Ages 2-5BabiesFoodHow To

There are starving children in Africa

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.

995582_10151915455183358_109262364_nSo…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.

1549393_10151915455288358_1443638985_nSo, being an “evidence-based parent”, I spent my lunch hour yesterday looking for research studies and evidence-based advice on the internet that would allow me to make some changes at meal time.

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.


Steph is a mom, stepmom, freelance writer, and advocate. When she's not busy writing, chasing kids around, cleaning up messes, and trying to change the world, Steph enjoys snuggling, making pies, politics, reading paranormal fiction, yoga, and fitness. A fully recovered natural parent, Steph now trusts science, evidence, and common sense to lead the way. She has been actively involved in the reproductive and women's rights movements for more than 20 years and is a passionate pro-choice feminist. Her writing can be found on Grounded Parents, Romper, The Cut, and other print and online publications

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  1. I am the same way. Before I had a child, and I knew everything there was about parenting, I vowed to never be a short order chef. As a child I was never forced to clear my plate because my mother knew (and told us) that our eating extra food would not help one person starving elsewhere. We did have to try things, and in a buffet situation not take more than we could eat.
    Then I became a parent. My husband and I adopted a child from Ethiopia who came home at age just over one year old, and had a host of food issues, mainly gorging past satiation and freaking out when food was gone, even if we knew he would vomit if he ate any more. We had to teach him how to chew but we successfully dealt with the food issues with patience and understanding.
    Then came his autism diagnosis and mealtimes really went to hell. No negotiations are effective with a severe language delay, texture issues, etc. We are lucky that he has a relatively varied diet with some fruits, veggies, meats and carbs. However, he will not even try food that are touching (hamburgers), foods that are mixed (cereal with raisins), foods with sauce or gravy, and all of the above (soups, stews, chilies). I now will give a peanut butter sandwich (his one exception to food touching), after encouraging him to try a new food. I also modify my meals, making unseasoned chicken for him, then seasoning for my husband and me. We put his food in single food units on a camping plate with physically separate sections.
    With some increased language we are able to get him to try new things, using simple games and first-then, like first two pieces of pork roast, then a cookie for dessert, or then time on the iPad. We are having some successes, but it is a very slow process.
    Mealtime became a hell of a lot less stressful when I decided to chill out, and introduce food and encourage tasting it without forcing a meltdown. If I cannot face plain chicken with plain rice and carrots one more time, I make a stew and a peanut butter sandwich at the same time.

  2. My son was amazing about trying new things and eating veggies of all, kinds when he was young. I love to cook and do most of the cooking so I was very pleased with myself having raised an adventures veggy loving eater!
    Then something happened when he was around fourteen. I have no idea how it happened, whether it was a head injury or a DNA mutation brought on by some unnoticed viral infection, but he decided green things and most vegetation was what the guinea pigs and the rest of the family ate. He’d become a meatatarian with a willingness to eat carbs if they served as a frame for a meat portrait. He’s 23 now and I expect salsa is his main source of vegetables. And I’m still clueless and confused as to what happened; but hey, at least he slept through the night at eight weeks and loved napping as a toddler!

  3. Nope, I’m not a short order cook.
    I pretty much have a no nonsense, no pressure
    I cook one meal, which usually means that I go straight into the kitchen after a long day in college and then I get to spend some more time in the kitchen cleaning up. I will not cook that meal and then make a sandwich.
    But the kids are involved in choosing the dishes. They make suggestions, we discuss whether that’s possible because of time/season/balanced meal and frankly, right now there are dishes that will always do the trick.
    Things get put on the table and they take what they want. I’ve stopped worrying if #1 only ate peas and potatoes while the little one had two servings of meat. Some time afterwards cookies will provide calories and fruits will provide vitamins.
    If there’s something they don’t like, they can also just eat around it. At the moment the little one doesn’t like mushrooms, but that can change with the next mushroom dish.
    There’s something most parents learn when their kid starts eating at the daycare: Suddenly they eat everything. The kid who screamed at greens shovels brocoli, cheese is no longer disgusting, which means that while I never force them to eat anything, I also don’t bow to their every whim. Which was a learning process. My oldest is underweight and has always been. She found out pretty well that she had power via food. Mealtimes became a torture: One more spoonful? Please? You have to eat at least this amount before you’re allowed sweets! Can I get you something else instead? Please, you have to eat something!
    One day I stopped and quickly meals became very relaxed. She would eat or not. She’s still underweight, but she didn’t become more underweight.

  4. Oh, and a food related annecdote:
    My daughter started school this summer. So every morning I ask her what she wants on her sandwich, and without exception, for the first three months she thought about it for 5 minutes and then said “cream cheese”.
    Then there came the morning I started making the cream cheese sandwich while she was thinking and getting dressed (so no, she didn’t see what I was doing). The moment I packed her cream cheese sandwich and the carrots into the lunchbox I heard her from her room: “Today I want butter and salami!”

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