How to fix a picky eater
I have a friend ready to quit cooking. She's getting fed up with the family not liking what she makes. And her husband is suggesting she come up with a menu of things the kids, ages 4 and 2, like to eat and just eat that every week. So she gets to eat hot dogs, sausage, fish sticks, chicken nuggets, pasta, chicken and breakfast stuff every night? Not happening.
My answer: I've been there so don't think I'm one of those people who have good eaters who think you just aren't doing it right. My oldest was VERY finicky and I made the rookie mom mistake of catering to it. I got so I'd feed the kids chicken nuggets or pizza at 6, start baths and put them to bed and then hubbie and I would eat what we liked. This is actually a nice thing once in awhile, like creating a mini date night. We like spicy food so this is especially nice. But my experience is that when you cater to this, the kids' palates never get any better. You have to gradually steer them out of a diet full of junk.
When these separate dinners turned from once in awhile into an every day thing I got tired of making two meals and cleaning up the kitchen twice and I also know the importance of family dinners. I put my foot down and can report that a year later, both kids eat way better than they ever have and a much wider variety than I ever imagined.
Here's what we did:
1. No commenting good or bad about what anybody eats. Dinner time is for visiting. If you want to compliment the cook, fine. But if you don't like something simply say nothing. The only thing I ask in return for my not nagging is you take at least one "no thank you" bite the size of a quarter. Before imposing this rule I sat my oldest down and apologized for all the fights we'd had in the past over what he ate. I explained why, that I was concerned that he wasn't eating a healthy variety of food. But I didn't want that to be his memory of mealtimes as a child. I promised if he'd go along with the thank-you-bite idea, I'd lay off the nagging. He tested me on this, the bugger. Healthy stuff he normally ate, he left on his plate. I bit my tongue till it about bled. But once I proved to him that I meant what I said, dinner became a more relaxed environment. Just last night his father marveled as he happily had seconds of grilled asparagus and black beans and rice.
2. Have at least one thing on the plate that each person likes. Nothing big. It could just be a dinner roll but they can't have seconds until they've done the no-thank-you bites. Sometimes my younger son will protest, "But I've tried this before and I don't like it." I tell him that as you grow your tastebuds change. I tell him how I hated asparagus as a kid and now it's my favorite vegetable, especially grilled. So if he just gives me the no-thank-you bite, I'll drop the subject. My strategy here is that kids need to be exposed to a taste, especially veggies, multiple times before they start to like them.
3. If you are worried they didn't eat anything, have a healthy snack before bed. But be mindful that toddlers don't need 3 square meals a day. They can do just fine on two good meals. But take a look at the kid. Does he look malnourished? I would bet not. Americans are way too obsessed over this stuff, especially protein intake, in my opinion. American kids seldom suffer protein deficiency.
4. Don't offer junk if you don't want them to eat it. I'm more of a "everything in moderation" person, so I'll offer a little bit to balance out their meal and gradually ease it out of the meal plan.
Need more convincing? Read Laurie David's terrific book The Family Dinner: Great Ways to Connect With Your Kids One Meal at a Time. She argues that as long as everyone shows up sans cellphones, turns off the TV and makes an effort to communicate, better nutrition will follow. I especially loved her idea of "participatory meals" where everyone plays a part, like in creating their own tacos, pasta toppings or Vietnamese noodle bowls, right. That makes for a fun meal and little complaints because everyone creates their own.
What are your suggestions readers?
--Sharon Kennedy Wynne
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