Sunday, July 25, 2010

Raising Good Eaters

(Yeah, another post about food.  Sorry.)

I always cringe when I hear mothers say things like, "Well, my oldest won't eat anything but chicken nuggets and macaroni, and my youngest won't eat anything green, so I end up making one meal for my husband and I, and a second meal for the kids every night."  Sometimes they even make each kid a separate meal!

And they wonder why they're tired!

Sisters, you've got to knock it off.  Have you looked around the playground lately?  We're not doing children any favors by feeding them a constant stream of their (HFCS* laden, fat filled, salt and sugar saturated, MSG packed) favorites.  If your kid will only eat kid food, you have one person to blame, and it's the person in the mirror.

I've heard all the excuses.  "Toddlers naturally go through a period of pickiness, we evolved that way!  It's protective!" and "It takes a dozen exposures before any child likes any new food!" and "I don't want him to starve!" and "I don't want every meal to be a battle."

Well, I'm here to tell you that you've got yourself in a power struggle and you need to stop.  Now.

To the excuses, I say #1 - most of the picky eaters I see are well beyond their toddler years, #2 - it has never taken any child a dozen exposures to like chicken nuggets, or macaroni and cheese, or chocolate, #3 - no healthy child has ever or will ever voluntarily starve himself to death, and #4 - it's only a battle if you choose to make it a battle.

Yes, it's normal to make special meals for your kids when they're infants.  Obviously your 9 month old isn't going to eat steak and baked potatoes.  But when your child graduates to finger food, you need to gradually wean them onto eating what the family eats (with reasonable modifications for spiciness, texture, etc.).  By the time my kids were two, they were eating whatever I cooked for the entire family every night. 

Here are the food rules in my house:

Breakfast:  Everyone eats what they want if it's cereal (we only buy Multigrain Cheerios in this house - none of that cartoon crap where the box is healthier than the cereal inside!) or bagels or things that are all equally easy, but if I'm making eggs or pancakes or something I make enough for the whole family and everyone is expected to eat what is cooked.  Everyone in my house likes their eggs scrambled, so that's what I do. But if one person wants toast and the other wants a bagel with their eggs, it's no skin off of my nose, so they can select what they prefer.

Lunch:  It's just as easy to make two different kinds of lunch meat sandwich as it is to make one, so since Claire doesn't like ham and MG doesn't like pastrami, I'll get out both.  But if I'm making something hot (mac and cheese, or soup, or something else that requires cooking) everyone gets the same.  I try to make sure that I have at least one item that each kid will eat, and I include a fruit and a vegetable as often as possible - it's not hard to throw the applesauce and the pickles on the table, or to cut up an apple. 

Snacks:  They choose their own, within reason.  I try to make it fruit.

Dinner:  This is the real battleground for most families.  I plan my meals to be a protein, a starch, a fruit and a vegetable as often as possible (I'll admit that I often miss the fruit, mainly because fruit is expensive and applesauce gets boring).  When all four are present, it's easy to think, "Ok, MG likes blueberries so I'll serve those, and Claire doesn't but she likes broccoli, so I'll make that..."  Everyone likes bread, but not everyone likes baked potatoes, so if I know they'll eat the protein I'll make baked potatoes, and if I'm not sure they'll like it (the chicken has a new sauce or whatever) I'll make bread.  It is very rare, cooking this way, that there's nothing on the table that a single child will eat.

I often leave extras, like sauces and condiments, off of things.  So I'll make chicken breasts, but mine will be barbecue and BJ's will be buffalo and the girls will dip theirs in ketchup (and I try not to gag).  I don't mind making burgers or hot dogs for the kids when we have steak, or fish sticks when we have the $7-for-two-servings stuffed salmon from the deli.  But it has to be similar and no more difficult than the adult alternative (I can grill hot dogs and steaks together, and the fish sticks and the salmon bake at the same temperature).  They are still given a bite of ours to try (once they're old enough not to choke on the steak). 

Everyone has to finish their vegetable and their fruit before getting seconds on any item.

Condiments are free, but we try to limit their consumption of ranch dressing, and we buy the HFCS-free ketchup (hooray Heinz!).

If someone has tried everything on their plate, and they truly don't like any of it, they can have a peanut butter and jelly sandwich AFTER I have finished eating.  Not chicken nuggets or macaroni and cheese or a happy meal, a boring old PB&J.  In 4 years of feeding toddlers and preschoolers (so far) I have made exactly three PB&J sandwiches.

Two of them were tonight because I made pasta carbonara.  It was one of those boxed meals where you add the chicken.  They'd eaten the same box as fettucini alfredo before, but adding the peas and the bacon did them in.  I didn't follow my own rules, so the pasta dish was the only thing I served.  Well, they both tried it but neither kid liked it, so when I was done eating I made them PB&J and applesauce.  Lesson learned.  But hey, it inspired this post, so it wasn't a total loss.

I didn't make a big huff over it, by the way.  Actually, my exact words were, "Great!  More for me!"  See what I mean about not making it a battle?  Eventually even the stubbornest child is going to get sick of PB&J, and he's going to learn to eat what's put in front of him.  And he'll probably even learn to like some of it. 

* HFCS - I've been looking into this stuff, and the deeper I dig, the scarier it gets.  We have got to keep this poison out of our kids to the greatest extent possible.  All this hard work and research is paying off, by the way - I went shopping for maternity clothes today and the mediums fit.  I bought the large, so I'd have room to grow with the pregnancy, but I can't even tell you how good it felt to be OUT OF THE PLUS SECTION!  Shopping for maternity clothes was such a drag when I was pregnant with the girls and I was wearing a 1x or 2x - there was nothing cute!  But now, well, all I have to say is, BJ had better take away my credit cards!


Katie Kermeen Swisher said...

I don't have kids, but this still bothers me! My little niece is becoming a picky eater, and I think it's because she sees that her dad is weird about the food he will eat. His family is all very picky and will only eat a few things. It's drives me insane!

My parents raised us to eat what was given to us. We had to take at least three good bites of every dish on our plate. AND we had to eat all our vegetables before moving on to the main course. Something must have worked, because my siblings and I LOVE veggies and salads and stuff.

Liz said...

I'm trying to think of a way to respond to this post, and I'm sort of at a loss. You definitely write about food as if you are an expert. Do you have a degree in nutrition? I have two children of my own, and I've done plenty of research into healthy eating (I've also talked to our pediatrician.)

Both of my sons have breastfed for at least 22 months (my youngest is still breastfeeding so we'll see how far it goes.) My oldest wouldn't eat any baby food. Ever. He only ate yogurt and drank breastmilk. Around 13 months he suddenly developed an interest in other foods and he has never looked back. He's the best eater I've ever seen (in my experience only, of course). He eats a full range of healthy stuff, and sometimes some not-so-healthy stuff. We believe in moderation. He's extremely healthy, active, and barely in the 50th percentile for his age. (And my son took forever to even touch a chicken nugget or mac and cheese. He still hates mac and cheese.)

My youngest is a picky eater. All the excuses that you claim have no merit really don't apply to my son. I'm not going to make them here. I'll say this about him. I put the food we are eating in front of him. Sometimes he'll take a few bites and ask for something else (like yogurt.) And I will give it to him. If he wants to eat something healthy, I'm not going to put up a fuss about it. I don't mind making separate meals because I do that anyway for myself and my husband. I am a vegetarian and my husband is totally not.

According to our pediatrician my youngest is totally normal in his eating habits and as we offer him things he is slowly adding to his repetoire.

I guess my point is that you can't assume that everyone with a picky eater is doing something wrong or involved in a power struggle, which is really how this post comes across. And if people (like myself) make more than one meal a night, that really is a personal choice. If you complain about it, don't do it, but if people do it and like it, don't criticize them for it.

I really do think it's great that your kids are such good eaters. You are lucky.

Amy said...

Katie - It's important to remember that you don't remember being a toddler (few of us do, and those who do have inaccurate memories!). The memories you have of your parents being strict with food are probably from when you were 8 or 10, not when you were 3 or 4, so go easy on your niece's parents! :) However, I totally agree that parents transmit their food weirdness to their kids, and that the only way to get your kids to be good eaters is to teach them to be good eaters!

Liz - I have a bachelor's degree in education, which included a whole bunch of classes about how to get kids to do what I want them to do. I also have two kids who are good eaters, and have overcome a lifelong weight problem - losing 50 pounds in 6 months (before getting pregnant), cooking most meals and doing most of the shopping for my husband as he lost 50 pounds in the same time period. You can't do that without learning a thing or two about food, and since I have MANY friends and relatives who are in the midst of their own struggles with weight (hell, I'm still in the midst of mine, but I'm in time out until this baby is born), I'm trying to share what I've learned.

Frankly, I think when it comes to food the "experts" lie to us as often as they tell us the truth.

I eat every single day, at least 4 times. That's got to count for something! :)

Whether you're giving your kid yogurt or PB&J when he refuses dinner, as long as you're not running out for Happy Meals I think we're on the same wavelength. What bothers me is when people say, "Oh, Precious will only eat cheese pizza and chicken nuggets!" and they never challenge Precious to eat anything else. I knew a kid who only ate McDonald's Cheeseburgers and fries, hot dogs, and green beans. No kidding.

I also think a lot of mothers martyr themselves on the whole dinner thing. The message that they're trying to send is, "Look at what a good mom I am, making sure my baby has exactly what he wants!" but I think there are some parents out there who aren't thinking their daily food choices through to their logical conclusion. Then they complain when they spend half the evening in the kitchen, or when the kid won't try anything new, or when the kid ends up heavy in 3rd grade...

If you're happy and your kid is healthy and your ped says it's fine, then don't sweat it. As long as you recognize that it's your choice to do so, and you don't whine about it! :)

Maybe I need to go back and find the blog post that made me want to write this one... was it a Momversation? Hmmmm...

Yeah, I wanted to smack that woman. "I'm so worried that he's going to starve or I'm not being a good mom..." Mmmhmmm...

And if you read the comments, it sounds like there are a lot more houses out there that are restaurants than homes with logical limits when it comes to what's for dinner!

Anonymous said...

I really like the "you have to finish your veggie before you get seconds" rule. We use fruit as the "dessert" so we don't put it on the table until Marc has eaten a semi-reasonable meal.

Thanks for some good food for thought!

PS - Really didn't mean to pun there, but noticed after the proofread...decided to leave it. :)

Chrissy said...

I have a very stubborn fussy eater :( he lost weight between the ages of 2.5 & 3 due to not eating, I felt like the worlds worst mum.

Even now (at 3.5) I cook him what we eat, it can take him up to half an hour of crying, whinging, being put in his room, time out, to even try one bite, then if he decides he doesn't like it, all the persuasion in the world wont convince him to eat anymore & if we miss the window then getting any food into him becomes an issue :( Oh and something he liked and ate yesterday doesn't guarantee he will eat it today or tomorrow, so while I try and make him food he likes, its not a guarantee that he will eat it.

So yeah he is fussy, yes he eats what we eat, except when he doesn't and then I do make him something else, because a hungry child doesn't sleep well and I'm not that keen on getting up in the night anymore.

He does eat a lot of fruit, most veges, we dont really do prepackaged processed food so most of what he does eat is good food. He hates McDonalds, will eat a Burger King burger, his favourite fast food is homemade pizza!

I think you are incredibly lucky to have two good eaters :)

Chrissy said...

Thinking more about this post (how you know its a good one lol) why do people insist that kids wont starve themselves? Why? Kids will starve themselves, or maybe its just my super stubborn kid?

And thinking more about it, ds isn't fussy, he eats a huge range of food, if he wants to, if he doesn't want to then forget it.

I think most people don't realise how hard & stressful it is living with a child that doesn't eat & watching your kid lose weight is horrible :(

Now my niece has the opposite problem she is overweight and will eat worms because someone once told her it was spaghetti!

Amy said...

Chrissy - not to freak you out, but it sounds like you've got something else going on besides picky eating, there. Have you had your son thoroughly evaluated for things like Sensory Processing Disorder?

People say that a child won't starve himself because a healthy child WON'T. I'm sure you've discussed this with his doctor, but I think you should get a second opinion if he or she hasn't done thorough testing and evaluation to look for an underlying reason why your son refuses food. It could be something physical (reflux, cavities in his teeth that make chewing painful, etc.) or something more difficult to see (SPD). I wish there were a way for me to e-mail you directly, because I hate to put this as a comment.

It's not normal. My post was about typical children. Every instinct in my body is screaming that you've got something else going on.

Does your son have trouble with loud noises? Bright lights? Being touched? Have you noticed a pattern with certain textures of food - he'll eat squishy things but not things that he has to chew a lot, or he won't eat anything slimy? Does he eat better when he's well rested than when he's tired?

Please look into SPD. Obviously I can't diagnose him based on two comments you've left (I'm not qualified to diagnose anyone with anything, even if I met him), but my Mom-sense says that you've got a deeper issue on your hands than whether or not he'll eat.

Amy said...

Chrissy - this website has a good checklist - look under "oral input dysfunction."

Chrissy said...

Amy having read the whole check list he might have some oral sensory disorders, but he doesn't really fit any of the others. I just figured he was a normal but spirited 3.5 year old as he definitely fits the description of a spirited child.

Docs are pretty laid back over here, and he has gained weight this year so they aren't too concerned.

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