food without the fight: mealtimes with young children

When my kids were babies, I thought the feeding business was a breeze.  Smash something up, stick it on a spoon, and they were good to go.  Try to alternate colors, get a balance of fruits, veggies, protein, and grains—no problem.

Then Peatie hit 18 months.  Suddenly he didn’t like meat, except hot dogs.  He liked only one vegetable at a time, but he’d switch his preferred vegetable every few weeks—just after I had given in and bought a bulk supply of the last one.  He’d eat spaghetti noodles if they had tomato sauce, but he wouldn’t eat any other type of noodle or sauce.  And then he hit two.  Then he didn’t like hot dogs.  Or vegetables.  Or noodles.  Or much of anything except vanilla yogurt, blueberries, strawberries, bananas, and bread products.

I’m impressed to report that my mother kept her mouth firmly shut—no gloating or cackling detected.  She was the one, after all, hoping that I’d have a child just like myself.  (My family commonly claims that I survived most of my childhood on applesauce, since I didn’t like much else.)  Instead, my mother merely informed me, “You can’t force a child to chew and swallow.  Offer and encourage healthy choices, but it’s not worth making mealtimes into a battle ground.”

As Goobie hit that dreaded 18-month mark and turned picky as well (though thankfully less so than Peatie), I began to ponder my options.  Meal-making had turned into a crazy affair in which I prepared something tasty for myself and ‘Love and then tried to figure out what in the world the kids would eat.  I didn’t want to turn meal-times into a battle zone, but I also wanted my children to experience the joy of a wide range of foods (and the decreased anxiety that goes with being not-so-picky) at an earlier age than I did.

Kid's place setting

In my house, we do a modified “clean plate club”.

I read extensively on the topic of picky eating.  I ran across views ranging from, “Just make them whatever they like; they’ll grow out of it,” to, “Make your meal and set it out; if they’re hungry enough they’ll eat.”  I also ran across folks with personal stories attesting to the failure of both of these extremes.  After some pondering and discussion, ‘Love and I chose a middle ground.  Here’s how we do it:

  • I make a meal.  I serve each person a small helping of everything on the table.  Each person must take a taste of everything, even if it’s something that they claim to despise.  If they can’t swallow their taste, that’s fine—it just needs to make it in their mouth for their tongue to get used to.
  • If I’ve served them something I know they DO like, they must finish their small serving of it before having seconds of anything else.
  • My initial servings are small enough that I expect my kids to clean their plates (unless there’s something they tried and dislike) AND most likely still request seconds of something.  If they can’t finish that small serving of healthy food, I save it for snack time; we don’t eat snack foods unless we’ve eaten our meals.
  • When I make meals, I do try to take my kids’ tastes into account.  If I know they’re not likely to appreciate the taste or texture of the main course, I ensure that I have two side dishes that they’ll eat.  With some encouragement, they’ve broadened their veggie likes again, and a starch is almost always a guarantee.
  • If I can easily accommodate likes and dislikes with minor adjustments to recipes, I do so.  Since Peatie likes tater tots but not the sauce of the Tater Tot Casserole I make, I throw a few tots on a tray alongside the casserole dish.  He still has to try the casserole, but he can then have some dry tots.  It’s no skin off my nose, and he eats more fried-potato goodness.

This system works for our family—our personalities, our style of interaction.  I was actually surprised that Peatie went along with the “one taste” system as easily as he did; Goobie just followed her big brother’s lead.  It’s not like our kids suddenly eat everything, but Peatie will sometimes take a second bite of something (or more rarely discover a passion for a new food—like olives!), and Goober is rediscovering the fact that she likes nearly every food under the sun.  I, meanwhile, am enjoying our low-stress system while feeling like I am helping my kids to become more well-rounded eaters.

What’s your family policy about mealtimes?


18 thoughts on “food without the fight: mealtimes with young children

  1. We use the same approach. After years and years of the kids crying at dinner, they now eat and sometimes compliment the food. My kids are not overweight, but nothing bad happened when the chose not to eat. I hate to cook, and I do it because I should, so they are going to eat it or eat nothing. 🙂 And they have survived!!!!

    • It does sound like we have a similar mentality. My husband thinks it’s sad that I basically cook only because I need to; I think it’s sad that he’s not home from work earlier, since he actually likes cooking!

  2. I’ve seen a lot of babies in my circle go through a phase where meat is only good if it’s a hot dog, and sometimes not even a go for the hot dog. I’ve seen kids and parents stay by the table for hours until the kiddo eats everything on the plate. Yelling and threats. I really like your system, I hope I remember it when we get to 18 months 🙂

  3. My youngest is our picky eater. Our oldest was eating mussels at five and I thought that was normal (this from a girl who ate only American cheese for months). I started by telling my son that he had to have at least one bite (“try it, you’ll like it”) but somehow I still always ended up serving him something different at every meal. Clearly he figured out how to manipulate me. Eventually we adopted a policy much like yours and I stopped making him something different. He’s 12 now and still not a great eater. He would rather eat bread and butter and goldfish but at least I know that one bite of a non-carb will make it into his mouth at every meal.

    • He sounds like me! I didn’t even eat corn or beans until college (except for the “one bite” that my mom insisted I eat when they were served for dinner). Hopefully, like me, he’ll more-or-less come around on his own eventually, but at least your dinners are no longer so frustrating!

  4. My boys haven’t ever been super picky, but they usually have opposite accepted foods- one will eat bread, the other abhors it. One eats beans the other will cry if I serve them. That makes it all a little complicated, but I have never wanted to be a short order cook. Two of the things we have done over the years are: one get out of jail free meal. We have several staple meals that we cook week after week- taco night, chili, roaster chicken, etc., mixing in some innovative dishes when we have the time or inclination. So out of the staple meals the kids can choose one they refuse to eat and then when it is served they may have a peanut butter and jelly sandwich instead. For years my oldest chose chili. Just recently he started eating it and switched to hating tacos. The other thing we tried is with veggies. We would serve them first. You get an appetizer of veggies, a kid serving size, and then when that is gone you are served the rest of the meal. Now we don’t even have to do it that way anymore, the kids naturally eat their veggies first.

    • Love the ideas! I’ll have to remember those if (when?) my kids start switching their eating habits (again). Parenting is like trying to hit a moving target; just when you find something that works with your kids, they rotate to a new phase and you have to start all over.

  5. Pingback: Thursday Shout Out!! Dinner Time not Battle Time! « Busy House Big Heart

  6. Pingback: Thursday Shout Out!!! - Dinner Time not Battle Time | Busy House Big Heart

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