Monday, March 31, 2014

10 Rules We Use to Get Our Kids to Eat Real Food

A number of friends have asked me how it is that I get my kids to eat pretty much anything. For example, this week's menu included marinated kale, potato, avocado, and asparagus salad, roasted squash and sweet potatoes, lentil curry, tahini dressed quinoa, and a tofu vegetable stirfry--all of which they ate without complaint and much of which was unfamiliar.

While I can positively say that my children used to exhibit that infuriating habit of refusing to eat anything but toast and juice and now they will eat anything, I can't be 100% certain if it's anything I'm doing or if they just grew out of bad habits. One thing I am sure about is that mealtimes used to be insufferable battles and after I instituted a few simple rules we've had relative peace at the table.

So here's some rules that WE follow and my reasons for them. They might be worth a try if you are having table troubles with the kiddies.

1) COOK-- and exhibit confidence in your own cooking. If you don't have any confidence in your ability to make something delicious, then it wouldn't be surprising if your kid is picking up on that. When my kids wrinkle their noses at something I put in front of them I always say cheerily and with complete confidence that "Mummy doesn't make yucky food--everything I make is delicious." By the same token--don't make your kids eat food you messed up. Forcing them to eat burnt porridge is not in the spirit of what you are trying to do. If you have truly messed dinner up--own up to it and don't make them eat it. Dig out the peanut butter jar and try again next time. Remember that feeding your kids isn't ultimately about putting necessary nutrients into their bodies. It's about teaching them to enjoy meals socially and develop healthy attitudes to food and eating. You can't teach them to enjoy good healthy food if you expect them to eat bad food.

2)DON'T BE A SHORT-ORDER COOK. This is a really bad habit that is easy to get into if you don't meal plan. You come downstairs in the morning and before you even think about what you are doing (probably because the coffee didn't make itself and walk upstairs to you) you say the worst thing possible:"What do you want for breakfast?" Before you know it the kids are asking for different meals that require heroic multitasking to pull off (especially first thing in the morning) and then the kicker: they change their minds half way through or start fighting over what they want you to make. The best way to avoid turning yourself into a kitchen slave is never ever to ask "What do you want to eat?" This just gives the kids the false impression that they don't have to eat anything they don't want to and undermines your authority as the household teacher of culinary good taste. 

3) DON'T BUY KIDDIE FOOD. And by "kiddie food" I mean anything marketed to children (fruit cups, rollups, snacks, mum-mums, cereals, yogurt cups, cheese strings, fish crackers etc etc). If you can't make it at home from scratch just don't buy it-- this is a good nutritional rule as well as a good way to combat food pickiness. Kiddie food, even Cheerios, is mostly sugar, totally stripped of all it's nutritional value (even the "organic" stuff). It's expensive, and worst of all, it's designed to make kids want it all the time. Not just with packaging or advertising, but taste, shape, texture--everything. We give our kids these things for 2 reasons: first, they are designed for a kid to be able to easily feed themselves independently of help from mum or dad, and second, we are all under the impression in the west that our kids physically need to be able to eat, unassisted, on demand, and so we keep an arsenal of this stuff in our cupboards and diaper bags and cars lest our kid should get hungry when we haven't the time to sit them at a table for a proper, civilised meal--something we rarely make time for these days. I firmly believe that while it's handy for a kid to be able to feed themselves, the habitual use of kiddie snack foods only reinforces the notion of control a kid thinks they ought have over what they put in their mouth, while teaching them nothing about table manners, good taste, nutrition, or how to wait for meals.

4) HAVE CIVILISED MEALS-- and don't offer snacks between meals if you can possibly avoid it. This is really, really hard to manage these days. I know. We're always busy, always on the go, and 3 meals a day is really hard to manage a lot of the time. I homeschool and I find this rule hard to stick to because we go out of the house, often over lunch time, at least 2 or 3 times a week and it's hard not to give into processed convenience food when you're out and about if you're already in the habit of packing it around. And let's face it, cooking 3 times a day is a LOT of cooking. One way to facilitate this is to get into the habit of having meals I call "bit of everything" meals. They are basically a Ploughman's Lunch, or lunches which you can open and present, but require little or no prep--a grain, a dairy product, a fruit, a veggie, and a pickle or preserve (or both). This is what picnic food used to be before the advent of sandwiches and fish crackers. Having whole food that you don't have to cook or prepare much makes it a lot easier to live a busy life and not be tied to your stove all day, while still keeping some kind of meal routine. Sticking to a meals-at-the-table rule when you're at home (as opposed to snacks whenever they ask for them) goes a long way towards getting them to try what you put in front of them-- at least in the case of my kids. Once we nixed snacks between meals and insisted on meals at the table, my kids were not only better behaved at the table, but they were a lot more likely to eat what was offered-- and usually finish it.

5) OFFER NEW STUFF OFTEN--but make sure one meal a day is fairly routine. This is where meal planning is so handy. I highly recommend it for budgeting as well as sanity. In our house dinner is different more or less every night and depending on what we have planned for that day depends on how laboursome the cooking will be for that night's dinner. Lunches, however, are usually limited to "bit of everything" or various  soups with bread and butter. Occasionally I make sandwiches. Breakfasts are almost always the same: porridge with maple syrup and cream, plus a fruit and some plain yogurt (if they're still hungry). Kids LOVE predictability which is why they tend to demand the same four foods all the time, so we make sure that one meal is predictable. In our house it's the family meal that is always the adventurous meal. The attitude we model is that it's FUN to try new things and we do our best to make them feel that eating what we are all eating is a privilege-- they are getting to join in on an eating adventure with the grownups.  If they aren't initially happy about what's offered don't take it off the menu after one try-- offer it more frequently. Especially if you like eating it.

6) DON'T AFFIRM NEGATIVE REACTIONS to new foods. My kids used to say "Ew that's disgusting!" and "I don't like it!" etc etc. It's important not to allow that kind of talk, but it's even more important not to let it come out of your own mouth. I was actually surprised how often and easily I slipped into mentioning to friends in my children's hearing that my daughter "disliked" or "wouldn't eat" something. I honestly think even asking our kid if they like something can be taken for offering control to your child over whether they eat something or not. All the recent science about food preferences suggests that if you dislike something it has everything to do with unfamiliarity of flavour or texture and that literally EVERYTHING is an acquired taste. When my kids object to unfamiliar foods I simply explain their reaction in a "scientific" way: "We don't call food disgusting--Mummy doesn't make disgusting food. Your mouth just hasn't learned how that food is good yet, so you have to keep trying it until your mouth learns to like it."

7) EXPECT THEM TO TRY EVERYTHING--but don't force them to finish it. I have a really hard time with this one because I'm such a control freak and I hate it when my kids waste food, so this rule is as much for me as for them. If you stick to the no-snacks rule, you can be pretty sure that they will be hungry come mealtime, so the rule at our place is that they must try everything--just one bite--before they get down from the table. But they needn't finish it. Sometimes your kid really is too full to finish. If our kids refuse to try things we offer (which is very, very rare if we stick to the other rules) we do everything in our power not lose our cool. We go through the list of reasons why they are expected to try it, and if that doesn't work, we excuse them, but--

8) OFFER NOTHING ELSE until the next meal. This is a hard one to stick to because in the West we have been taught to fear letting our kids go hungry for even a few minutes (hence the prolific power of the snack food industry). Because we have learned to reduce the value of foods to their nutritional components instead of enjoying them whole as part of a communal activity, we have unwittingly managed to convince ourselves that hunger is a sign that something is very, very wrong and must be immediately remedied by whatever means possible. And as parents we tend to use hunger as an excuse for bad behaviour in children as well. This may very well be true a lot of the time. I certainly get grumpier when I am hungry. But instead of teaching our children, or modelling ourselves, that good behaviour is expected regardless of what physical ailment may be bothering us, we tend to offer more food-- any food, at any time. Just make the screaming stop. Sympathy for discomfort is of course important, but not at the expense of reasonable boundaries and expectations. The hard thing I find in my house is to stick to those reasonable boundaries without losing my cool when they lose their cool. Practice, practice. One can affirm the emotional response without moving the boundary. But the key thing to keep in mind is that your child will not starve if you refuse to offer between meal snacks or allow participation in a dessert course when a meal is wholly rejected. (It helps if those dessert courses are rare too). Your child will not starve. Remind yourself of this. Repeatedly if necessary. They may get very, very hungry. They may get very, very angry. They may test your patience in every way possible. But they won't starve. Nor will they suffer malnourishment for having to wait until the next meal. Every other culture outside the West practices this and their health is usually better than ours. Depending on how stubborn or difficult your child can be when faced with boundaries depends on how rough this could initially be, but I guarantee you, you will not be damaging their health or guilty of child abuse because you made them wait for dinner. Quite the reverse.

9) DON'T FIGHT A LOSING BATTLE--make sure that every meal includes at least one thing you know they like and don't offer stuff that is too spicy or too sour or too strongly flavoured right off the bat. Introduce those things for sure, but slowly and only as "tastes" not as whole servings of food. Especially if your kids are used to only eating what they like and treating you like a short order cook. There's no point throwing them straight into the deep end. You could be setting yourself up for immediate failure. In our house we have been practicing these rules for long enough that I can generally experiment with any new recipe and be guaranteed that I will have little or no resistance about anything I put in front of my kids regardless of how unfamiliar or spicy or strongly flavoured. But even I won't serve my kids vindaloo or make them try wasabi on their sushi. And in the beginning I was careful to ensure that most meals included a course that they already enjoyed.

10)ENJOY YOUR MEALS--A big part of peaceful dining experiences is making sure that YOU are enjoying them. That you are cooking what you love to cook and eating what you like to eat with people you love in a civilised way. And that means setting boundaries not just for the kids but for yourself. Don't text at the table, don't rush your own eating, don't jump up from the table to change the baby or get people extra drinks or answer the phone. Make eating a priority and take the time to enjoy it. If you show the kids that you value cooking and eating and social interaction at the table by giving it your fullest attention, your kids will pick up on that priority too and learn to take enjoyment of food seriously.

So those are our household rules and I admit I am not always 100% good at following them. Nor am I completely certain that I didn't just get lucky with my kids. What may be easy for one family to do may be next to impossible for other families, so if any of this seems like way too tall an order for your family to manage don't beat yourself up or consider yourself a failure. Parenting is hard and picky eating is one of the hardest things to deal with. All of the above is merely what worked for us. I hope it's helpful for you.