How traveling to Singapore unlocked the puzzle of my fussy eater

Travel dates January and October 2016

Unfinished bowls of food. Preference for sugary ice creams. Significant effort cooking and serving dinner to no avail. Hungry baby/ toddler going to bed, as they refuse to eat the food you prepared for them. We have all been there as parents and carers!! That dread of regret and anxiety knowing your child is hungry as they refuse the food you prepared for them. My wife and I, live by the daily pressure of hoping our daughter Ariana eats her allotted three meals a day. In addition, hoping that the meals Ariana does end up eating is at least substantial enough to supplement her developing body. Before we travelled to the country of Singapore– it had been a memory served best by an 8 hour transit I took as a teenager at Changi Airport. After divulging many hours watching Anthony Bourdain tours of Singapore, coupled by YouTube vlogs, my perception of the country changed to that of a culinary archipelago serving the best meals influenced from its Chinese, Indian and Malay roots. Personally, I was looking forward to the taste, atmosphere and culture of the Singapore hawker scene. Even though I was enthusiastic about exploring the Singapore hawkers, was Ariana going to share my same enthusiasm? Would this be dampened by the pressure of hoping Ariana was going to eat her three meals a day? By the end of this trip, Singapore helped me better understand Ariana’s eating habits.

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Ariana enjoyed exploring Gardens by the Bay- located near Marina Bay Sands.

As you step out of Changi Airport, my first impression was of its organised nature. Catching a taxi seemed like an effortless experience. Your taxi queue dissipates quickly, and you are directed to an equally organised queue of waiting taxis which for some reason appears to have been waiting for you the whole trip (this was in comparison to the organised mess of Jakarta international airport we experienced). I had premeditated the hawkers my family would be visiting (Maxwell, Lau Pau Sat and Newton). What I could not foresee was whether Ariana would enjoy the culinary experience with me. Ariana’s culinary persuasions were inclined to include, yoghurts, chicken nuggets and sugary juices. Regardless of your intentions as a parent to diversify their meals, you succumb to the same options as a cry for help!! The abjection of knowing that you have given up trying to feed them diverse meals becomes a well-ordained feeling.

In the event my daughter did not want to eat the culinary offerings of Singapore, we had pre-packed her cheese dips, fruity bars and snack crisps (or chips if you’re Australian). We noticed that Ariana appeared to be in very good spirits during her time in Singapore, this was first noticeable when we arrived at Lau Pau Sat (located at 18 Raffles Quay, Singapore 048582). The entertaining sights of the street satay stalls of Lau Pau Sat conveyed a sense of intrigue as the wafting smells of satay meat mixed with charcoal grills. The bright lights of the stalls invited an archipelago of options. The first meal I wanted to try was the famous sambal stingray (chilli stingray). After what seemed like an eternity in the long line at the stall (it’s a good indication of taste and popularity if there’s a long line at a hawker stall), I began to eagerly eat with an equally eager Ariana looking on. The effect of the bright lights and wafting smells created a greater level of excitement in Ariana. Her face was transfixed at my meal, she asked “Daddy what’s that?”, I assumed she would have no interest in my meal “It’s sambal stingray darling, you won’t like it, there’s chilli”. To my amazement, Ariana eagerly asked for a bite of my dish!! Without being paralysed by the thought of chilli not mixing well with kids, I provided Ariana a small initial dose of stingray, which turned to larger pieces and eventually into the whole dish. How did my fussy eater become very open to a dish low on the list of demands for most children?

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The excitement of the atmosphere allowed Ariana to enjoy sambal stingray

The experience at Lau Pau Sat intrigued me, at the time I was unable to figure out how Ariana had become an open-minded eater. Whatever the reason, we had to find the cause of this change. Our next culinary stop was at the  Maxwell Road Hawker Centre in the heart of Chinatown (1 Kadayanallur St, Singapore 069184). Your first impression at Maxwell are the symmetrically lined ceilings providing comfort against the humid conditions. There is an overwhelming sense of comfort and familiarity about this hawker centre. The locals and tourists share tables and benches, and there is an overwhelming sense of inclusion which Ariana immediately noticed. As it had been the case at Lau Pau Sat, Ariana ate everything we offered, which ranged from Chicken Rice to Martabak Curry (Indian pancake).

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The iconic Maxwell Road Hawker Centre- the symmetry of the ceilings capture your attention

Our experiences at Lau Pau Sat and Maxwell taught us the value of ensuring your child is exposed to environments that help stimulate comfort, excitement and enthusiasm. The bustling and exciting atmosphere of Lau Pau Sat and the comforting and inclusive nature of Maxwell, overtook any anxieties Ariana would have had as a fussy eater. A study by Duke University’s medical school in the United States of America, had found that being overly picky when it comes to food (in children) could be a sign of underlying anxiety or depression. This is not to suggest that Ariana was an anxious or depressed child. Rather it taught me as a parent, that in order for Ariana to become an open minded eater, she had to be compelled by the enthusiasm of her surroundings. Travelling to Singapore’s bustling hawker centres exposed Ariana to an environment that allowed her to develop her culinary tastes which had long term effects in extending her eating capabilities (e.g. eating spicy food and traditional Asian dishes). Is this why McDonalds is overrun with children? The smiling clowns and bustling playgrounds sure provide excitement for children to prefer a McDonalds’ meal.

I acknowledge that fussy children (eaters), have their own quirks and problems. Solving this problem for your child is a unique experience and finding the level of enthusiasm required to remedy your fussy eater requires a process of trial and error (in some unfortunate cases this problem may never be sold). The lesson Singapore taught me was that without the adventure and enthusiasm of travel, we may not have been able to develop Ariana’s eating capabilities. What had occurred, was that her enthusiasm at being away from home (via travel), helped influenced her desire to eat within the bustling Singapore hawker scene. It had seemed as though her fussy eating habits were overtaken by her excitement of traveling to a foreign country.

I encourage parents not to be stifled by the thought of travelling with a fussy eater. Having a fussy eater perturbs most parents from wanting to travel. Travelling exposes your child to comforting, exciting and enthusiastic environments, which allows your child to become an open minded eater. Travel helps ease their anxieties but also of parents worried their child will go hungry. Hopefully, by exposing your child to different culinary experiences (via travel), this will further abate any fussy eating issues once you return home.

Happy Traveling!!

Chris & Ariana.

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