a video of my girls playing the game one day with a selection of sauces, spreads, fruit, veg and cheeses.
- Get your children to help you to make a fishy meal for the adults – do this a few times, let them choose seasoning and help to present and serve the dish. They might eat something else at the same meal, or it might be an adult only meal that they help you with prepping. Just let them see, feel and smell the fish, with no suggestions at all from you about them tasting or trying it. Do this a few times before asking them if they’d like to try some. You’ll probably find they’d like to try it before you ask them. Hopefully this will demystify fish in their eyes, as well as taking the pressure off of them having to eat it. Children would find the following dishes fun to help prepare: Fishy parcels, fish pie, goujons, mackerel pate, tuna pasta salad, garlicky prawns. Download my Family fishy recipe guide here – recipes with the hands symbol are ones that are especially good for children to help with.
Educate your children about the benefits of eating fish.
Try to get talking around the subject of nutrition at meal times, from time to time you might like to slip into conversation WHY and HOW particular foods are useful for our bodies. I’ve included a brief summary below of the benefits of fish nutritionally.
- It’s rich in protein which helps your body to grow and repair
- Oily fish are a good source of essential fats (omega 3 fatty acids). Good for your brain, eye health, blood pressure and heart health.
- If you eat the soft bones (often found in caned fish such as sardines, and salmon,) you’ll benefit from extra calcium – great for bone health and formation.
- Vitamins A, D, E and K are abundant in oily fish which will benefit your bones, muscles, skin and eye health.
Be a good role model.
Don’t let your children’s fussy shenanigans stop you from eating and enjoying fish. Make sure you do it in front of them. If you are a bit wary too, then be a good role model by being up for tasting and trying new foods regularly.
Here are some suggestions of things you might do together:
- Go for a tapas meal. The Spanish tradition of tapas where you order a wide selection of dishes to the middle of your table and then share is ideal for tasting new foods and being a bit brave when ordering in a restaurant. You’ll only have a small portion to share between the whole table. Strike a deal with your kids – if you try something, they do too. Or maybe you’ll have a competition of who can try the most new foods. Or perhaps you could all be restaurant critics and grade each dish out of ten.
- You could buy or make some sushi with fishy fillings, this is easy, fun and a fantastic way of tasting new foods in tiny parcels.
- Have a family meal around a big family friendly paella. Another Spanish tradition – the paella is typically shared on a Sunday – a huge rice dish filled with all sorts of sea food, your bowl becomes a lucky dip.
Talk about it.
Keep a dialogue going about food.
Ban the words yuk and yum.
From now on no one is allowed to say if they do or don’t like something.
When teaching, I use word prompt cards like these to help children to find the right words. They help children to express their experiences of foods beyond like and dislike. The words are sorted into smells, textures, flavours and appearances. If a child is really reluctant to taste a food I always tell them that they do not have to taste it, they can describe the smell, texture or appearance instead. This immediately takes the pressure off them.
…and then get cooking!
I know from experience that cooking breaks down barriers. Cooking is theraputic, educational, productive and sociable. It also helps fussy eaters enormously by de-mystifying ingredients. Cooking allows sensory introductions to foods that may otherwise seem scary to children. The very best thing would be to get your children being hands on in the kitchen as often as possible.
Use your conversations with your children to inform your cooking and meal planning. If they don’t like skin or bones, go for mashed up or blended fish such as pate or fish cakes.
If they like to see what they are eating, take them to the fish monger. Get them to help choose a piece and have a conversation with the fish monger about it.
Perhaps strong flavours are off putting, in this case go for cod, or haddock, or mix the it into mashed potato in a fish cake.
They might prefer to be able to see exactly what they are eating, have fun with baked foil parcels and different seasonings.
To move away from slimy textures, you could have fun with a barbeque or racklette, and cook the fish for longer.
Below are some meal ideas that I think are perfect for family cooking and eating sessions. If you’d like a bit more detail on how to make them, click here to download
Fee free to mess around with them and adapt them to suit your family.