Getting kids to eat dinner is an age-old challenge. Think about how often you ate the same thing over and over again as a kid. Or why every children's menu in American has the same five items on it. Anyone else turn forks into airplanes around their toddlers? Or remember how the little piggies went in A Christmas Story?
Even "good eaters," as we have a tendency to call them, go through times when their disgust breakers seem to get tripped daily.
My daughter, Maxine, ate all kinds of foods when she was little. We had a game where she would take a nibble of whatever was on her plate and then she'd stop and "think about it, and think about it, and think about it” before declaring “I like it! I like it!" or "I don't like it. I don't like it." It was a fun game, mostly because it usually ended in the affirmative. At some point, though, around middle school, the worm turned. Suddenly, everything I made was either boring or gross. There were many of her meals that consisted solely of dinner rolls. Many more than were simply thrown out in favor of a piece of fruit or a bowl of Ramen. I can't even count the number hours I’ve spent on beautiful meals only to have Maxine sit down at the table and declare, "Actually, I'm not that hungry." Now, I finally have a clue about what my friends with selective eaters have been going through all these years.
'Your body, your choice'
And yet: I’m not bothered. First of all, this is all probably a stage. And even if it's not, who cares? Why would it concern me that my kid lost her taste for broccoli? Or wants soy sauce on her rice — even if it's not that kind of rice? Why is it an issue if she'd rather get herself a banana and some crackers than eat parmesan-encrusted tilapia? The point is, this goes in the column of "Your body, your choice." Whether it's hugging a relative, trying out a new hairdo or deciding what food to put in her mouth, "Your body, your choice" is a lesson we've been teaching Maxine since she was a toddler. As long as it's not unhealthy (chocolate bars for lunch), or has long-term consequences she may be too young to comprehend (tattoos at age 12), then it's "You do you, man." (Sometimes we discuss/debate what constitutes unhealthy or too young to comprehend, but those are always the benchmarks.) Plus — and I know all you feminist mommas out there are with me on this — we have got to start teaching kids to listen to their bodies, and this includes their food. If their bodies are telling them that artichokes are nasty, then they probably shouldn’t be eating that artichoke. If their bodies are telling them they don’t want that last bite of peas, then let's not be shoveling peas into their mouths, yeah? If we find ourselves telling kids that they “are still hungry” or that they “should be full by now,” we're creeping into territory that’s, well, a little creepy. It's teaching kids to override what their bodies are telling them. And speaking of creepy, can we talk about how fucked up is it that we label kids “good eaters” because their natural preferences fall in line with ours? Can you imagine saying that about a guest at a dinner party? “Oh I’m so glad you liked the lamb, Bob. You’re such a good eater!” How condescending.
Stock kitchen with healthy alternatives
But what about the practical matter that sometimes comes up when children refuse dinner? The one about how the same child who says she’s not hungry will be starving in 20 minutes and screaming bloody murder if she doesn't get something to eat. Fair point. For me, this is a boundary thing: Just because my kid won’t eat what I make doesn't mean I'm running a restaurant here. It also doesn’t mean that I’m going to start making only dinners that she likes. I like the food I make! (Most of it anyway.) And I like the idea of exposing her to different foods so that if and when she changes her mind, she'll have options. So our rule is that if Maxine doesn’t want to eat what she’s served, she can find or make her own healthy alternative. Trust me: Even our littles are capable of preparing something for themselves if you make it available. Put a healthy snack drawer at their level, or give them a lower shelf in the fridge. Show them how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or a cup of Ramen in the microwave. Point them to the fruit drawer. Whatever works. And if you don't think your kids are choosing enough healthy foods, don't bring the non-healthy foods home. Until your kids can go to the grocery story by themselves, you have full control over their diets.
Dessert is not a reward
I probably don't have to tell you how many of us have somewhat dysfunctional relationships with food. Food is "used" as often as it's eaten. And the weirdness begins in childhood. You only get your dessert if you're "good" (again with that word) or after you've forced yourself to eat things you hate. Why do you think so many people self-soothe with unhealthy foods? If you want to offer kids dessert, do it. But don't make it contingent on cleaning their plates. Too many of us parents micromanage our children’s eating habits because we think it’s part of our job. Without meaning to, the dinner table becomes a Discomfort Zone — often because that’s exactly what it was for us as children. It's time to bring a little common sense to our family dining experiences in general. Sure, we might have spent hours on tonight's dinner — but our kids didn't ask us to. So let's back off. Let's give kids more power (within reason), park our conditioned anxieties at the door (no, Little Brenda is not, in fact, going to die from too much Mac and Cheese), and create as few rules as possible around eating. Relax, it's just food.