Wednesday, January 15, 2014

This is Dinner: Encouraging Kids to Eat

My small people eat. A lot. People who see our kids eat are kind of shocked. One friend (the mother of a non-eater) was agog as she watched Darling Son #2 schnarf down several pieces of beef at a party recently. She said, "My daughter would chew on that for a half hour, then give up and spit it out." This child's father says she existed on air and water for her first two years of life. Another friend sat slack-jawed as I regaled her with tales of a typical breakfast for Darling Son #1, which is sometimes more than I eat.

They don't just eat a lot, they eat a lot of different things. They eat exotic foods from foreign lands. They eat bitter greens (sometimes.) They eat stinky cheese. They eat wild-caught salmon and pan-seared tuna. Actually, DS2 will eat absolutely anything--as long as it's on someone else's plate.

We get asked all the time--what do you do to get them to eat? How is this possible? What is  your secret? So I'm going to tell you, but I do so with some trepidation. I know it can be very stressful if your child doesn't eat. It's scary to watch him or her drop off the growth chart, or refuse to eat anything but Dino Bites. I know a lot of parents who try everything, but just can't seem to get their kids to eat. I know I'm blessed to have eaters, and I don't want this to sound preachy or know-it-all, because Lord knows, we don't. Sometimes it's not all about what you do. Or don't do. We seem to have this idea that if we just 'do the right things' our kids will comply. Maybe they will. Maybe they won't. They're human beings. They don't always respond to formulas.

So for whatever it's worth, here's what we did/do:

I breast fed both boys until they were ten months old. Then my supply just couldn't keep up, so both weaned themselves. It was hard, sometimes I hated it. Sometimes I didn't mind it. Mostly I wished the DH could do it, but hey--it's a womanly art.
I love this picture and I've been dying to find a reason to use it--Giselle breast-feeding while serviced by an entourage. If I had this kind of attention, I'd still be breast-feeding my six-year-old.

I'm not a lactivist, though. I think if you need to do formula, that's ok, too. The barre is a judgment-free zone, but apparently breastfed babies tend to be more adventurous eaters than their formula-fed counterparts. Evidently, the flavor of mother's milk changes depending on what mother eats, thus the baby adapts to different flavors. I don't know how they figured this out, but that's what I read.

I pureed my own baby food. Commercially prepared baby food is expensive and I'm cheap. Good Lord, I could make vats of pureed organic carrots for the cost of a few jars. Organic! I just boiled them, threw them in the blender and froze them in ice-cube trays. It was a pain, but I am entirely too cheap to buy jarred baby food. The reason I mention this is texture--jarred baby food is velvety smooth. Homemade has a lump or two. Lots of people cite texture as being a stumbling block to enjoying different foods. I'm wondering if maybe making lumpy food at home gets them over that? Maybe? I don't know. It's a thought.

I discourage snacking. Americans love snacking, but we're not newborns anymore--the vast majority of people don't need to eat every two hours. I'm not saying there isn't a place for a between-meal nibble, but the frequency with which my children are offered food is ridiculous.

Last summer I brought DS1 to his camp 'orientation,' which was basically a half hour during which the kids could get accustomed to the facilities so they weren't clinging to their parents' legs at drop-off. It was scheduled for 1.30pm. It was for only THIRTY minutes, yet they had little Dixie cups filled with Goldfish crackers set out for them to eat. Really? They just ate lunch. It's only a half hour. Why do they need food?

I really don't believe people need food available at all times. I read a study a while ago that said children will eat according to their natural hunger and fullness cues until around age 5. Then they begin to eat simply because it's there. We don't always need it there. So I'm not keen on snacking. I like to get them to the table nice and hungry. Then they will...

Eat vegetables first. Let's face it, broccoli isn't as yummy as other stuff. So I feed them the veg first. Followed by other nutrient-dense foods. If there is bread involved in the meal, I put that off until they've eaten vegetables. I mentioned this strategy to a mother who was struggling to get her child to eat anything other than hot dogs. She recoiled, saying that's using 'food as a reward.' Really? I don't get that. It's not a reward, it's just ordering the meal in a way to ensure the child eats the most nutrient-dense foods while she's hungry. So while I'm on the subject...

I don't mind using food as a reward. People have been using food as a reward since the dawn of time. It's only recently that we've had a childhood obesity crisis. I'm thinking it's not necessarily the food-as-reward thing that's a problem. It's not the only reward we offer, but sometimes good behavior is incentivized by an ice cream cone. Dessert is not offered until a reasonable amount of healthy food has been eaten.

I don't always require them to clean their plates. Like many (most?) people from my generation, this was required of me as a child, and as a result it is still very difficult for me to leave food on the plate, even if I'm full. So I don't make the boys eat everything I serve them. If they're full, they're full.

I do not cook a separate dinner for the small people. They eat what we eat, and always have, ever since they had enough teeth to chew. I'm kind of old-school. This is dinner. I do take people's preferences into account when planning meals, but I am not afraid to offer them things they don't love. We don't force them to eat, but there isn't usually anything else offered as an alternative. It's amazing what a child might consider eating if that's all there is and they haven't been grazing on Goldfish crackers all afternoon.

We also eat together at the table, never in front of the TV. And sometimes I'll have DS1 'help' prepare the dinner, especially if it's something he doesn't love. This strategy is not advisable (for parental sanity) when they're really little, but I find it's helping as he gets older. As his rate of growth has slowed, he's a little pickier than he used to be.

This is what we had tonight:

Chicken sausage, peppers, onions, arugula and whole-wheat penne. They ate it. No fuss. I was actually a little surprised, because arugula isn't exactly a fan favorite, but I guess it was mixed in with enough other stuff so as to be sufficiently inoffensive.

So that's how things go around here. I do hope this doesn't come across as boastful, like we've cracked the code on getting kids to eat. Our kids just might be good eaters. But I do think our generation of parents has become enormously conflicted about telling kids, 'this is dinner.' If they really can't stomach it, they can have cereal. After a few nights of cheerios, they might be ready for a change.

Honestly, meals are not always stress-free in our house. There is entirely too much potty talk, talking with mouths full and DS2 seems to have a particular aversion to using cutlery.
We're a little savage, but we're working on it.


  1. Absolutely!!

    Your point about puree baby food is important. I've seen older babies/toddlers as a Speech Path who have not transitioned on to solid food. Most times it's because they are used to having super smooth commercial purees (or moms who obsessively over-puree home cooked food, but that's another story). It's very important babies learn to move on to lumpy/textured food. Those sippy tube/containers of baby food are the worst. Okay to give by spoon (not sucked) occasionally or gradually mixed together with something textural (baby cereal, soft pasta, lentils, couscous, rice etc) but NOT good as primary food for a long period of time. And they usually have apples (for the fruit variety) or pumpkin (for the veggie variety) as the main ingredient in all of them, so kids don't really get a variety of flavours.

    Yep, rant over. Sorry.

    1. Wow, so good to hear your professional opinion. I guess my hunch was correct. I just remember looking at the jarred stuff thinking, there is no way I could get my purees THAT smooth, and maybe it's a blessing!