I hope everyone was able to sit down with his or her families today and enjoy a meal together. Cooking at home and eating together are being quickly forgotten in today’s fast moving culture. I think cooking is one of the most important skills we can teach our children, as well having meals together can teach them a whole lot too. Here is a bit about my experience.
When my son first started eating, he was a great eater, and would eat just about anything I put in front of him. I congratulated myself on the great job I had done making all of his baby food, pureeing all sorts of fruits and vegetables and exposing him to lots of new and interesting flavors. He would surely continue on his path of healthy eating and willingness to try new foods. After all, he was the son of a dietitian!
Ha! Then age 2 ½ hit, and he became suddenly very picky and unwilling to try new foods. Every night I would fill his plate with homemade goodness of all sorts, and he would refuse to eat it. It became a bit of a battle where oftentimes we would resort to giving him something else to eat, because for goodness sakes, a Jewish mother simply CANNOT let her child go hungry! Or could she?
I had been doing lots of reading about feeding children and had read in school about serving meals family style, and letting children choose what they wanted to put on their plates. This idea came back up again and I decided to give it a try. And, I have to say; it has worked pretty well for us! Granted my son is now 3 ½ and we are far from the end of the picky eating stage, IF there will be an end to it.
But the way I serve dinner now has benefitted all of us, and we don’t really have any mealtime battles or stress anymore. And to me this is so much more important than getting my son to eat kale. Here is a basic outline of what I do each night:
- I make one meal for our family to have for dinner. I put each component out in a large bowl or serving dish so that everyone can choose what they would like to eat and how much.
- I include several choices. For example meat or other protein, a starch like rice, pasta, or potatoes, at least 1 vegetable, often 2, occasionally fruit. Here is an example of one of our dinners:
- If I am serving something new or something I know my son usually does not accept I will offer an alternative on the table. For instance if I am serving zucchini, which he used to love but has been refusing for the last 6 months or so, I will also serve another vegetable I know he will almost always eat. Sometimes he eats a ton of vegetables, sometimes he eats none. Some days he eats 3 bites of chicken and 3 helpings of pasta, others 3 bites of pasta and 3 helpings of chicken.
- If I am serving several dishes that I am unsure if he will accept, I put out a few slices of bread and some butter. Sometimes he surprises us and tries the new food, and sometimes he eats bread and butter for dinner.
- I allow my son to pick a “treat” with his dinner (unless he has had a school party or other sugary treat already that day). He has just recently developed his sweet tooth and sometimes will rush through his meal just to get his treat. I will allow him to choose one portion of a treat, such as one cookie, a kid’s granola bar, or a few chocolate chips. I allow him to eat this at the table along with his dinner and he often will go back for more dinner once he has had his treat.
Some of this may sound crazy to some of you. Some of the questions you might be asking are:
- I am not requiring him to eat a certain amount of vegetables at dinner?
- I am not requiring him to try new foods?
- I am not requiring him to eat a certain amount at dinner to make sure he is full?
- I am not requiring him to eat something nutritious before he receives his “treat”?
The answer to all of these questions is NO! And I think the key word here is “requiring”. Food and eating are really not about “requirements”, although there are many recommendations about how much a child might eat, and how many fruits and vegetables they need etc. These are simply recommendations, and when it comes to food, I find it hard to apply these hard and fast rules in real life. I believe that food and eating is largely about nourishment, enjoyment, and being attuned to your own body and what it needs. Yes I am the parent in this situation, and that is why it is my job to control what the choices are and when we eat them. It is my son’s job to control whether he eats them and how much of them he eats. Some days he is very hungry, others he is not so hungry. His body knows what it needs on any given day, and as long as I am offering healthy options and mostly whole foods, he is perfectly capable of choosing the foods and amounts that are right for him. If I start to tell him what and how much he needs to eat, then he is learning not to listen to his body. This situation puts him out of touch with his own hunger and satiety cues, and could lead to overweight or other disordered eating down the road.
When it comes to trying new foods, I would love for him to simply take a bite of so many things I know he would enjoy, but oftentimes he refuses. I definitely encourage him and tell him how delicious something is, but I refrain from making him take a bite or pestering him about it. Studies show it can take children up to 20 tries to accept a new food, and pushing it on them or forcing them to take a “no thank-you bite” only puts pressure on them to try something when they are not ready. Some children need at first to only look or smell something new, then maybe the next time they will be ready to put some on their plate but not ready to taste it. The next maybe they will lick it but not put it in their mouth. And the next maybe they will put it in their mouth only to spit it out. This is OK and children need to understand that it is OK to spit something new politely in their napkin if they do not like it. Learning to like something new is an agonizingly SLOW process for my son, but I try to just roll with it. He does try new foods sometimes, and sometimes he loves them. I work very hard to keep emotions and attention away from meals and what he is or isn’t eating. Don’t get me wrong; it IS hard to keep a straight face when he is FINALLY chowing down on raw spinach (woohoo!) OR when he is refusing the quesadilla he went nuts over the week before (arrrgghh!). I try to make the meal as relaxing and enjoyable as a meal with an energetic 3 year old, who is most nights verging on being too tired, can be. I do this because I know this makes him feel in control of his own eating (every 3 year old’s dream), and I know he will come along at the speed that is right for him.
I think I will save the topic of treats for next time, because you are probably all rolling your eyes at me by this point anyway, IF you are still reading. If this whole concept seems interesting to you, it is largely based on the work of Ellyn Satter, an incredibly wise dietitian and social worker, who has written several books based on the Division of Responsibility. I encourage you to read more if you like. I also hope that these thoughts will encourage some discussion among my readers. I look forward to hearing your thoughts.
And I promise to be more succinct in the future.