Everyone remembers at least some of the
lyrics from that song in the iconic musical, Oliver.
“Food, glorious food!
Don’t care what it looks like.
Burned, underdone, crude.
Don’t care what the cook’s like.”
What parent today wouldn’t love to hear those words sung from the dinner table! I would consider it a dream come true, given I am not a particularly aesthetic, nor friendly cook. Preparing a pleasing meal for multiple personalities (theirs, not mine) has become a multi-billion dollar industry in our food-centric, choice-obsessed culture. What cycles through my overwhelmed mind every time I begin preparing a family meal is when did eating a meal become more about entertainment and less about sustenance? Am I to serve this meal, or tap dance around it?
While parents today are becoming more educated about and committed to healthier eating habits in our homes, our children have not changed. Not even a little. It is still the child’s developmentally driven job to challenge the responsible decisions parents make for her. It is still the role of a child to turn his nose up at what does not bring him immediate pleasure, like Brussels sprouts or grilled chicken. Our children still do not understand what is in their own best interest and therefore remain dependent on their parents to be smarter than they are. So, even with all the cool science and new information available to us about what our children need nutritionally, and despite our most creative efforts, the picky, persnickety eater still shows up at the table every night.
Healthy eating is a discipline that evolves over time through planning, practice, and a willingness to find big gratification in small steps – or bites. Picky eaters have existed since the beginning of time. It’s often a personality thing, which means we cannot control it. The good news? Minimizing the drama a picky eater can generate is a parenting thing. And that is something over which we have complete control.
In any discipline, doing things differently is anchored by thinking about it differently. Here are some new ways to consider old problems:
1. Your child’s attitude toward food has far less to do with food than it does with you. Food becomes a battleground only when your child learns that you might be more focused on making him happy than making him well. Your job is to govern your child’s wellness, not his delight. Offering too many choices at mealtime encourages your child to believe that having her like what she has served is your objective. If you’d like to offer your child benign choices, such as the color of her cup or the music she listens to as she eats, go for it. But avoid making what she eats a choice. When it comes to your child’s health and well being, she doesn’t get to choose.
2. Your pantry is an invitation to power struggles. If you do not want your child to eat it, then it should not be in your home. Your child is an immediate-gratification, pleasure-seeking missile. She will not choose what’s healthy if something more pleasurable is available.
3. Rethink what a meal is. If it’s healthy, it’s a meal. We need to stop using the word snack. Children are natural grazers, preferring many small meals each day. Offer your child six small meals, two to three hours apart. This minimizes your frustration when your child doesn’t eat what you offer. She gets to try again in just a few hours. If snacks are transformed into small, healthy meals you no longer need to withhold food at one meal because she did not eat the previous one. And, yes, the last meal of the day (or what you once referred to as a bedtime snack) is now a meal, offered even though she did not eat her dinner. Why? Because it’s a nutritious meal, not a snack.
4. Teach your child that eating is his job. Like any job, there is a beginning, an end, and a job site. Eat only at the table and limit the time spent there. (Ditch the roaming Ziploc bag along with the overuse of the word snack!)
5. Eliminate store-bought juices. Processed juices are very filling because of the sugar in them. Don’t be fooled by the label. Juice that you did not squeeze yourself is no different than soda.
6. Offer your hesitant eater some control at mealtime by using a small-ish muffin pan (4-cup) rather than a traditional plate. This way, food stays separate, there’s a place for condiments, and portions are more manageable.
7. Adopt a three-try rule in your house. It takes at least three separate exposures to a new food for it to become familiar. When a child says, I hate that! what she really means is, I’m afraid to try that. Insist your child try any new food three separate times. You will be delighted with the result.
8. Have each child plan and execute with you one meal each month. Older children can even do the shopping for their meal.
9. Create any kind of make-your-own bar-style meal: taco; potato; pizza; yogurt; salad. These meal choices lend themselves to an appropriate way to offer fun and individualized choices.
10. Finally, nothing inspires cleaner eating more than cultivating your own garden. Get to work on this year’s effort and watch good eating habits grow!