Charlie was the dream baby and toddler who ate anything. We’d carry frozen peas to the zoo in the summer and he’d chow down on them. He’d eat cherry tomatoes off the vine, gobble down spinach and broccoli, pound blue cheese and enjoy raw tofu dipped in balsamic vinegar (don’t ask). Just prior to his third birthday we moved from Colorado to Seattle, which included the most prolonged exposure to high amounts of processed foods he’d ever had. Lots of granola bars, pasta, dried fruit and crackers to get us through the winter cross-country drive and early days of our move. And, he got picky. And pickier. (Now I know this had just as much to do with age as it did our food choices, if not moreso, but we certainly didn’t help anything.)
For a myriad of reasons beyond Charlie’s all-white diet desires, our family decided to get rid of as many processed foods as we could, starting with breakfast cereals. It was a hard adjustment as first, but after a few weeks we were in the groove and able to add more change. This bit by bit journey continues. We’re now going on nearly three years of reducing processed foods from our diet. With a few more big changes, like making our own bread, yogurt and cheese, I think we could actually avoid grocery stores altogether. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t grow everything. In fact, my garden this year wouldn’t feed a goat. (Well, yes it would because there are plenty of weeds. But not a picky goat. A zucchini, tomato loving goat would starve.) Anyways, the potential repreive from grocery stores is thanks to amazing local CSAs, bulk orders online, farmer’s markets, and a close friend who grinds her own wheat. She’s that cool.
Early on in the journey Charlie desperately wanted his old stand-by of boxed macaroni and cheese, so we decided he’d get it as as special babysitter’s treat (this is still the case). For the rest, we’d have healthy foods in the house as quick bites and occasionally bake special sweet treats. Often I was just making a dinner for the boys that I was pretty sure they’d eat and then making a second meal for Harry and I. But, if I made food that they weren’t keen on, we’d let them have a healthy choice from the fridge as a substitute. Even though the fridge repetoire included nuts, shredded carrots, broccoli, peas, corn, sweet bell peppers, cheese, bread, tofu and other crunchy granola hippie options, this was not a good move.
We were living under the premise that exposure to real, healthy food is all that mattered for kids to not be picky. I thought we were going to have to weather out these young years of refusal, only to see our child blossom into a salad, curry, raw oyster eating machine. Wrong.
In early May I had the privilege of hearing Lisa Fligor, RD, speak about feeding toddlers. Though her topic didn’t focus on dinnertime, she made one off-hand comment that led to pivotal change for our family. It was basically this: “At dinnertime, my kids get to eat anything on the table. If it’s on the table, they can have it. If it’s not, they can’t.” And what Lisa continued on with turned it all upside down for me. Apparently there is sound research out there that kids who have high levels of control over their food choices become pickier and pickier. (I haven’t read the studies, so I’m not sure just how solid the research is, but I trust her judgment.) We can certainly add our anecdoctal evidence to the pile. Charlie got the point of rejecting all tomato sauce (pizza! spaghetti!). He’d complain if something wasn’t prepared the exact same way it had been the last time. He was turning into King Charles, a royal pain at the dinner table. I’d be up and down a million times getting him his various requests.
I knew she was right. We’d lived it. I’ve seen it in countless other families whose kids won’t touch a single vegetable and only want fruit and pasta. But, I’d also seen a dear friend’s three kids (ages 4 and 5) gobble down salad, kale and lentils. She’s the one who grinds her own flour. And her kids get what is served, not back-ups. And they hardly ever eat any processed food. I wanted this for our family.
The next step was wrapping my head around what this would involve for me with food preparation. I needed to plan meals better and sacrifice more afternoon outings for time in the kitchen instead. At least one of our weekend days needed to involve an hour or two of kitchen time. I wanted the first few meals to be an easy transition for Charlie, so I made sure to have some very healthy favorites on the table (like hard-boiled eggs, cut bell peppers and nuts) for a choice as sides to our meal. And we needed to explain the change to him, of which we’re actually still sometimes reminding him: “What’s on the table is what you may choose from.”
Beyond that, this is what Lisa recommended based on the nutrition research: No bribing to get vegetables consumed. No set number of bites. No coercion. No controlling. No commenting on what does and doesn’t get eaten. And if you’re going to serve dessert, everyone gets it. Dessert is not a bribe or omitted as punishment. Last, If you’re going to talk about how food tastes, use specific descriptors like spicy, sweet, bitter, sour, crunchy and avoid polarizing with good / bad, yummy / yucky.
Do you see how awesome this is? Do you know what this means? You can actually sit at the table and talk about LIFE while you enjoy your food. You can cook whatever it is that you’d like to eat and not make a separate meal for the adults later. And it’s up to your kids to learn how to enjoy their food. It’s not your job. Your kids might go to bed without full bellies, but they’ll make up for it with a heartier breakfast (and I always try to make sure to provide a breakfast they’ll load up on if they didn’t eat dinner).
What we’ve learned the past few months:
1) Some foods should probably be dished out with everyone getting a set serving in a little bowl, like fruit. Otherwise the boys will fill themselves with nothing but fruit and not try anything else.
2) Sometimes plates just need to be delivered with all parts of the food on them because otherwise the kids would never voluntarily choose green beans to go with the rice on their plates.
3) Allowing Charlie one meal a week to be his choice of a homemade dish is a really great thing for his spirits. He now goes cuckoo for homemade macaroni and cheese, though next time I’m supposed to leave the onions out. I’m going to get really good at making baked pasta dishes.
4) We mess up. We can easily revert to wanting to control with number of bites or coercion. It’s really hard to trust the process when others are watching and bribing their kids with dessert. But it’s equally ridiculous to hear how crazy we can all get in trying to get our kids to eat their vegetables. Taking a step back from it makes it all look a little wacky.
What progress have we seen in two months? Charlie now eats tomato sauce in all forms, whereas before he would rarely touch pizza, pasta or other foods with tomato sauce. (And this is THE SAUCE. If you haven’t had it, thank me now. It’s awesome. Add these meatballs and you’ll come kiss me.) He is almost always willing to try new foods now, whereas before he wouldn’t give it a second look or we’d have to bribe him. Miles happily eats red curry sauces and whatever vegetables are in them and seems to always prefer more bold flavors. He even tried a manila clam in a spicy curry sauce, but promptly spit it out and said, “spicy!” We aren’t concerned about eating at restaurants or other people’s homes because the rules are the same, making them much more pleasant guests to feed. They can serve us all the same thing and it’s up to the boys to be adventurous or not. And there won’t be whining because it doesn’t work. Amen and hallelujah.