“I don’t like cheese.”
“No, no. I only eat the yogurt in the red containers. I’m afraid to even try another kind.”
“Corn? No thanks!”
“Not a fan of cilantro.”
These may sound like typical responses from the picky eaters at your house. And they are things I’ve overheard at mealtime.
But from adults.
And I can totally relate. Personally, I don’t like seafood. I’ve tried to be a good sport about it and I do sample it from time to time, but I honestly don’t enjoy it. I just don’t. A nice bout of food poisoning seems to be all I’ve ever gained for my noble efforts!
My husband has his own quirks. I know not to put fresh tomatoes on his salad or sandwich (though pico de gallo is no problem?). And if one of the kids leaves a half-eaten banana on the counter while I’m out of town, it could very well be waiting for me when I get back because the man hates that fruit so much he’ll hardly even touch one without some sort of barrier between his hand and the offensive produce.
So how do two picky eaters stand a chance of raising nutritionally well-rounded kids?
Having had my own food issues beyond the pickiness, I’ve come to learn some important facts about food. One is that your body needs it, obviously. Another is that our systems need the appropriate balance of nutrients from it, clearly. And perhaps most importantly, that as humans we need to feel in control of some of our food choices.
THAT’s the one that maybe isn’t so well-known.
Humans have a desire for autonomy and control and there are few places where that control is more native than with eating. In fact, many eating disorders are driven more by issues with control than with body image.
There’s a funny thing that happens when we adults try to exert too much control in an area where the control innately belongs to the child. They push back. And eating is one area where it’s easy to push back. You really can’t force a child to eat. (Not unless we’re talking feeding tubes.) And so parents and children lock horns in a passionate power struggle.
Setting aside the deeper topic of control, there’s an inkling of hypocrisy knowing that I can pass on the seafood and my husband can eschew the cheese but we expect our kids to eat whatever we put in front of them.
So given my own past issues with food, and what my husband and I both understand about human development (coupled with our own peculiar pickiness), we may appear to be a bit lax about mealtimes, because we’re rather anti-force at the dinner table. But I think there’s sound reason behind it.
So, based on what we know, here’s where we’ve landed on this issue in our home.
We encourage our kids to try new foods. They know they don’t have to eat something they don’t like, but they also know that we feel strongly that they have to taste something before declaring that they don’t like it. I try to model this as well, taking small bites of fish (which my kids all love, ironically) when it comes up on the menu.
Kids are more likely to try a small taste, when they know they don’t have to eat it all. The power struggle is reduced when the boundary is set (try it first) and the choice is given (eat it if you like it, but not if you don’t).
My Job/ Your Job
So what if they choose not to eat what you’ve made for dinner?
Well, that’s where we clarify the job descriptions with our kids. I say, “My job is to make a healthy dinner for you, and I’ve done that. This is what’s for dinner. Your job is to be polite, make sure you get enough to eat so you’re not hungry, and to choose healthy foods so you’re taking care of your body.”
Our kids are welcome to have something else for dinner. But that’s their responsibility.
They have become rather self-sufficient, serving up their own yogurt, cereal, sandwiches, etc. We don’t force our kids to eat specific foods, but we ask them to be balanced. “You need some grains, some protein, and some fruits or vegetables.” We set the boundaries, they make the choices.
In the process, our kids have learned more about nutrition than they would have from simply telling them, “Eat your dinner. It’s healthy.” They’re getting pretty good at knowing which foods are protein sources and why their bodies need it. And when I see my son choosing to eat a whole, raw carrot instead of the cooked ones soaking in butter and sugar, I have to admit that some of his preferences are much more healthy than my own!
Another tactic we’ve found that helps with dinner decisions is to deconstruct dinner. Essentially, that means that when there are pieces and parts to put together, I often leave them separate and let my diners decide how to put it all together. (Again, reminding them of the nutritional parts they need, not the specific foods they have to have.)
When we have salad for example, one son will load up on spinach while another will go heavy on the carrots. And my husband doesn’t even have to touch the tomatoes. (Which really just leaves more for me!)
Tacos, sandwiches, dinner salads, and homemade pizzas are great opportunities to deconstruct dinner and let the kids take ownership. (Read more about Deconstructing Dinner in this post.)
So what are food fights like at your house? How do YOU resolve the power struggle?
(And what ironic food dislikes/likes do you share with your kids? Are they all enjoying salmon while you try to sit upwind, like I do?)