Question from Sarah: How do I get my kids to eat more than just one or two parts of the meal?
DEAR ANNA: “Let’s say we put out a roast chicken with cauliflower, sliced raw cucumbers and home-made biscuits. I have one child out of my three that will only eat the meat, another that will only eat the biscuit, and my third that will only eat the vegetables and the biscuit. We don’t pressure them or bribe them with dessert. (true “dessert” only happens when we bake something together or if watermelon is in season). But even when their only option is home made food do I let them take the only kind they want? They are hungry (it’s been hours since after-school snack) but they could still just fill up on one thing for days!”
DEAR SARAH: I love your question! Thanks for asking me. I have a few different thoughts about ways you could address this imbalance in what your kids want to eat. Whatever you do, I would definitely above all avoid at all costs any kind of pushing to eat anything, ever. I would also be very careful to maintain an attitude of firm, cheerful nonchalance and confidence at all times. Avoid fussiness or hovering, or being over active in your child’s eating.
No pushing, but you can pull away. You can limit helpings. I wonder how you have enough chicken or biscuits for all five of you if certain people are being hogs on them. I would considers saying things like, “We all want some.” You can also decide to save back some of the chicken for leftovers the next day. Biscuits, even homemade ones, are less nutrient dense than meat and vegetables, so you could limit those to one or two each child. Maybe put the rest in the freezer for another time. Make it more about scarcity and careful use of food than that you don’t want them to eat it. If you want to make it harder for your kids to fixate on just one or two of the foods offered, make those foods less available, without telling them what you’re up to. Don’t get pulled into talking about how you want them to eat other things. If they don’t get much of their preferred options, they will be hungrier for the other options. Leave it at that. If you push them to eat, they’ll probably resist and fight you on it.
Another way to encourage more openness is to do things the French way. Serve the first course, before bringing out the rest. You can use almost anything as the first course. I used to serve salads first because my kids tended to eat everything else and not want salad otherwise. So we would serve the salad while they were most hungry. We’d take our time. I didn’t say, eat your salad. I just served it. Maybe the hot dishes were still cooking, or whatever. So you can very casually take your time more if they seem to be holding out. Just a thought. They might be intrigued with the idea of doing things the French way, too. This is all done very calmly, matter-of-factly, not staring at them or trying to talk them into anything or acting worried. Eat your own dinner and enjoy it. Talk about something interesting.
You can also make Declarations: authoritative, matter-of-fact rules of life that sound as if they were simply handed down from on high. Declarations are objective Rules, not related to your feelings. These statements begin with “We Don’t.” For example: “We Don’t Just Eat One Part (or Two Parts) of a Meal.” How well they accept these simple statements will depend on your relationship with them (and maybe their mood and definitely your attitude). These statements can be followed with a reason, if requested. “Because it’s not good for us.” Or, “Because it’s rude.” Keep it brief; be confident. If your kids still don’t eat something, I wouldn’t pay any attention to that. Don’t insist that they eat anything. At least they now know What We Do and What We Don’t Do.
Those are two excellent reasons you can offer for these declarations. Your kiddos may want to know more about how and why those two reasons are so. Their questions open the way to a teaching moment. Let them wonder and then ask.
Behind these two rules of life are ideas that you can plant in their minds to grow, like a seed. The key is to remain casual and nonchalant, never pushy or manipulative, yet firm. Ideas get children thinking in new ways. Their minds are working all the time. You might for example bring up the idea of “The Balanced Meal.” I don’t know how old your children are, but even very young ones get concepts growing in their heads that influence them for life. Do your kids know that we need to eat a lot of different foods to get the variety of nutrients our bodies need? I would try bringing this up very casually, without it being aimed at them personally. Be very factually and low key. Plant the seed, don’t show that you are planting it with any purpose of your own, but just as valuable information. Just useful information, for their general knowledge. Even toddlers can be interested in how some foods feed their bones, others their brains, yet others their muscles. Just avoid being pushy and controlling about it. Again, be calm and matter-of-fact. You want to influence, not control. It’s not about your emotions. Remain casual on the outside, no matter how desperate you feel on the inside. The more desperate you feel, the more calm you need to appear.
As for eating only one or two parts of the meal being rude, that is also a great subject of conversation and a concept kids need to learn. It is rude, in that when they go to someone’s house, it’s rude and childish to be fussy and turn up your nose at perfectly good food. It’s rude to eat all of the chicken without thought to other people wanting their share. They should get in the habit of trying everything if for no other reason to not be jerks when they go out into public. They should get the idea that this politeness is something to aspire to as they want to become a bigger kid. A good conversation to have might be how to avoid being rude at other people’s houses if you don’t like something they made. Your kids will want to know how to make themselves agreeable to others, someday, if not yet.
But it’s rude at home, too. My children were always scared to say anything negative about anything I’d cooked, because I was highly offended by that kind of rudeness. Somehow that came across loud and clear. Possibly because of my comments after their picky little friends would come over. I never made my kids or other kids eat anything, at the same time. I didn’t pay any mind or pester them if they didn’t eat much of something. I respected kids, mine and others, the way I would any guest at my table, and my own kids respected me as the cook. I think it’s good for kids to know how their behavior makes others feel.
I would look for an opportunity to simply plant these ideas without ANY pressure to eat anything ever. Try to gently present the desired behavior as mature, unselfish, noble, and the undesired behavior as weak, childish, or ignorant. Let kids take the information you give them to make their own decisions. See what happens. Kids can be very surprising.
A word of caution: don’t get in a rush about getting a child to change. Let that one seed germinate. Leave it alone. Accept the fact that real change can take a little time. For your child’s sake, don’t keep going back and digging it up to see if it’s grown yet, or keep going back and planting more of the same kind of seed because you don’t see it sprouting yet. For your own sake, don’t be like Toad in the excellent Frog and Toad story (one of my all-time favorites) where he plants seeds and then proceeds to yell at them to grow, to read stories and poems to them, to light candles for them so they wouldn’t be afraid of the dark, to sing and play music for them, and then when they finally sprout, say what hard work it was. If that’s the kind of waiting you do to your child, the seeds may well never sprout. We can bring about quick outward behavior change through pressure or rewards. It can be like tying apples to the branches of a tree. Or we can let the child grow from within, nourished and influenced by ideas that can bring about real, lasting change.
A great book to read kids with narrowness in their food choices is the truly wonderful Bread & Jam for Frances (which I have written about here). It gently shows how picky people miss out. The story puts pickiness and close-mindedness in a negative light, in a gentle, comic way. It also has two mouthwatering scenes that can only inspire better eating. It’s also a great book for parents of picky eaters to read for lessons on what works and what doesn’t.
Please do let me know what happens….
P.S. I like your rule on dessert!