Thursday, April 15, 2010

Feeding Picky Kids

I know this is a hot topic.

Some people say, They can eat it or go hungry. I'm not a short order cook.

Other people say, I like chicken nuggets and Pop Tarts too. It's easier to make that than fight about it.

Here's my philosophy. There are three things you can't control about another person: sleep, toileting, and eating. Once you try to control those things the other person will win at any cost. It may seem oversimplified, but don't push--and they won't push back. If  you can't be forced to eat something you find detestable, neither can they. (Even if that thing is something they ate last week, and is perfectly normal and free of "weird" ingredients . . . which I know is frustrating.)

My dinner meals consist of three items: the main dish, and two more "plain" foods that I'm fairly confident they will eat, like bread or fruit. If we have a main dish with separate ingredients, I serve the ingredients separately. For example with tacos I serve everything in little piles: ground beef, cheese, shredded lettuce, shredded cheese, olives, and a taco shell on the side. The older kids serve themselves buffet style. 

I don't buy pre-packaged "kid" foods except for Kraft macaroni and cheese and frozen pizza, which they eat when they have a babysitter. I try to make homemade meals that I hope they'll like, but to be honest I'm really cooking with nutrition, cost, and my husband's enjoyment in mind. Some days I'm sure he would wonder about that!

My 5-year-olds can be nearly always be convinced to eat a few bites of the main dish food in order to get another piece of fruit or a roll or whatever.

But I must say, my pickiest eaters by far are the 10-year-old and the 13-year-old!!!!!!!

I think that in so many ways, older kids revert to toddler behavior. My little kids have good table manners; my older ones can be slobs. My little kids accept chore requests; my older ones can throw tantrums. My little kids will try new foods; my older ones can utterly refuse. Something about a school cafeteria completely ruins a sweet little kid's ability to eat politely. I think my 8th grader eats less of a variety of foods than any 2-year-old.

But here's the thing. He's had exposure to healthy-(ish) eating his whole life. We're no saints but I do think it's important to constantly offer fruits and vegetables and whole grains so they develop a taste for those things. Unfortunately he's in middle school where nachos and pizza and gummi worms are the main staples of a "normal" kid's diet. And so his tastes have shifted to high salt, high fat foods. But you know what . . . all that early training has not been in vain, because he has a number of whole foods that he loves.

 He likes tomatoes. He likes green-topped bananas, grapes, strawberries, and fresh pineapple. He likes green salad. He likes sunflower seeds. So I make sure to have those things on hand for snacks and on the dinner menu to round out his less-than-healthy midday munching.

So that's why I keep trying with the other ones. Fruits, vegetables, whole grains. Over and over. Would I rather have my kids love my homemade tuna-noodle surprise or a crunchy apple? In the end, I believe they will be better off loving fruits and vegetables than my (amazing! awesome!) home cooking.

That's the philosophy. Here's the practical application.

At dinner time they must sit with the family and join the conversation, even if they don't plan on eating anything. They may choose a fruit or vegetable to bring to the table. Once the meal is over and after-dinner chores done, they can make themselves a peanut butter sandwich if they want.

I don't make them eat any certain amount to get the Family Home Evening treat. Since we usually only have dessert on Monday nights I don't have to worry about that. I do use their behavior as leverage against the treat, but not their eating performance at dinner.

We don't have pre-packaged snacks in the pantry. When they're hungry between meals I have plenty of fruits and vegetables, string cheese, pretzels, and non-sugary cereal for them to munch on. However, we do have a locked closet with junk food in it like Air Heads, brownies, Cheetos, Gatorade. We're not Puritans. If they weren't locked up Bryce and I would be as likely to polish all that food off before the kids. After Saturday chores and on movie nights (and other times) we open the closet up so we can all pick out a snack or two (or three).

I'm hoping that by doing these things we can instill good eating habits in the long run. I know that's something I've had to combat. It's an uphill battle, especially if your foundation is based on fast food and pre-packaged food, like mine was. (Sorry, Mom.) Anyway, it's a long process but as the mother I'm determined to make the road to healthy eating as enjoyable and stress-free as possible.


  1. Have you thought about sending this article into Parenting or Ladies Home Journal or something like that?

    My only rules:
    The kids MUST drink our fresh squeezed juice, or smoothy that I make each morning.
    They MUST have some fruit or veggie with dinner.
    Other than that, I try to have healthy breakfasts & dinners ... but not always:)
    I might just be lucky, but my kids like healthy foods, so life is easy.
    I'm forwarding the link to this post to my grown kids - great insight!

  2. Good for you! Sounds like you have a good system and just stick with it, My sister's 13 and 10 year old are picky than my kids too.. maybe it is just that age

  3. Denalee, thanks! And you are lucky that your kids like healthy foods but I'm sure it has just as much to do with you modeling good habits! Emmy, I do think it's a stage . . . I will be happy when they get past that one. :)

  4. Sorry for the lack of good examples growing up. I never learned to cook, I dislike cooking (intensely!), and so I don't. Kudos to you for overcoming that and being a spectacular Mom!
    Love, Mom