If you Google the search terms “preschooler” and “picky eater”, the results will include thousands of websites with advice ranging from – “offer choices and let them pick” to “offer new foods often and make them eat at least one bite of something new” to the all so familiar to me “make them sit at the table and eat what you serve until their plate is clean. You aren’t a short order cook.”
When we were kids, our parents didn’t offer choices. We ate what mom made. We had to clean our plates. And we sat at the table until we were finished. No matter how long that took. There were starving children in Africa who would have loved to be able to eat so well. I still remember the night I sat at the table alone until 11:00 PM because I refused to eat my liver. I offered to pack it up and mail it to Africa. That event may have led to my becoming a vegetarian later in life. But, I digress.
This may not have been an entirely bad strategy. After all, my mom only had to make one meal of her choosing every night, and I am now an adult who enjoys diverse cuisine from all over the world. However, I just can’t bring myself to do it. Kids are young humans and as an adult human, I have foods I dislike. How would I feel if I was forced to eat things I disliked? Also, I have a lot of weird hang-ups about food and am trying to re-learn to enjoy food and view it as nourishment and fuel, rather than associate it with potential lbs or unwanted inches.
So…we are a choices family – sort of like a restaurant where you can select one entrée, one veggie and one fruit from a basic menu of three healthy and generally seasonal options. K (4.5) gets choices, so she can feel independent, and I try to teach her that food is fun – to grow, to cook and to eat and that food is energy, the necessary ingredient to playing, running, dancing and life.
Please don’t misunderstand, the meal time choices strategy doesn’t always work, so as a back-up, she can pretty much always have a peanut butter or cheese sandwich (on whole grain, of course). Some may call me a pushover, but I just don’t like to fight. Life is challenging enough without fighting with your child at every meal.
However, lately I have found that we have fallen into a food rut. The choices every night have become the same. Few new foods are tried. I go for obvious, easy to prepare options and have moved away from variety or adventure. Gordon Ramsay would want to re-vamp my restaurant’s menu. K gets at least one vegetable at every meal, and I know she is eating a balanced diet, but I don’t want to be a restaurant chef forever, and I feel like I am helping create a picky eater. My son has also started eating with us, and I want him to get the right start and have a healthy relationship with food.
I learned that the largest body of research shows that repeated exposure is the way to go. A 2003 British study showed that when young children (ages 2 – 6) were offered a taste of a single moderately disliked vegetable every day for 14 days, after the 14 tastes, those children were more likely to consume, say they liked and rank that vegetable higher than other vegetables than children who weren’t offered tastes.
So, armed with this information, I went home last night and was ready to encourage a taste of something new for dinner. Then, an amazing thing happened. After 3+ years of saying, “spinach is disgusting” every time she saw me eating a spinach salad or sautéed spinach and me asking, “how do you know if you haven’t tried it? Would you like a bite?”, K asked for a plate of raw spinach for dinner! Without prompting. And then another and another. In addition to her mac n cheese, green beans and pear, K ate three plates (about 2 cups) of raw spinach!
Maybe we aren’t out of our food rut, but I have hope that more variety will be successfully introduced and that I am not failing as a parent. At least not at dinner time. I am sure there will be plenty of other parenting fails in my future.
And before someone comments, I am well aware that there ARE starving children in Africa and in the US and all over the world, and we are LUCKY and privileged to not only know where our next meal is coming from, but also to have access to healthy food and be able to choose what we will eat at that meal. That, however, is a lesson for another time and place. In the meantime, I will look at pictures of my kids eating spinach and smile.
Adorable kids and spinach credit: Steph, All Rights Reserved.