(OK, so I wouldn't eat it either.)
I am not a parent. And it has been many, many decades since I was a child.
So I really have no business even addressing the topic of kids who are picky eaters and how to handle them.
But of course that won't stop me! So, just a warning: this post may well offend some of you parents. I'm afraid I'm just an old fuddy-duddy and need some help in understanding the issues involved. Things seem to have changed quite a bit since I was a youngster.
In a nutrition column in the SF Chronicle, a reader recently asked expert Marion Nestle this question:
"I am very concerned about my 6-year-old grandson's diet. I don't believe he has ever eaten fruit or veggies or regular food. He loves chocolate and candy and frosting, and at dinner time has his special foods. His pediatrician says not to worry, but his parents are worried and afraid of making eating an issue. What to do?"
Before we get to the answer, and some actual helpful tips for the parents of picky eaters, can I just tell you how this question struck me? It was as though this poor grandparent had written:
"I am very concerned about my 6-year-old grandson's recreational activities. I don't think he's ever played with a ball or ridden a bike. He loves his assault rifles and bourbon and cocaine and hardcore porn magazines. His parole officer says not to worry, but his parents are worried and afraid to make his hobbies an issue. What to do?"
OK, so it's not quite the same thing... but does anyone else wonder if parental deference to kids' preferences sometimes goes too far?
Most Parents Do a Great Job!
I just want to note that most parents I know handle these issues really well. And I'm sure regular readers at Cranky Fitness are flexible and compassionate, while still managing to get their kids to eat something besides candy and frosting. (In fact, I hope some of you have advice from the trenches you can help us out with in the comments). It must be so frustrating to have a kid go through a phase where he or she hates most normal food. Dinnertime as battleground? I can see how that would be really unpleasant.
But WTF is Up With Kids Being Totally in Charge?
This is more than just a picky food issue. I am frequently surprised to see how parents and children interact these days--all that begging and pleading and whining and pouting! Seriously, parents, it's just not dignified when you do that.
When I was a kid, we also had discussions and negotiations--after all, I was part of the spoiled baby boomer generation. (Before that, I believe kids were supposed to be "seen and not heard.") However, when we discussed stuff with our parents, it was understood that parents had the final say. Kids were expected to understand reasonable adult explanations, like, "because I said so that's why," and not put up a fuss.
Here is some more historical perspective:
How Parents Dealt With Picky Eating In the Really Olden Days:
This is before my time, but I'm pretty sure that kids in the olden days who did not want to eat what was offered did not eat, period. If kids took it too far and accidentally perished, the parents simply made more kids.
Candy and sweets must not have even existed, because kids got all excited when they got one crappy little orange in their Christmas stocking.
Oh, yeah, and parents used to make kids drink cod liver oil for no reason at all except, apparently, sadism.
How Picky Eating Was Dealt With In My Generation:
It varied from family to family, but I don't think my experience was unusual:
Junky foods like ice cream and potato chips and hamburgers and candy were treats, not staples. They were often used as rewards and could be taken away if we were bratty. As kids, trying to demand any of these foods would have been useless, unless our goal was to spend the rest of the day exiled to our rooms.
Dinners were eaten as a family and we all ate the same thing. Kids had to try at least a small portion of everything on our plate or we wouldn't get dessert. No matter how vile a vegetable was, we generally managed to choke down a few bites in order to get something sweet afterward.
Note: these mealtime tactics are now considered akin to child abuse, as they are supposed to give kids eating disorders and traumatize them etc. Oddly enough, these primitive methods worked pretty well for me. Having choked down vegetables repeatedly for all the wrong reasons, I got used to the way they tasted and then even grew to like them. (By contrast, the Lobster grew up in a household where no one much liked vegetables, so she didn't have to eat them. And guess what? She still hates most of them to this day.)
What The Experts Are Now Saying You Should Do
Between the Chronicle "fussy eater" article above, a USDA page on preschool picky eaters and a Mayo Clinic list of tips for children's nutrition, here is a big ol' list of suggestions. Some of these seem really smart! Others, well, I'll be curious to see what actual parents think of them.
- Model healthy eating habits by eating healthy food yourself.
- By the time kids are 2 years old, they generally can and should eat what adults eat.
- With small kids, you can cut or mash the foods, serve smaller portions and don't add sugar or salt.
- Involve kids in shopping and cooking. "Take the foods home and let kids peel fruit, pare vegetables, mix, mash and measure. Let them taste everything. Teach kids to cook."
- Kids do not need sodas or candy. You can postpone these indefinitely or reserve them for occasional treats.
- Once babies can handle solid foods, you can offer a new food once a week. If the child tolerates it, move on to the next.
- A child's willingness to accept an unfamiliar food depends on how frequently the food is offered. You might have to offer a food at 20 meals before a child will taste it.
- Start by presenting tiny portions of everything served at family meals, give the child time to play with and taste the foods, and remove anything not eaten after a short while.
- Have plenty of healthful foods available - and offer nothing else. Do not make substitutions.
- Try to make meals a stress-free time. Talk about fun and happy things.
ultimatumschoices. Rather than ask "Do you want broccoli for dinner?" ask “Which would you like for dinner: broccoli or cauliflower?”
- Offer a variety of foods and let your child choose how much of these foods to eat.
- Offer the same foods for the whole family. Don’t make a different meal for your preschooler. Your child will be okay even if they don’t eat a meal now and then.
- Respect your child's hunger — or lack of hunger. If your child isn't hungry, don't force a meal or snack.
- Stay calm. If your child senses that you're unhappy with his or her eating habits, it may become a battle of wills. Threats and punishments only reinforce the power struggle.
- No juice or snacks for at least one hour before meals.
- Don't expect too much. A few bites may be all it takes for your child to feel full.
- Limit liquid calories. If your child fills up on milk or juice, he or she may have no room for meals or snacks.
- Don't force your child to clean his or her plate.
- Don't mention taste. Talk about a food's color, shape, aroma and texture — not whether it tastes good.
- Eat breakfast for dinner. Who says cereal or pancakes are only for breakfast? The distinction between breakfast, lunch and dinner foods may be lost on your child.
- Make it fun. Serve broccoli and other veggies with a favorite dip or sauce. (Really, this is supposed to be fun for kids? Now using the veggies to catapult the dip against the wall--that sounds like fun!) Or, cut foods into various shapes with cookie cutters.
- Be sneaky. Add chopped broccoli or green peppers to spaghetti sauce, top cereal with fruit slices, or mix grated zucchini and carrots into casseroles and soups.
- If your child doesn't like ingredients thrown together,"unmix" the food. Place sandwich fixings outside the bread, or serve the ingredients of a salad, casserole or stir-fry separately.
- Be consistent: serve meals and snacks at about the same time every day, and "close" the kitchen at other times.
- Consult your child's doctor if you're concerned that picky eating is compromising your child's growth and development or if certain foods seem to make your child ill.
- Minimize distractions. Turn off the television during meals, and don't allow books or toys at the table.
- And finally, (and the suggestion I liked the least): Don't offer dessert as a reward. This sends the message that dessert is the best food.
Well, sorry Mayo clinic, but dessert IS the best food!!! If we could blame our adult love of sweets on our parents using them as bribes, isn't that a pretty easy problem to fix? Parents, from now on, just say: "Sweetie, you know you have to finish your tater tots or you won't get any broccoli after dinner." Voila, problem solved!
So obviously I have NO idea about how to deal with this issue in real life. Do you folks have any thoughts/opinions/war stories on the Picky Eater issue?