No parent enjoys preparing separate meals to accommodate their little darlings’ ever-changing array of food likes and dislikes. But parents often cave to ensure everyone is well-fed and healthy.
Having picky eaters in the household can starve mealtimes of fun, increasing the workload and the drama quotient at the dinner table. Child No. 1 won’t eat anything green. Child No. 2 says meat is murder. Child No. 3 will only eat hot dogs sauteed in soy sauce.
At first, a parent tries to be stealthy about providing a balanced diet. Sneaking grated zucchini or carrot into their taco meat and spinach into their fruit smoothies. Substituting sweet potato fries for regular french fries and hoping they won’t notice (they do!). Or just lying about the ingredients in a dish: “No honey, of course there’s no bacon in this breakfast hash.”
If stealth doesn’t work, you might try bargaining. “If you’ll eat the fish, I’ll take you to the trampoline park tomorrow. No? OK, how about you eat four bites of the fish? How about three?” Those kids are tough negotiators. Maybe we should be using them to work out a trade deal with China.
You may try using logic and science to reason with older children and teens about the nutritional benefits of the disputed food. But as anyone who has tried to debate with a teenager knows, you’ll rarely come out on the winning side. Even if you do, you’ll never get that hour back. You could have just prepared an alternate meal in the time you spent debating the merits of white rice versus quinoa.
Out of sheer frustration, when trickery and bribery has failed, we sometimes resort to another time-honored tactic: the ultimatum. “You’re not leaving this table until you’ve eaten that salad, young man!” However, if he calls your bluff and asks for his pillow as he settles in for a long standoff, are you going to stick to your guns? Force-feeding a wilting salad to a stubborn 8-year-old seems like a challenging proposition.
Experts say parents should try to avoid battling with children over their food choices or the quantities they eat. Punishing, bribing or rewarding kids for their eating habits may just exacerbate the problem. Fussy eating by children is often as much a means of exerting independence and establishing a sense of autonomy as it is a fixed dislike. In other words: This too shall pass if you just choose not to argue about it. Keep serving the food in question intermittently and don’t make a scene if it comes back to the kitchen untouched.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends involving your children in shopping for and cooking meals, and providing a choice between two healthy options when deciding on a menu.
In most cases, if you make a meal and one (or more) of the kids refuse to eat some (or all) of it, don’t feel pressured to make a second meal. Children have varied appetites. In most cases, when they’re truly hungry, they will eat, especially if they know their fairy chef-mother isn’t going to whip up an alternate plate of food on demand. So, at the next meal they’ll likely make up for what they missed this time.
As adults, I’m sure we’re all demonstrating the healthy and varied eating habits we want our kids to emulate. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to make sure my husband isn’t making tuna casserole for dinner. Blargh! It looks and smells like cat food.
— Kim Himstreet is the 40-something mother of two teenage boys whom she and her husband have raised while living in three different countries and three U.S. states.