Thursday, September 8, 2011

Getting Kids to Eat Well Isn't Tough

Recently at a well child check-up the doctor asked one of my children if they ate a variety of healthy foods and if they tried new foods.  My child replied, "Yes, but the last time we ate Ethiopian food, the goat was a little spicy."

The doctor was shocked.  So are many in my acquaintance whose children subsist on chicken nuggets and sugary cereal.

I don't think getting kids to eat a variety of healthy foods is that tough.  My job as a parent is to provide my kids healthy meals.  Their job is to eat it, or as much of it as they want.  I give them food at appropriate times and they can choose to eat it or not eat it.

As parents I think our greatest weapon in our arsenal is not caring.  Really.  Stay non-committal about food and don't make it into an issue.  I do not force my children to eat.  Nor do I praise them for trying "just one itty bitty bite of that cooked spinach".  If they eat the veggies, great.  I don't comment.  If they don't eat the veggies, great.  I don't comment.

They don't need to pick up on the idea that some foods are expected to taste lousy.  If you clap and cheer for a child eating asparagus, but not for macaroni and cheese, they are not stupid.  They will realize that they shouldn't like asparagus and Mommy will do crazy dances and sing silly songs and praise them extraordinarily if they do.  That is just reinforcing the idea that eating vegetables or any food that is new is a bad thing and they need a prize for doing what is expected. 

At each meal, I put small servings of the food we are going to eat on their plate.  They do NOT get special meals. (although I will add more chili powder, curry or other highly spiced seasonings to my food or my husbands when dishing up the plates sometimes).  I try to make sure that everyone likes at least one thing.  If I am not sure of some new recipes, I will often put biscuits or bread on their plate as part of the meal, NEVER as a last-minute alternative for someone who decides they don't want to eat supper.

Then the meal starts.  We talk about our day.  We tell stories.  There is usually some lame knock-knock joke and a made-up song involved somewhere in the conversation.  What we don't do is dwell on the food. 

The most important rule we have about food, though, is that you may NOT say anything unkind about the food.  "This is yucky!" may NOT come out of their cute little mouths.  If they choose not to eat it, they can leave it politely on their plate and not comment on it.  I have had many children eat at my house who do not follow this basic common courtesy, and frankly it shocks and offends me every time.  If somebody took the time and effort to make a meal there is no excuse for being unkind about it.  I want my children to be able to go to anyone's home and treat their hosts with respect.  Insulting the food is absolutely unacceptable.

Also, if parents are willing to try new things and be adventurous, kids will, too.   How can we expect children to try new things and keep an open mind without adults to set the example?

So what happens if they aren't a member of the clean plate club?  Nothing.  They sit at the table for the entire meal while others are eating.  They may not leave the table unless they need to use the bathroom.  Then they come back.  When they are old enough to sit on a big chair, they are old enough to sit for a half hour to hour to eat together as a family.  Our kids are capable of much more than we give them credit for.  (This is a generality.  Obviously there may be underlying medical or social-emotional issues that come into play.)

I truly believe that the nutritional component of mealtime is only a small part of the meal.  Family time and a chance to reconnect after a day apart is nearly as important.  I refuse to have this precious time sullied by fighting over food, and  I refuse to sit at the table all evening counting the number of bites a child takes. 

You may be thinking, "That's great for your kids, Kristin.  But mine are picky.  They just won't eat and they will whine and they will get hungry later and then they'll just eat a PBJ sandwich anyway."

If they don't eat all their food, they don't have any other food until the next meal. Yes, they might get hungry.  I understand that.  They also remember what it feels like to be hungry for a couple of hours until the next meal (no they will not die).  Then they are more likely to try things that might not be on their top 10 list at the next meal.  What motivation do they have for eating their food if they know they will have yogurt an hour later because they know Mommy doesn't want them to feel uncomfortable?  Sometimes the natural consequences of our actions make us uncomfortable.  I'd rather my kids learn that life lesson on small-scale issues like this rather than goodness knows what when they are teenagers.

I also think our society is going snack crazy.  Yes, young children often need a nutritious snack between meals.  But, if they don't want to eat a banana or carrot or whatever you offer them, they aren't that hungry.  I am not opposed to special treats, but it doesn't make sense to fill a kid up on a ton of candy, chips or crackers and then expect them to eat a good meal.  They should be a little hungry going to the table.  If a child is absolutely famished right before a meal, I will let them have some of the vegetable we are having for that meal ahead of time.  If they don't want the vegetable, they aren't really that hungry.  When a child is hungry enough, he or she will eat. 

Since I make every one of my kids meals, including packing their school lunch, eventually they will get some healthy foods into their bodies - without complaints, arguments, rudeness or starving away to nothingness.

Even Ethiopian goat.

*****  Please note that this way of handling meal times may not be appropriate for all children, especially those who may have food issues related to adoption or medical diagnosis, or very young children.  This is how I deal with my older (age 3 and up) bio children.


Cindi Campbell said...

I've heard a lot of complaining about meals from my girls and it always takes me by surprise that they will CRY about the dinner and then eat 2 bowls of the stuff. Go figure! At our house you can refuse to eat the meal and instead eat an apple or banana. They are always welcome to eat a piece of bread before bed no matter if they ate dinner or not. I decided that I never want them to remember meal battles in our home or ever remember going to bed hungry. There is always bread. And many times that is what happens. Ice cream or a sweet is always offered if they ate and didn't act out and lose it during the day.

Kristin said...

Cindi - Its always interesting to hear how other families handle similar situations. Thanks for sharing!

tmlinz said...

Hey, no singing at the dinner table!

September said...

Thank you for sharing how you deal with meals at your house! I have similar thoughts, but didn't know how to implement them.