As I sit here today, the sky is grey and the wind could only be described as “blustery.” The changing weather is one of the reasons that I love this time of year. My thoughts turn to baking and reading books by a fire, wishing for snow and comfort foods. Today’s comfort food of choice is a grilled cheese sandwich with homemade tomato soup. It’s funny that I like this combo. Not so much the sandwich part because, really, cheese anything is my best friend, but the soup. As far back as I can remember, I have hated tomatoes: I pick them out of sandwiches, off salads or really anywhere that they can be found. The one thing that I have always liked was ketchup. Ketchup on fries, on hamburgers, hot dogs, and yes, even mac ‘n’ cheese (my husband shudders at the thought). Tomato soup however, was not one that I was fond of growing up. Maybe my tastes have matured… nope, I still pick tomatoes off everything when I can.
Food seems to be the constant bane of our existence as parents it seems. I always thought that I was a picky eater but, somehow, my parents always got me to eat a well-balanced meal, and I grew up healthy. Now as a parent, however, I realize that I was actually not the picky eater that I thought I was. No, that prize goes to my kiddos.
There are very few things I would call staples in my kids’ diets. Usually they involve cheese or hotdogs. I try not to worry. I know that they will get what they need as long as I keep trying but, I do worry. One loves most fruit; the other can’t stand the sight of it. One kid gags at the smell of peanut butter; the other at the smell of cold cereal in milk. One will only eat eggs boiled, while the other insists on scrambled. When you live in a small space, these seemingly unimportant issues become a huge ordeal at times.
A while back we took E to see a nutritionist. I really felt like he wasn’t getting what he needed to maintain good health. His growth was slow and he seemed so skinny. Maybe an overreaction on my part but, when a child has sensory issues and other special needs, diet is huge. We tried gluten-free, sugar-free, vitamins and supplements. Nothing seemed to make a difference in his behavior and growth so, off to see a nutritionist to make sure we’ve done everything we can!
She was a very nice woman and took my concerns seriously so, first impressions were good. Then she gave us her suggestion. Her advice was to stop worrying. It was my job as a parent to provide healthy options at every meal and that was it. It was my child’s job to decide what he was going to eat. We also were to stop requiring the kids to eat their dinner if they wanted dessert (apparently this can lead to food issues when they are older like being overweight because of improper feelings towards food). Instead, we were to offer dessert with dinner. It’s no longer a reward, just another food option. That sounds simple in concept and, to an extent, I understand her reasoning: we need to teach proper relationships with food for our kids for life long health and so on.
Okay so, great! I have a plan. Wait! How is this going to assure me that our child has a well-balanced diet? Who cares! It’s not my job! It’s E’s job now. Of course every 7-year-old knows how to pick a well-balanced meal out of his options, right? After all, if I do my job, he should do his. What about his 4-year-old brother? Surely, he’s got enough life skills to eat right, provided he has all the options in front of him, right? That’s the plan, according to the nutritionist. I may have to guide them and ask them to be sure to pick one of each provided food. That should be easy enough.
Take away from the visit: Take all the pressure off food, provide healthy options, along with a dessert option and sit back and watch them succeed. Palm-to-forehead moment. Why didn’t I think of that?
Back home, I tell my hubby the plan and we immediately apply it. For a week straight we offer a wide variety of healthy options. You don’t like lettuce? Here are spinach or bell peppers instead. You only like this or that so, here it is, with different options for the others in the family. Oh! and let’s put dessert on the table too.
Do you even need to ask what happened? For a week straight the children gorged themselves on dessert only. Why would any child choose carrots with ranch dip when they can have cookies instead? Meal times became dreaded because we wanted them to eat a little of everything but they wouldn’t. I was exhausted from making so many meal “options.” So much food was wasted at each meal. We’d help them dish it up, prepare it to their precise instructions and, after they started with dessert, they were “suddenly” full. We had a week of middle-of-the-night hunger pangs, begging for a snack or chocolate milk, at the very least. It was a disaster. Maybe we should have given it more time. Maybe it would have worked. Maybe it just didn’t fit our family’s needs. All I know for sure is that we did not stick with it. We still offer several options of what goes on a plate at dinner but, there are nights that I don’t feel like fighting and make a go-to meal like quesadillas instead.
Growing up, I had two options: eat what was provided or go hungry. Why didn’t that work for my kids?
We (the parents) have stories from growing up of being forced to eat something we couldn’t stand. We grew up eating the things our parents liked and have had to expand our food universe as adults. My husband and I try very hard to not let our food likes and dislikes influence the boys’ likes and dislikes.
So we have held true to one rule in our house when it comes to food: you need to try one normal-size bite (not just a lick or sniff) of a food you think you don’t like (and swallow it) about once a year. Our taste preferences change all the time so, if you didn’t like something last time you tried it and it was a long time ago, you may like it now. We practice this in front of our kids and try to get them to do it too. This has helped in the merry-go-round of what to cook for dinner in our house. We try to pick things the kids will like, but as picky as they are, inevitably they won’t. Fine, I won’t force it down your throat, but you must take one bite before you tell me you don’t like it.
Amazingly enough, this practice has been more successful than any other ideas we have tried in opening up our kids to healthy options. E realized he loves spinach and red bell peppers. Both boys discovered that ground turkey meat isn’t the disgusting thing they thought it was, and have even asked for it with rice for dinner.
So I sit here, with a happy belly, and tell you don’t worry. Kids will be kids. They will be picky, but they will eat and, as they grow, their choices will too. Every day there is a little progress.