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Friday, April 22, 2011

Picky Eaters

Lee happily eating hollyhocks
 (large leaves at right) that he picked
himself on a foraging expedition.
I have to ask, do your little ones like, and eat the things that you make? I have an EXTREMELY picky 4 yr old, and if it "looks" funny, she ain't touching nor eating it. How do you get your little ones to try, eat and like all the things you make?
This question is one recently asked by a reader, but I've been approached about this topic numerous times, each time by someone else incredulous that my kids actually eat foods that many other children wouldn't even look at.

I'm not a parenting expert, nor do I claim to be; after all, I only have 2 kids, with my oldest being but 3.5 years old. I do have experience with a few more kids than that, though, as I ran a home based daycare for a few years, and have educated and "parented" nearly 30 kids within that time (my method of running my daycare was to treat those kids as I would my own, so I consider what I did with them "parenting" to an extent). As I said, I'm no expert, I'm just speaking from my experience with all these kids I've fed over the past few years, so take what you like and leave the rest, if it doesn't apply to your kids or if you have special issues involved.

So Penny, do your kids actually eat your food?

Yes, they do. I make just about the strangest and most varied and officially least "kid friendly" diet of anyone I know, and I've never once had a problem getting my kids to eat the food that I've made. My kids will gladly eat banana peel chutney, wild greens, beans, lacto-fermented vegetables (like sauerkraut), kombucha, kefir, organ meat, among much else. Its a rare occasion that my kids will refuse to eat something I made, and usually because they saw something else that appealed to them more.
Not only do they actually eat my food, even the strange "exotic" stuff, but Lee likes to tell me "Mommy, this is delicious! Please make it again!"

Peer Pressure with Food
When Lee was a small little toddler, his favorite part of bread to eat was the crust. As opposed to other kids who would pick off the crust and leave it aside, the crust was the part of the bread that Lee gobbled up first.
That is, until Lee saw the other kids in my at home daycare peeling off the crust, saying "Ewww", and leaving it over.
Then Lee stopped eating crust, started saying "Ewww" and leaving it over as well, and no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't get him to eat what used to be one of his favorite foods.
What do you know- as soon as we stopped running a daycare, and Lee was no longer picking up the message from the other kids that "crust is ick", he went back to eating bread crusts, and I didn't even need to encourage him.
Ike is well within the age that Lee stopped eating crust, but will gladly eat bread crusts, because he isn't around others giving him the message that it is "bad".
Peer pressure is strong. Even with little kids.
Especially with food.
When a kid sees another kid turning his nose up at a food, he's likely to do the same. On the other hand, when he sees other kids devouring a food, his interest is piqued and he's likely to eat and enjoy the food. I experienced this also in my daycare- once one kid started bringing chickpeas for lunch, chickpeas became a "hot item" and all the kids were competing who'd be able to get the most chickpeas.
Monkey see, monkey do.

Attitude is Everything and Parental Influence
Kids pick up on the attitudes of others around them. Along the same vein as above, if the attitude in a home towards certain foods is a negative one, kids will pick up on that.
Most of the parents who tell me that their kids are picky eaters are themselves picky eaters. If parents give their kids the message that some foods are "ick", then is it a surprise if a kid also decides that certain foods are "ick"?
My husband and I are not picky eaters. We have the attitude and try to impart the attitude to our kids that food that is nutritious is good, and if we don't enjoy a certain food, we say "We prefer not to eat that food" or "That's not our favorite dish", but the words ick/gross/disgusting and food don't end up in the same sentence in our house. If there is a dish that my kids taste and don't appreciate, and Lee would say something like "Ick, I don't like that", we'd correct him and tell him to say "I don't really enjoy that food. Can you please not make it again, Mommy?"
I've had much success getting kids to want to eat something they previously hadn't been interested just by eating it and savoring it myself. The same food that had zero appeal to someone the minute before suddenly becomes the most tantalizing treat the second they see someone else enjoying that food tremendously. I've found the best way to build an appetite in kids for a certain food (both mine and even the picky daycare kids) is to just eat the food myself, and all of a sudden they're all asking me to give them some and I happily oblige.

Keeping Kid's Taste in Mind
Another thing I do to encourage my kids to eat the food that I serve is that if they politely tell me that they don't like a certain food, I will take their feelings into consideration and not make the dish exactly the same way again, the same way I would if my husband didn't enjoy a certain food I made.
When a dish is something that my kids enjoy, I try specifically to make it more frequently.
I'm not a malicious mother- if there's something my family doesn't appreciate, I'm not going to make it again and again and force them to eat something distasteful to them. But because of other things that we do, the list of foods I don't make gets shorter and shorter all the time, with Lee deciding that now he "officially likes" foods that he wrote off before.

No Alternative Menu
One thing I've noticed about parents who tell me that their kids are picky is that many will provide an alternate, "kid friendly" menu in their home. Either they prepare two separate meals- one for the kids, one for the adults, or they make an "adult" meal, and if the kids don't like that, they can help themselves to cereal and milk, sandwiches, or hot dogs.
No such thing exists in my house.
I make supper. If kids like it, they eat it. If not, oh well, that's what is for supper. I don't cater to every whim in the kitchen, I don't let my kids dictate what I should and should not serve for supper. There are no other choices. The options are: to not eat, to eat a little, or to eat a lot. If a kid decided he wasn't interested in a food I made, that's totally fine, but I won't provide a snack a few hours later when the kid realizes he's hungry.   If he's hungry later, he can eat the food that I made. By the time the next meal comes around, I will serve the kid the new food I made- I won't insist on the kid eating the food he didn't like from the previous meal.
Before a kid gets up to play if he's not interested in the food I made, I do require my kids to take at least one taste.
Basically, I don't force anyone to eat what I made. But the lack of other options usually encourages them to give my food a try. And usually once they try, they realize- hey- "This is yummy food, Mommy!" and I just nod my head. Yes, that's what I try to do- make yummy food.

Tasty Food
I only serve my family tasty food. Requiring someone to eat food that tastes vile is only found to cause food issues later on in life. The food that I serve may be different than your typical fare, and not officially "kid friendly", but it tastes good- that's one thing I make sure of.
I use a wide array of spices and mix all sorts of flavors and ingredients together to get the "perfect" taste, which makes my food a pleasure to eat, even if it is highly atypical. When food tastes good, its not usually a struggle to get others to enjoy eating it.
In this I do have the added benefit of being a good cook, so it's rare for my food to actually taste bad. In the rare instance that my food does taste bad, I will toss it instead of forcing my family and myself to eat something that tastes gross.

Include the Kids
When kids are involved in preparing food, they frequently will be more eager to taste the final product than they would be if the store or Mom made the food. Picking wild edibles with my kids and involving them in the process gets them so excited to eat the food. Kids chopping vegetables, or helping roll out dough, pour ingredients, or decorating a food makes them want to see what the food tastes like and they'll usually enjoy the food.

Cooking in Different Ways
If I make a certain dish and find my kids didn't like it, I don't write it off completely. Instead, I'll try to change the style a bit and see if there's an alternative method of preparation that the kids will enjoy more.
For those with picky eaters, trying to find a food your kids like and preparing foods in ways that mimic them is always a good start. Like if your kid didn't enjoy stewed zucchini, but he enjoys spaghetti and sauce, you can serve thin strips of zucchini (made with a peeler) cooked and served with sauce, similarly to spaghetti. Or if your child likes meatloaf, you can make a mock meat loaf out of lentils and oatmeal and serve it the same way you'd serve meatloaf.

In Summation
There are kids out there with eating issues, whether severe sensory issues or failure to thrive or whatever. In such cases, please consult either a doctor or a feeding clinic; as I said above, I'm not an expert. This is just what works for me.
One thing I did want to say is that many kids who's parents have told me they are extremely picky eaters at home have come over to my house and devoured foods that their parents would never have imagined. I wonder why that is.
My tips won't necessarily help if you've already got a family of picky eaters- switching mindsets and behaviors from picky to not picky is much more difficult than trying to make sure that such issues never arise in the first place. I do believe though, that so long as there is positive encouragement (and not negative peer pressure of one sibling or even a parent with the attitude that a certain food is weird or gross), most kids will eventually become less and less picky eaters, but if parents allow pickiness to dictate how they cook for their kids, their kids may easily grow up into an adult that eats only one of 10 different foods and that's it.

Are your kids picky eaters or not? What do you do to try to encourage adventurous eating? Do you agree with any of what I wrote above? Do you employ any of these methods? Do they work for you?
If your kids are picky, what tricks do you have to get them to eat? Or do you cater to their pickiness and only serve what they like? 
What foods won't your kids eat?

1 comment:

  1. I really like your post, Wish I had read it sooner. My son used to be so picky, but he hadn't been picky before he started getting friends outside of our family. Suddenly fast food was the only thing he wanted to eat. It was like pulling teeth to even get him to sit at the kitchen table let alone eat at it. His friends were allowed to eat in the living room in front of the TV. It simply wasn't the way things are done in our house. Cell phones go in a basket, TV turns off, same for computers. Its family time. When I made it a point to let him know he wasn't going to have snacks period until he started to try new things was when the situation changed. A month without his pretzels seemed to wake him up. He has been a pretty good eater ever since. Of course there is always the one thing he has never liked- Carrots.

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