When my husband and I order pizza for the kids and pick up sushi and nigiri for ourselves, there is much complaining. “Why do you get the sushi?! Can I have just one piece?” When we have fajitas, we have to make huge amounts of onions and peppers because there will be a brawl if we run out. At home my kids eat pork belly, pear gorgonzola salads, and bacon-wrapped asparagus.
Out in my summer garden they snack on cherry tomatoes while they play in the yard. They love hummus, fish, quiche, stinky cheeses, Brussels sprouts, poached eggs, broccoli, cauliflower, beans, yogurt and spinach. They beg me to make Super Hero Juice (recipe below). My son actually cried when he developed an allergy to shrimp (one day he broke out in hives after eating them. It was a sad day). They love our tradition of Indian Food on Sundays.
Their ages are 9, 9, 9, 8, 6, and 3. Are you shocked?
When others see what they eat, I always get asked, “How on earth did you get your kids to eat like this?”
“My kids will only eat like, five things. I would kill to have them eat real food.”
“I hate making two meals every night. One for us, one for the kids.”
And restaurant servers who are astounded by what our kids order and devour from the menus.
So how did I do it? How did I raise six foodies? How did I avoid a steady diet of blue box macaroni, chicken dinos and frozen fries for my kids?
The Short Answer: Ever since our kids were old enough for table food, I have fed them like adults. They eat what we eat, and we like to eat good food. I’ve never fed them blue box macaroni, chicken dinos and frozen fries because we don’t want to eat those things. Ick.
The Long Answer: My inspiration was partly the way I was raised, and partly a book called, “How to Get Your Kids to Eat, But Not Too Much.”
Growing up in a family of six kids myself, that leaves a lot of room for a wide variety of preferences. My mom’s philosophy was simply that what she prepared was what we were having for dinner. The end. She didn’t short order cook for anyone. We just ate it. Because we were hungry.
In the book, the basic idea is that you never allow food to become a power struggle. As the adult, my responsibility is to provide good food at appropriate times, and the child’s responsibility is to decide IF and how much to eat.
My oldest has a sensory issue related to her mouth. As an infant I couldn’t just pop a bottle or paci in her mouth. She would flip out. I had to offer it by stroking her bottom lip and she would decide to take it. She didn’t like her face touched anywhere near her mouth. I never knew if she was teething because I could have lost a finger by sticking one in her mouth to check. I should add, that other than this fierce protection of her mouth, she is and always has been a very sweet-natured little girl and has been an extremely easy-to-raise child.
As a byproduct of this sensory issue, she has aversions to certain food textures. She likes crunchy foods and hates soft foods. Toast yes, bread no. Soup definitely not. If I had allowed it, she would be on a strict diet of pretzels, toast and tortilla chips today, and she is 9 years old.
HOW I DO IT
If one of our kids turns up their noses at the food offered at a meal, our response is this: “We’re having tacos for dinner. If that doesn’t appeal to you, you can always wait to see if you like breakfast better.” And that is the end of it. There are no substitutes, no fights, no cajoling, bribing, negotiating, pleading, deal-making, or begging of any kind. The decision is theirs. There are no thank you bites or airplanes fashioned from spoons full of peas.
There were nights my sweetpea chose to wait for breakfast, and everyone was ok with it. We don’t force our kids to eat anything they don’t want to. I hate liver. I dislike olives and capers. I detest ketchup, and lima beans are an atrocity. I wouldn’t want someone to make me eat those. Why would I do the same to them?
They know that there is food available at breakfast, lunch and dinner, and an afternoon snack. We don’t snack in between, so come meal time, they should be pretty hungry. Thankfully I’ve never been a snacker myself, so I’ve avoided the habit with my kids.
When she was a toddler she would wander into the kitchen and say, “I just want some little bit of milk.” I soon realized she was filling up on milk at meals and in between so she wouldn’t have to eat things that made her uncomfortable. We started treating milk like a food (because it is) and limiting them to 8 ounces per meal. “Milk is food. If you’re thirsty drink water.” My kids still drink water 95% of the time.
She was offered pasta of some variety about once a week, and she finally tried it when she was four. It took her three years of table foods to take me up on that offer of pasta. And guess what? She loved it. Soups literally made her gag until she was seven. Now my homemade chicken noodle soup is her favorite meal, and she loves all my soups.
Her pediatrician and I discussed this at her well check last year, and he was very impressed with my approach, and said I did her a huge favor, because she could have been THAT GIRL for the rest of her life, an adult ordering chicken fingers and fries from every restaurant menu. No one wants to hang out with, date, or eat a meal with THAT GIRL.
PUT TO THE TEST
We know a family who has a child that refuses to eat anything just for the thrill of watching his parents beg. They beg him to eat pizza, pancakes, anything. He eats a lot of brightly colored cereal. He’s been doing it since he was old enough to refuse, and at his age now, I bet he doesn’t even know why he refuses. It’s a habit at this point.
One time we invited their family over for dinner (though I’m not sure why, because no one wants to have THAT KID over for dinner). We had seen the ritual before, so we were expecting it. They were begging him to eat some bread because he had already refused everything else on the table. He ended up with a bowl of Froot Loops they had brought with them. I cannot imagine the exhaustion of doing this four times a day with this kid.
During the same meal, one of our four year olds at the time decided to to try it out for himself. “I don’t want this, I want cereal!!!” He said it in the same nasty, hateful voice this boy used. I calmly replied, “We’re having pork loin for dinner, but you are welcome to wait for breakfast. Maybe you’ll like that better.” He repeated himself two more times, as did I. On the third time I added, “And if you choose to speak to me that way again, you’ll be excused from the table for the rest of the night.” Their mouths were hanging open, baited breath, waiting for the explosion. They were waiting for me to get mad, to start the negotiations, to make threats and demands, but I continued eating my dinner. After a few minutes my son mumbled, “Can I please have some pork?” Of course. Pass me your plate. And that was the end. We never went through it again.
THE FINE DETAILS
So do I allow substitutions and refusals? Let’s take my daughter as an example again, because even at nine years old she is still learning to like certain foods. She still prefers toasted bread to regular bread. I’m ok with that. Until very recently, if we went out to eat and she wanted a burger, she wanted just a plain patty. No bun or condiments. That’s fine with me. At home if we grill burgers she will toast her bun if she eats one. I happen to like a toasted or grilled bun myself. I allow them to customize their plates within the parameters of what I’ve prepared. They don’t have to eat everything on the table. I don’t let them hand pick what they do and don’t want out of the salad bowl because that is rude, but if they choose to eat the broccoli and skip the potatoes, that’s ok. If they want butter on their potato or prefer to skip the sauce on their fish tacos, I get that.
< p>If we have chicken tortilla soup, no one can have a plate of tortilla chips and pass on the soup. The chips are for eating with the soup. You don’t have to eat the soup, but that means no chips either. The chips are a garnish, not a meal. When we have spaghetti and meatballs, the sauce and meatballs come with the pasta. Always. No just eating pasta.
Have I really let my kids go to bed hungry? I have. It’s their choice. There is ample, delicious food available, and they have on occasion chosen not to partake. It hasn’t happened often, but it has happened. There were no tears or anger. Was it hard? Of course, but we are playing the long game. We are drawing a line in the sand. You only have to do it a few times at most.
I never make my kids clean their plates. I allow them to decide when they are full, because there are adults who don’t know how to stop at enough. They feel compelled to clean their plates and overeat. I do, however, say, “You can have more ____ once you’ve finished the food you’ve already taken.” Starting when they are very little they get to help fill their plates. They choose from what is on the table, and I help them not overfill their plates. They can come back for as many servings as they want until they are satisfied, but we always dish up small servings at a time.
A FEW TRICKS UP MY SLEEVE
When our triplets were toddlers, I liked introducing new foods at lunch. Many times this new food was refused at the table. After lunch when they were in the family room, I would take a plate of the offending item and sit on the couch and eat it. Suddenly they were all crowding around my knees begging for bites. At first I would say, “No. This is my lunch. I offered this to you at lunch.” After a couple of times I would cave and they would devour it. Devious right? But human nature makes us want the unattainable, and the other person’s plate is always more appealing.
When they were four years old I started pushing lunch a little later, made dinner a little earlier, and skipped afternoon snacks for a while. I wanted her to be really, really hungry at dinner. Then I would intentionally serve things she didn’t love. I knew she’d be so hungry she would try it, and guess what? She did. And guess what? She liked it. Her food repertoire opened up a lot during that time, and that was a big break through. She was more willing to try new things after that.
Along with the above, I sometimes served our meals in courses in those early days. They came to the table STARVING, and I would say, “Oh, this thing isn’t ready yet, but you can start on this.” Then I would offer up what I knew would be the least appealing item on the table. For a long time, I would “forget” to bring bread to the table until they were 3/4 finished with the meal. I didn’t want them to fill up on bread. Now I serve everything at once.
I still control snacking. Now that they are older and have after-school activities, dinner is later again, so an after-school snack is a must. However I still remind them it’s a SNACK not a MEAL. It’s meant to tide them over, not fill them up. Whoever has sports that day has a more substantial snack because they are chasing soccer balls, swimming laps and dancing, and that requires energy.
I’m not a doctor, nurse or healthcare provider of any kind. You should always talk to your child’s pediatrician about nutrition and feeding plans. I am sharing what I did. This is not medical advice. Every child is different, and some kids have different circumstances. You are the parent in your family, and you make your own choices for your children. I’ve had so many people over the years ask me for this very advice that I am finally writing it down.
I also want to be clear that this can be hard. It is hard to let your child go to bed without eating her dinner, especially when she’s so petite she’s not on the growth chart. It was just as hard with child number six as it is was with child number one. It never gets easy, and your mothering instincts to feed-that-child-no-matter-what will be STRONG. However, it is HER CHOICE. No one is depriving her of food. There is plenty to eat, and it’s delicious. I lived in a very poor part of Brazil for a couple of years where some people were literally dirt floor poor. No electricity or running water in the houses. Some had propane tanks for stoves and others cooked over the fire. I can tell you I never, ever saw one of those kids turn down their daily portions of beans and rice. Not once. They ate the exact same thing every single meal, every single day, and they were happy to have it. I’ve never met a Brazilian who didn’t like beans and rice. It’s what they eat because for some of them, that is all they can afford, and they are grateful for it. Their choices are beans and rice or nothing. Picky eaters are a product of affluence.
Super Hero Juice
We have a Breville juicer like this one and this one is very affordable. I wash the produce and push through the juicer. These amounts are really flexible. If the apples are really sweet, I will do fewer, and if they aren’t, I do more. Honestly I don’t make it that sweet, but my kids love it and ask for it all the time.
Juice and enjoy!