Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Badger's manifesto on picky eaters

I've been reading with great interest this Bob del Grosso post (and the resulting comments) over on Michael Ruhlman's blog. Not the stuff about haute cuisine and molecular gastronomy, because I couldn't care less, but the bits about finicky kids. Del Grosso writes that when his kids were babies he just pureed whatever the family was eating rather than feeding them typical "kid" food, on the theory that they would develop a taste early on for the good stuff and thus be less finicky as they got older. With his daughter, it seems to have worked. With his son? Not so much.

I was fascinated and a teeny bit thrilled to read this because, as you know if you've been reading this blog from the beginning, finicky kids are the whole reason I started the Make Your Own Damn Dinner project in the first place. I've had a lot of people (usually people without kids, or people who raised their kids in a different generation) tell me over the years that the reason my kids are/were picky is because I fed them special "kid" food instead of whatever DH and I were eating. I used to think this was true, but I don't anymore, so it was interesting to read the experience of a professional chef who also happens to be a dad. Here's a guy who's an excellent cook, putting all sorts of enticing stuff on the dinner table every night, and his kid won't eat it! While I have nothing but empathy for his situation, what a relief to hear that maybe I haven't permanently screwed up my kids' palates with my short-order cooking after all.

I've thought a lot over the past year about how I went off the rails and started feeding my kids "kid" food instead of regular food in the first place. It really kind of happened without me noticing it, but looking back, I can kind of see the genesis of the whole thing. I'm documenting it here for other parents who might be asking themselves how THEY ended up in the same place, and for childless folks who might be baffled as to how in the world this could happen to an otherwise mostly rational adult. (Remember, all of us parents were childless once, too. WE were the ones saying, "When I have kids, I'll never xyz!" But then, you know, we actually HAD kids, and ... things changed.)

It really kind of starts when they're born, doesn't it? When you* take your newborn in for well-child checkups every couple of months, the doctor asks you how often he/she nurses and for how long, or how many bottles he/she drinks and how often. They give you guidelines to make sure your kid is eating enough, but not too much. Food is a big focus during the early toddler stage, too -- you come home from the pediatrician with all sorts of information on when to start solids, which ones to try in which order, how to document your child's reaction to each new food that's introduced, how much to give at each serving, how often the child should eat, etc., etc. You get programmed to focus on how, what and when your kid is eating. Along with that are the growth charts -- is your kid growing okay? What percentile is he/she in for weight? Has that percentile changed at all since the last checkup, and if so, does it mean he/she is eating too much? Too little?

It becomes an obsession. There's PRESSURE, okay? Seriously. I don't know if it tends to affect moms more than dads, but I can tell you that most moms I know would cut off their own arm and feed it to the kid IF THE KID WOULD ACTUALLY EAT IT. If your toddler is rejecting his broccoli, and you know he's hungry, and you know he likes crackers, and you just want him to eat so he will GO TO SLEEP ALREADY, you give him the crackers. That's how it starts, and it just kind of goes from there. I'm not saying it's a GOOD thing, and I'm not trying to make excuses for it. I'm just saying, IT HAPPENS, and that's pretty much how. You take the path of least resistance, because you want the kid to EAT. While logically you may KNOW your kid won't starve him/herself if food is available, when it is your own kid, the kid you are supposed to be KEEPING ALIVE, you eventually fall into the habit of feeding them what you know they'll eat. So then their percentages on the charts won't be wonky, and they won't pitch a fit in the restaurant, and they'll go to sleep at night, and all will be right with the world.

Okay! So back to me and MY kids, and fast-forward to now. We have been operating on the Make Your Own Damn Dinner principle for nearly a year, since the kids were 8 and 10 years old. The rules are this: Mom only makes ONE MEAL for the family for dinner. There is enough food for everyone. If you don't want to eat it, you don't have to. You're not REQUIRED to try anything. (But if you do try something new, you get MAD PROPS whether you end up liking it or not.) Hell, you don't even have to eat dinner at all if you're not hungry. However, we offer dessert (usually just something small) every single night, and if you want dessert, you have to eat a specified amount of protein and fruit or veggie for dinner. Grains are optional, because the girl child in particular would happily eat nothing BUT grains, so it's never a struggle to get any into them. If you don't like the protein and veggie I made, you are welcome to MAKE YOUR OWN.

The result of this has been that the boy child now eats the dinner I cook at least 80% of the time. He has tried a ton of new foods and has liked most of them. The girl, on the other hand, eats my food maybe 20-30% of the time. Most nights she makes herself a sandwich consisting of a seeded hamburger bun and a slice of American cheese, and some raw baby carrots. Some nights she'll eat the grain I make (she loves quinoa and nearly any sort of bread) and maybe the veggie (if it's broccoli or salad) and she'll have a piece of cheese or deli turkey along with it.

The boy's diet is now richly varied; the girl's diet is still EXTREMELY limited. I made them the same foods when they were babies/toddlers/preschoolers, and I offer them the same foods now. It's PERSONALITY, people. Maybe body chemistry has something to do with it, I don't know, but I am now convinced that some kids are just picky no matter what you do. I do think kids go through stages as far as what they're willing to eat, but I don't think there's a damn thing parents can do to control this other than enter into a battle of wills with the kid(s) in question. I do NOT want food to be a weapon in my house. Now that my kids are older and I'm not all hung up on growth charts and guidelines, my policy is to make healthy food available to them (remember, I've stopped buying fruit snacks, chicken nuggets and fish sticks along with a few other processed foods) and turn 'em loose. I do worry like hell whether the girl child is getting a balanced diet when some weeks it seems like she LIVES on cheese sandwiches and carrots, but I no longer worry about whether she's getting enough to eat. Because she knows where we keep the food, and she has access to it, so if she's hungry it's her own damn fault.

And that's all I have to say about that.


*Please don't anyone get all snippy with my use of the pronoun "you" in this piece. I'm not talking about YOU SPECIFICALLY. I'm talking about the GENERIC you. I KNOW some parents, many parents, manage to avoid this little trap I'm illustrating here. And if you have, well, good for THE SPECIFIC you. You have my undying admiration.


Jaye Joseph said...

I'm also really fascinated by this discussion (and also not really on the MG discussion because frankly, who cares?). Since I don't have kids, I have no idea about anything other than the way my parents dealt with the picky factor.

It's interesting to me because everyone I knew growing up had the same deal with their parents. It seems like now, people don't do that.

Also, back then I don't think the pressure was on parents the way it is now with the doctors and the precentiles and the eating stuff. That is a LOT of pressure. Plus, you've got all of those other moms who ask questions and then give you those "looks" because Janey doesn't eat broccoli or some shit like that.

Anyway, thank you for all of the insight. And Bob G. emailed me about my comment and enlightened me a lot too. This is cool! If, God forbid, I ever do have those small people living in my house, I'll know what's up with the picky thing and tell them to make their own damned dinner.

Anonymous said...

omgah!! -- this (you...specific you *hehehe*) is and/are awesome!! i love it!! this has ALWAYS been my theory!! -- i have a friend with three children, who usually makes 2-3 different meals each night because of her freakin' picky a**kids!! -- i've always been....if you're hungry, you'll eat it. if not, you don't have to! -- i love this!! it's awesome!! love your writing, also...you have a gift!! -- i just saw your webpage in feb 08' of redbook and immediately had to pull this up....and add to favorites!! kudos to you!!

Anonymous said...

Amen sister! I saw the webpage in feb 08 Redbook and had to check it out. Sadly, I dont like to cook. With picky eaters, its a nightmare. Luckily boy child(12) loves to cook. (Yea me!) However girl child(7) hates everything but pizza and cheeseburgers. You're funny! I will definetly be checking back in, keep up the good work!

Anonymous said...

Thank goodness! I am not alone! I have two boys, 9 and 12. The 12 year old would be happy to live exclusively on peanut butter sandwiches and milk, while the 9 year old is a little more varied in diet. He actually likes sushi(go figure!)but he will rarely eat anything that the 12 year old will eat. I think I will institute the policy of him making his own dinner....

wosnes said...

I read this some time ago but didn't comment. My kids, now nearly 27 and 29, were both picky as kids, but picky different -- you know, what one would eat the other wouldn't. The younger one wasn't quite as picky as the older one. This lasted through high school.

This was compounded by the fact that for a while I follwed a very restricted diet and refused to cook "special" for the family. Oh, if only I could do it over again!

I think my cooking abilities atrophied during this time. In the last few years I've become a much better cook. But that's not the point here...

The point is that as time has gone by, my kids have become much more adventurous eaters. There are still things they won't touch and things they certainly don't like as well as others. One says she HATES onions, but I've noticed that if she can't see them in a dish, she eats it without comment or complaint.

It's far more enjoyable to cook for and eat with them than it used to be! Even eating out is more enjoyable.

Cindy Rowland said...

This is the best version of The Truth I've read. Glorious! Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Omigod. Thx for the posting. I just had an argument with my hubby about my kids being picky. I mean my older son 6, would eat fries, fish nuggets, bread, apples and NOTHING else. My younger, 2, would only eat porridge with meat/ veggies in them n won't eat solids. I feel extremely guilty about how they eat n unfortunately I'm not a patient mom (won't sit with them to finish their meal) so it's not helping at all. But aftr reading yr column, I know I'm not alone!! Liza