Finally, one meal we can enjoy as a family – Tuscan spiedini di carne.

I have a picky eater. For any fellow distressed parents of picky eaters (in particular parents who care about and love food, whose lives even revolve around food) out there, I’m here to say it’s all going to turn out fine.

My daughter Mariu was always particular with food. She refused to eat baby mush. Or be spoon-fed. No purees, her tightly sealed lips made sure they never reached her tongue. We did baby led weaning without even realising what it was at the time, I just had no other choice to get her to eat solids — she wanted to feed herself.

Until she was about three years old, she was a great eater. We traveled a lot with her, she ate plenty of vegetables, fish, rice — good, wholesome food, and she loved cooking with me in the kitchen. We always baked or made pasta together, we still do. As she got older, though, she began cutting out and refusing food, even whole food groups! By five, she had cut things down to just a handful of dishes — plain white pasta with parmesan cheese, plain white rice, hot dogs with mayonnaise, deep fried calamari and pizza rossa (just tomato sauce, no cheese). Frustratingly, pasta with tomato sauce no, even though she liked the flavours on pizza, and even worse, only spaghetti, no other shapes of pasta would pass her lips. Once I tried to grate pecorino on her spaghetti and she caught me out, “Mamma, this parmigiano tastes strange.” There was no getting past her, sneaking other flavours in.

The only vegetables accepted were raw carrots and raw cucumber. Fruit has thankfully never been a problem (oddly, neither were ‘treats’ because she refused to even taste cake, cookies or chocolate! That photo of her above about to bite down on a grilled chocolate sandwich is posed — she didn’t want to eat it, can you believe this child?). And she has always loved cooking and helping in the kitchen, whether it is biscotti, or pasta (maltagliati is especially a hit, so achievable, even for a toddler!), or her nonna’s lasagne, which she has been helping make since she could stand on a chair.

I despaired every meal time. I cooked other things for her to try and they’d remain uneaten. I worried about her health. As she grew older and lost her toddler shape, I watched her legs get longer and her body get skinnier, like she was stretched out. The pediatrician even gave me an appetite stimulator to give her — but I could never get her to try it. It got to a point where she didn’t even want to play at a friend’s house because she was worried they would offer her to eat something she didn’t/couldn’t bring herself to eat and she would break down in tears. At school — and this is a subject for another blog post on its own — she refused to eat the lunches at all and would come home at 4:30pm with an empty stomach. For someone who has always loved, relished and cherished good food, I found all of this extremely disheartening.

At a friend’s suggestions I bought — and devoured — Bee Wilson’s First Bite. I can’t even begin to describe what an excellent and fascinating book this is, for anyone who is interested in food (not just for parents wondering why their child is picky and what to do), how we learn to eat and why we choose or prefer the things we do, this is a book that explores the origins of our tastes and our eating habits, it really should be ready by everybody! I learned many, many important things through this book but my biggest takeaway for our issue at home was:

  1. This is a natural phase. It will end. And keep in mind, between the ages of four to six is the ‘peak’ of this picky, food refusal phase.
  2. Keep offering new dishes, keep offering new flavours, keep going. But don’t do it at meal time, which just makes it stressful for everyone. Instead, try making it a game and do it with something pea-sized (“You’ll get a sticker! Let’s see how many you can get!”)

You see, the trick is they only need to put the new (pea-sized) food in their mouth. They don’t even need to swallow it, their brains only need to register the flavour (taste and smell) of the food. It’s like training, it’s as if everything is an acquired taste. You can do this too with things that famously are either love/hate (but actually you can train yourself to love) like coriander (cilantro) or chili — yes, it works even on adults.

So we have been doing precisely this. Casually offering ‘tiny tastes’, as Wilson calls them, during the day. Offering them while we are cooking, or out, or traveling, sometimes also during meals when I knew it wouldn’t stress her out.

Mariu just turned seven. It’s as if someone clicked their fingers and finally granted my wishes from the past few years (my dream: to only have to cook one meal for all four of us to enjoy around the table together). She is not only trying the new foods — she’s enjoying them! And asking for more! She is eating lunch at school! Just in the past two weeks, we have enjoyed pasta con le vongole, homemade Japanese curry, a warming bowl of udon noodles in dashi stock, these oven roasted spiedini below of sausage, pork, chicken and bread with a heaping side of roast potatoes, tortellini and ravioli filled with ricotta and spinach, my homemade fried rice (my personal comfort food) and fusilli have been dressed with pesto! She finally tried chocolate recently too, and nutella. And other gelato flavours — lemon sorbet and creamy hazelnut, what a revelation! And she is now making up for lost time.

It may be just the beginning but I always had a hunch things would turn out fine. Partly because I watched my fussy little brother who refused to eat fish his entire childhood (always annoying on our frequent visits to Japan to visit my grandparents) suddenly turn into a seafood lover at 17. And partly because my own husband — my gastronomic partner in crime, lover of all food and wine — was, if you go by the family stories, the worst offender of pickiness who ever lived. My mother in law says he survived on only Plasmon biscuits and pizza margherita until he was a teenager. As a child, she took him to the pediatrician, worried he wasn’t growing because he was a whole head shorter than his classmates. “Signora,” the doctor said to her, “Pizza is perfectly fine. It has everything — tomatoes, wheat, cheese. Let him eat pizza.” And I think sometimes we do just need to let go and not be overly worried, realising that, as long a we keep offering, keep encouraging, keep teaching and informing our children about good food choices, they will get there.

Below I share a family recipe for grilled (or oven roasted) skewers, a classic Tuscan recipe that I have always loved at my mother in law’s house — now, we are finally able to enjoy it as a whole family!

Spiedini di Carne alla Toscana
Tuscan style roasted meat and bread skewers

This recipe comes from my latest cookbook, Tortellini at Midnight.

It is a homely, heavenly, hearty roast of mixed meats (perfect for families who have a different favourite), the sort of thing my mother in law would prepare for Sunday lunch. The best bit is actually the bread — soft on the inside, crisp on the outside and flavoured with sausage fat, olive oil, white wine and herbs; make sure you don’t skimp on it, everyone loves it! All you need with this is a bowl of seasonal greens (a green salad in the warmer months, or lovely blanched dark leafy greens tossed through a pan with garlic and olive oil in the cooler months), perhaps some potatoes, which you can roast underneath the skewers too. And a bunch of crunchy carrot and cucumber sticks, if that is what the kids are into.

Serves 4

300 g (101/2 oz) pork neck or fresh pancetta
300 g (101/2 oz) pork and fennel sausages (approx.)
200 g (7 oz) chicken thighs
1 baguette loaf
8 fresh bay leaves
8 fresh sage leaves
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra for greasing
60 ml (2 fl oz/1/4 cup) dry white wine

Preheat the oven to 180ºC (350ºF), if roasting these (for cooking on the barbecue see below).

Cut the pork into chunks (aim for about sixteen pieces, about 1.5–2 cm or about 1/2 inch thick) and divide the sausages into sixteen pieces. Cut the chicken into about eight pieces, roughly the size and thickness of the pork. Rub the pork and the chicken with a few pinches of salt and freshly ground pepper.

Cut the baguette into twenty-four rounds, about 1-2 cm (1/2 – 1 inch) thick.

Thread eight metal skewers tightly with the ingredients in roughly the following order: a slice of bread, sausage, a piece of chicken, a sage leaf, a piece of pork, a slice of bread, sausage, a fresh bay leaf, a piece of pork, finish with a slice of bread.

Place the skewers in a baking dish greased with olive oil. Drizzle the skewers with some more olive oil, pour the white wine over them and bake for 30 minutes, turning halfway.

To cook this on the barbecue, after pouring the wine and olive oil over the skewers, cook over a not-too-hot part of the barbecue, turning regularly until the bread is golden and the meat cooked through. If the bread begins to burn too quickly, I suggest finishing the cooking in the oven.

All the photographs in this blog post are by Lauren Bamford. Deb Kaloper styled them. We shot them on location for my cookbook at my friend Irene’s B&B, Valdirose, just outside of Florence (that is her wonderful dad, Giovanni, on the barbecue!).

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