Welcome to the latest instalment of 'Fork Talk', where we chat to special guest Mums about how they feed their family. Today's guest is Val Gent, Speech Pathologist and Owner of Let's Eat Speech Pathology in Newcastle, NSW. Val is one of my idols in the fussy eating/feeding difficulties world. She's incredible- as all of the families she has worked with would attest. I've been so inspired by her work, and I'd strongly suggest following her social media pages if you're not already (links at the bottom of the article).
About her: My family and I moved to Australia when I was 8 years old, I grew up in Sydney and studied Speech Pathology at the University of Sydney. I always wanted to be a Speech Pathologist.
About her kids: I have two boys, a 9 year old and 6 year old – both different in their personalities and food preferences.
Why she works in feeding difficulties: The love of paediatric feeding didn’t start until my first job in an early intervention centre for children with special needs. When I started, I met a little baby with Down Syndrome who was struggling to feed – he was actually silently aspirating (taking milk into his lungs) – it was like striking a match in the dark for me – I organised an xray swallow (Modified Barium Swallow) for him at our local hospital and worked with the team there to modify his bottle feeds. He finally started feeding better and growing (!!). I left a year later, worked in the UK and then came back to work at the Sydney Children’s Hospital (SCH). That little boy and his family came to visit me year after year at SCH to just say hello. He would probably be 15 years old now – I think of him often, I lost touch with his mother over the years.
Val's approach to meals
🔹Meal plan or wing it? I like to be organised (it helps keep me sane) so definitely meal plan
🔹Low-fat or full fat dairy? Full fat except for milk – I like the taste of ‘lite’ milk
🔹Tomato sauce in the fridge or pantry? Pantry for years until I met my husband who insists it goes in the fridge – I let him win sometimes – so now it’s in the fridge.
🔹What sort of bread? Any bread – wholemeal, seeded, rye, spelt, sourdough – fresh sour dough from our local bakery. I’m a big fan of rotating foods including bread so we never regularly use one bread (even if I do love Bills Organic Spelt sourdough – sigh – so yummy!)
🔹 What does your family drink? Water, milk and sparkling water (with a cheeky GnT on a Friday night and wine on the weekends for the adults– especially a sparkling shiraz… bubbles and red are such a special treat).
This dinner: BBQ beef strips, sausages, pine nut and avocado salad, bread rolls (kids love these) and spinach leaves (younger child will more likely pick this over the avo salad), dressing on the side (as older child doesn’t like dressing on his salad) and dessert (individual serves in smaller bowls for kids). Dessert is not a “reward” for finishing your meal in our house – it’s a second course (or sometimes part of the main meal – they can choose what they eat first)
Feeding her kids
🔹First started solids? 5 months
🔹First 3 foods I tried rice cereal with breast milk first and they both hated it. My eldest loved mashed banana and my youngest loved avocado. Both are still pretty consistent with these loves to this day.
🔹What is an important thing for you to teach your children about food?
I want my boys to love and appreciate food in all its colours and shapes– different cultural foods, different seasonal fruits and vegetables and most of all - be open to trying new things.
My husband and I are big foodies and we love trying a new restaurant every once in a while. I can see that my boys are slowly growing in this food safari experience. We never order from the kids menu both in Australia and overseas – we always order different plates and place it in the middle for everyone to share (I always feel a bit bad for the washing guy in restaurants because we order extra plates for sharing).
I don’t care if all the boys eat that night is plain rice or bread (and trust me it has happened over the years)- they have come to realise that we don’t order “special” meals for anyone – we all share and eat what we want – this sits with my belief around ‘division of responsibility’. This was definitely harder when they were younger (under 5) but now it works really well for us.
This lunch: Israeli cous cous and prawn salad, grilled lamb kofta with home made flat bread and falafel with avocado hummus and salad – a real testament to how far my kids have come with their eating – remember they may not have eaten all of the food on the table but we ordered extra flat bread and they ate whatever they wanted from what was in the middle.
🔹Where do you sit for meals or snacks?
We have an open plan house so the kitchen, dining table and family lounge are all in one area. I’m a bit of a neat freak (okay now combined with saying that I try to be organised… it’s sounding bad!) – All meals and snacks are at the dining table – makes it easy for the boys to sweep up crumbs on the floorboards later (lol – yes it’s part of their chores along with helping sort the washing, unpacking the dishwasher and putting the recycling out – everyone helps out at home with chores).
🔹What time do you eat dinner? We eat together between 5:30pm (my preference) and 6pm (my husband's preference)…. So anytime around there depending on who is cooking, what afternoon activities the boys have and what time we get home after work.
🔹What’s your children’s favourite meal (at the moment!)? Hard question – it varies on my fair weather children– san choy bow, lasagne, tacos, roast chicken – and anything my parents cook (they love curries, veal schnitzel (mum marinates it in a beautiful garlic and onion mix so it’s tender) and especially mum’s samosa – which are super simple but delicious).
🔹What’s your go-to meal on a busy night? Salad wraps with some form of meat – chicken schnitzel from our local butcher, BBQ chicken, taco mince or one of mum’s meals that she has frozen and I have re-heated – easy and quick, especially after a long work day. My parents live in Sydney so they often pack a few containers for us to take home – love you mum and dad!!
This dinner: Lentil and veggie curry, rice and pappadums (as younger child likes scooping curry and rice in his pappadum) with single serves of yoghurt for dessert.
🔹What do you try NOT to do when feeding your child? Force them to finish their plates (no matter how much I worked cooking that delicious meal.)
🔹What would you do if your boys refused to eat their dinner? We always have 2 courses for meals – the second course (usually yoghurt or fruit) is not a reward for finishing the 1st course. The second course is small so if they are still hungry – they are welcome to eat the first course (if they refused it the first time) but nothing else – that’s a pretty firm rule in my house.
I do however serve food with consideration – tonight we had chicken parmi with salad – I left one chicken schnitzel just crumbed (no sauce, ham or cheese) – just on its own on a serving plate which my Mr 6 requested after tasting the parmi and deciding that he didn’t like it. So there is always food on the table that I know they will eat – even it it’s just bread and their favourite vegetables – I can predict now what might be the tricky foods for them (but I do spend all day talking about food with my patients and helping parents learn about their child’s sensory palates).
🔹Do you have any phrases that you use commonly at mealtimes? Eat until you’re full
Val's tips and recommendations
🔹What’s your favourite food related book?
Cookbooks: One handed Cooks and Mandy Sacher’s Wholesome food – love bothThe Root Cause lunchbox series (online – I printed their modules)
Kids’ books - Little People nutrition “my family table” book is my current favourite – but I have a big collection of close to 20 food related kids books that I share with my patients – my own little “Let’s Eat” library.
Adult books - I’ve just started reading ‘the man who ate everything’ by Jeffrey Steingarten – very interesting…
Academic books- I similarly have a collection of 30 feeding therapist books in my office that I frequently pick up and read – Anything written by Ellyn Satter is well read but my favourites that are well thumbed through are ‘Helping your child with extreme picky eating’ by Katja Rowell and Jenny McGlothlin and ‘Sensational Mealtimes’ by Gillian Griffiths and Denise Stapleton. Perfect team of guru therapists guiding my work – Dietitian, Speech Pathologists and Occupational Therapists – they are the true ‘feeding specialists’ in my mind.
🔹One piece of good advice about feeding kids? Take a deep breath before starting a meal (to help your stress levels) – your job is done – you have plated the food – now it’s up to your child – let him do his job with eating. Trust here in you and your child is crucial.
I have another - My mantra with my patients – “this too will pass – focus on the small steps” – as a mother of a “former” extreme picky eater – he didn’t eat sausages as a toddler – what Aussie child doesn’t eat sausages? (wait – a lot of my patients!) – my now 9 year old eats an adult serving of meat every meal – we celebrated when he ate a McDonalds cheese burger as a pre-schooler) – I’ve been there, we can get through this – one step at a time!
Okay that’s more than one piece of advice – I’m pretty passionate about this stuff 😊
This dinner: Grilled salmon, carrot and almond salad, toasted bread (for kids), extra herbs (for adults), and mango for dessert.
🔶Go find out more about Val!🔶
Her clinic is location in Newcastle, New South Wales – Let’s Eat! Paediatric Speech Pathology - they work with babies, children and adolescents around food in their kitchen, garden and clinic room. Dominique Halvorsen Gray and Val Gent work across 4 days and run holiday cooking clubs during the school holidays.
You can check out their Facebook page here, their blog and website here, and their Instagram here.
About Mealtime Building Blocks
Dr Kyla Smith is a paediatric dietitian specialising in fussy eating, feeding difficulties and childhood nutrition. Lauren Pike is an occupational therapist working in fussy eating and feeding difficulties. They have a private practice called Mealtime Building Blocks in Perth, Western Australia. You can connect with Kyla and Lauren on their website and sign up for their newsletter, and the Facebook page or on the Instagram page. You can also email them.