Why a Post About Kids and Food?
My kid is a champ about food and I recognize that at least some luck is responsible for that. He wasn’t always that way, and I can remember having to try a lot of tricks to creatively get him into food and eating.
My personal philosophy says that food makes life wonderful. It is often the social lubricant needed to get friends together; it is often a good reason to have something to do with your hands or pass time. It opens conversational doors and it levels playing fields. You do not need to be a chef to make food a central part of a social relationship – a bit of bread and some squashed tomatoes can go very, very far.
As a society we struggle with time poverty and economic hardships that make cooking the healthiest food possible hard, and we often choose convenience over quality. The fact is, though, that we need good food for energy to live our lives as fully as possible, and great-for-you food is rarely the most convenient food. I believe it is my job as a parent to instill great food habits in my kid and the younger those habits are formed, the easier my job is.
I’ve hesitated to write this post. I don’t wish to suggest I have all the answers. I have no special training in nutrition or in child psychology that makes me extra qualified. I’m a parent of a pretty cool nine year old and I’ve tried *a lot* of strategies. For years, I have subscribed to the Michael Pollan’s simplistic manifesto: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” and still do today. (For a review of one of his books I wrote back in 2011, head here.) What I’m sharing is not a definite how-to recipe, but rather a pantry for you to pull ideas from.
I avoid using words like “picky” and “diet” when I talk about kids and food to friends because they’re such loaded terms.
Set Up Expectations – Yours, and Theirs
What’s the thing that annoys you the most? Is it leaving the table before the meal is done? Is it refusing to eat anything green? Is it complaining and bargaining? Determine what it is that is your hot-button-issue can help set up the plan to address it. Not every parent experiences dysfunction at the dinner table the same way. So take some time to figure out what bugs you and plan how to address it.
When food refusal and stalling at the table became enough of an issue that I felt my blood pressure rising with each meal, I decided to implement some rules.
What follows are some basic rules I can more or less adapt and add to as needed to any kid, to any hot-button-issue. If needed and if your child is reading already, write up these rules and post them in the kitchen to point to later. A very important strategy is to explain these rules when they aren’t hungry and it’s not a mealtime. Try and find a time when they’re snugglier and calm and use language that gives them ownership and pride, such as “Now that you are 4, I think you are old enough to have an important talk with me and I trust you to listen.”
If your child is school age, they likely have been introduced to the idea of healthy eating already. Approach the topic about how it works in your home by bringing up what they’ve learned in school. Younger children are little scientists and are thirsty for knowledge – fill up their cups! If you need some resources, here are some of the better ones I’ve found:
- Spoonfed – deals mostly in making sure kids eat healthy and avoid processed and synthetic stuff. Her blog is great on its own, and she has a great page of resources too.
- Raise Healthy Eaters – another food blog, this one by a food educator and dietician Maryann Jacobsen. She’s a little bit more “preventing picky eaters” than Spoonfed, but her blog has tonnes of incredible resources. She has an e-book out that is really good and co-authored a book in print.
- The Picky Eater Project is a series from the New York Times and chronicles one family’s attempt at overcoming picky eating. Start at Step One and work to the most recent.
- 100 Days of Real Food is another good blog, specifically this post which talks about the difference between a picky eater and a problem feeder.
Rules for You
Even as adults we need to have some rules especially if it is stuff we’re struggling with. So here are your rules:
- Do not waver from the rules. I cannot stress this enough. Unless your child or you are sick or you are travelling and can’t otherwise manage to, stick to the rules. At the beginning this could mean hardship: crying, whining, bargaining. But stick to them. Wavering is often what gets you into the mess you feel you are in. If it is time for a rule change, that’s okay too, but do not negotiate for “bites”.
- Talk about food and food decisions in a way that makes you feel like you are doing the play-by-play. Instead of having these conversations in your head “Jeez, it’s 5, I only have thirty minutes to make a meal and eat, what should I feed these kids” verbalize these conversations and involve your children. Planning and learning about food are essential to becoming good eaters.
- Always approach the challenge from their perspective. I did cut up all the food for my son for a long time, though I asked him to use utensils to eat. He would give me the excuse that he wasn’t hungry and then an hour later beg for food, but I realized that it was such a struggle to cut up his food that he was claiming hunger when really it was a lack of dexterity with utensils. Utensils can be mastered after the habits exist.
- One thing at a time. This is some general parenting advice I was given and follow even now, but you cannot fix everything all at once. Pick the thing that bugs you the most and work to fix it.
- Accept there are foods they actually do not like. This may change but it’s okay to have preferences.
Rules for Them
Parents control the What, When and Where. Kids control How Much and Whether.
This is straight from Ellyn Satter’s super helpful “Division of Responsibility in Feeding” which I’ve read is referred to as “the gold standard in feeding”. The Ellyn Satter Institute’s mission is helping children and adults be joyful and competent with eating. I love this mission because there is So. Much. Joy in food. It is my job to pick when and where we eat, and to offer a variety of foods to choose from, including at least one sure bet I know my son will eat. It is his job to decide how much (start small and have seconds!) and whether he eats what I offer. Note, I do not offer an alternative. Eat what is presented to you, in whatever ratio, or go hungry. We do have snack times, but we also have rules about snacks-in-lieu-of-meals.
Try a taste, you’ll be surprised.
This thing is hella ugly and even has all sorts of weird crunchy bits but YUM.
As an addendum to the Division of Responsibility, above, I ask that he at least try a taste of everything on the night’s menu. Nothing was more satisfying than him once trying passion fruit and being delighted that he actually loved it, despite its ugly appearance. It was very convincing for him to learn that sometimes food that doesn’t look good actually is good, and that a taste (and a taste next time and a taste next time and a taste the time after that) was important for opening your mind. All foods need at least a taste, and he can choose not to eat something after he’s had a taste.
Your parent is not a short order cook.
While I will often slightly modify the family meal by not putting his veggies in the curry sauce, not pouring the sauce on the rice before serving it, or by not cooking his mushrooms in the mushroom sauce and adding his in raw, etc, I am not a short order cook. I will not cook multiple meals for the family unless it is a special reason, such as the night I made scallops with asparagus (both confirmed dislikes on my son’s part after multiple tries) for my husband’s’ birthday. My son knows this, and sometimes greets the meal with less enthusiasm than at other times. But he always understands that whatever is before him that night is the dinner for tonight, because…
You can’t always eat your favourite foods.
Every night cannot be cheesy noodle night, despite cheesy noodles being delicious. We regularly repeat: “You can’t have your favourites every night, but we promise to offer you tasty food that is good for you every night.” Favourite foods should be saved for special days and my son has learned that some of the foods he was suspicious of initially have become a favourite.
Involvement equals ownership.
A child being involved can make a world of difference in thinking that they have influence and control over the food they eat. My son gets to choose at least two nights’ meals when we do our weekly meal plan. He originally always picked pizza, hot dogs, hamburgers, or cheesy noodles, but now he has expanded and includes all sorts of pastas, sausages, quiche, and others. We also try to eat from a regular rotation of sure bets plus a few experiments to continually try new stuff, including new to the adults!
He also gets to help cook whenever he wants, and we always downplay meat as the primary protein. We also make sure he gets the chance to meet farmers and food producers, either at the farmers market or at the farm. It is critical he understand that the meats (especially) we eat come from animals killed for us to consume. When and if he starts suggesting this is uncool to his little personal set of ethics, we will talk about vegetarian and veganism, which he has already been exposed to in a healthy way.
No phones / books / devices at the dinner table.
We’re a bit flexible about this for weekend brunches when we all like to look at magazines, read books, catch up on Twitter, and share with one another, but for dinner there are no distractions allowed at the table. Dinner is about food and family time. We talk about our days, talk about the food, and talk about the future. It is the one and only time we guarantee that we will sit together and speak with no interruptions of busy lives (though there are regularly times when one of us has to eat and run to make it to a meeting!). Focusing on the food rather than the distractions for the main meal of our day is a great way to connect with what we are eating.
Subrule to this one: eat at the same time every day.
Food is good for the soul.
A meal is more than just shovelling food in, and food is good for the body and the soul. Treats are okay now and then, and moderation is always the key. Experimentation keeps it lively, but consistency in how we experiment makes a big deal. By acknowledging that food is part of the fabric of our family, and revering it for more than just fuel, I hope to develop a lifelong interest and healthy love of food in my son.
Strategies When It Isn’t Working
Sometimes you need a few strategies to just get going or overcome a stumbling block. Here are some ideas:
- At meal times for a while I presented only one food at a time. For example, all the chicken I wanted him to eat. When he finished that, all the veggies. Or whatever. Sometimes a busy or full plate gets overwhelming and it’s easier to not eat anything or to fib that you aren’t hungry.
- Every meal included one thing I knew my son would eat, (but when I was presenting one food at a time it was usually the third or last thing I’d offer him).
- If they get up from the table mid meal, their dinner is over and more importantly, so is play time. I would sometimes be told he was full and off he’d go to play and sure enough 15 minutes later he’d be looking to eat again. Knowing he could come and go as he pleased was disruptive to dinner time, made it drag out for hours unnecessarily, and was frankly, rude to us. It may take a few hungry and bored bellies to get the message through to them, but if they know the food will always be there, they will not focus on it. It takes focus to eat mindfully and that focus comes with training.
- Include them in meal planning and post the plan. On Sunday ask your child to pick two meals. Even if it’s garbage like hot dogs and macaroni, let them pick it and cook exactly that with no fancy extras. If they balk when it’s presented to them, remind them this was their choice and that that is the meal for today. Refusing it means only one meal to choose the following week. The more they feel in control of food, the better. It helps them respect that you get a turn too, to choose the meal.
- If they waste time at the table, get out a timer. Give them 30 minutes to eat. We did the timer after we’d had a few battles over it taking an hour or an hour and a half to get through a tiny plate of pasta. So long as the food is going in efficiently and regularly, and they’re not wasting time, no need for a timer. But once it slows down and they’re being stubborn, out comes the timer. When it goes off, it’s the same rules as abandoning the table.
- Stop killing yourself making fancy meals. There is nothing more disheartening that having someone pronounce something you worked on for an hour as “crappy.” In five years you can go back to the way you like, but right now your kid’s behaviour is offensive to your kitchen skills and it’s distressing. Find a few cookbooks with “30 minute meals” and keep rotating the same five until you feel ready to try another item. This isn’t forever.
- Lead by example, and show gratitude for the food you are offered. Please, thank you, and complimentary comments are essential. Talk to them about finding good things to say. To this day my son hates beets but he has learned to say things like “I love the colour of these beets” or “they are such a cool shape”. We talk about what we are eating pretty much non-stop, and play guessing games for ingredients and ways we could improve it.
- Turn it into something that isn’t about food. If your child is into math or science, make meals about math or science. Get a digital scale. Get them to estimate how many peas in a cup. Get them to calculate how many millilitres there are in an fluid ounce. Look up why beets turn your pee pink. Shift the focus from “FOOD AND EATING” and maybe food will go in their mouth when they aren’t looking.
- Finally: check your expectations about how much they should eat. Are you Italian Grandma-ing them? Read up on what their little bodies need and measure out portions to suit. Chances are pretty good your kid is getting adequate food in a day–the issue here is more behavioural than nutritional.