When my kids were born, in 1999 and 2000, I decided to conduct some scientific experiments on them.
Oh, don’t worry, it wasn’t anything too gruesome; all their limbs and internal organs are still intact. I just wanted to put some personal child-rearing philosophies to the test and see if I could turn them into healthy and conscientious eaters without any odd phobias or irrational dislikes of certain foods.
Fundamentally, I believe that kids’ eating habits are mostly formed between the ages of two and five, and having a pro-active methodology to respond to the typical food related tantrums that every kid goes through would help get through those critical years and make them better eaters.
Primarily, my belief was that all kids naturally go through short cycles of not wanting to eat certain foods, not liking certain flavors or spices, and that many times (not always) this is due to external influences – not being hungry, tummy upsets, a particular mood, or just being enamored with something that tasted good last week and not wanting anything else. One of the key ideas is that these usually are “short” cycles of likes and dislikes, but having an inappropriate response can extend the cycles or even artificially create a lifelong dislike of one certain food.
What I wanted to avoid was the typical parental response of coming to the conclusion that “my kids don’t like ... xxx”, when “xxx” really isn’t the problem.
When parents come to the conclusion that “my kid doesn’t like xxx”, they usually stop giving their child that particular food and let everyone know at school and at play dates that their kid won’t eat it – or they make a big deal about it at home and try to forcefully cajole their kid to eat the food in question. Both responses perpetuates the cycle and just makes it worse. Furthermore, I truly believe that it gives positive reinforcement and the child realizes that they get extra attention when they don’t like something.
So I would never say “My kids don’t like xxx”. In fact, in their entire lives, they have never heard me say that to anyone. Instead, I would say “My kids eat everything, but I didn’t cook the xxx right the last time. I’ll make it better next time.”
The next time I’d make the offending dish, I’d change it a little bit and do something different. I’d ask “did I make it better this time?” – usually they would say “yes, this tastes good”.
Sometimes it would take three or four tries, but we wouldn’t make a big deal about it. They always came around and eventually it just became a non-issue. I wanted to avoid having them ever come to the conclusion themselves that “I don’t like xxx”.
We always tried to avoid a big power struggle at the dinner table. Kids can be obstinate at that age, that’s for sure, but having a consistent response and a few set rules is critical. The rule in our house was that they did not have to sit there at the table until they finished, but we would keep their dinner available until bedtime. If they got hungry they could eat their food, but wouldn’t get anything else (dessert, or something different) unless they at least made a good attempt at eating what was served.
Sometimes they just weren’t that hungry, and they were fine going to bed with only a few bites in their tummy. That was always a perfectly acceptable option. Usually they would play for a bit and come back on their own and happily eat their dinner, which would get them extra praise and cheers and maybe some dessert.
And occasionally, the tears would flow; they were hungry, but they didn’t want what was on their plate. This really didn’t happen very often – but it was always a struggle when it did.
We’d mostly to stick to the rules ... nothing different, and no dessert unless they ate their dinner. It doesn’t take very many times going to bed hungry before they realized they won’t win that battle. Very occasionally, we’d give in. But to keep the peace, I’d take the blame and I’d say “you’re right, I really didn’t do a good job making dinner tonight. In fact, I didn’t care for it much myself. Let’s get something else.”
Always be positive, and don’t give them the opportunity to come to the conclusion that they don’t like something!
We also exposed our kids to EVERYTHING at an early age. Escargot with good French bread was one of their favorite treats when they were three (actually, who wouldn’t like something smothered in that much garlic and butter?). For years, we had Sushi every Friday night, a treat that we always looked forward to. It’s still their favorite food in the world. Over the years they’ve had pretty much every ‘ethnic’ food you can imagine.
Don’t think your kids would ever eat congee (rice porridge) and steamed fish for breakfast? Look at it this way – with a population of 1.3 billion, there are four times as many Chinese people who think that this is a completely normal breakfast than there are people in the United States who think it’s weird! (and let’s not forget that the Chinese and Japanese have the longest lifespans and tend to be the healthiest people on the planet.) The point is, anything you have on a semi-regular basis from the time the kids are about two years old will seem “normal” to them.
As they got older, we would prepare the kids ahead of time if we knew something was going to have a really strong or unusual flavor or texture and we found this made all the difference in the world. We’d say “we’re going to eat at an Ethiopian restaurant tonight. They have this really unusual bread that looks and feels like a washcloth, but you tear it into strips and use it to scoop up the food. Some of it will be a little spicy, but you can mix it with the milder food to get a good balance ... ”
Another thing – don’t fall into the trap of giving kids “bland” foods by default. To this day, it drives me CRAZY when the kids go to birthday parties or a school function and all they get served is plain cheese pizza. Make it exciting! Throw some sausage and bell peppers and onions and mushrooms on there if you want your kids to enjoy their pizza!
We went to a birthday party at Chuck E Cheese one time when my older son was about five. He looked disdainfully at the array of cheese pizza’s and said “daddy, can we order our own pizza?”
I got a large combination pizza and put it on the table ... and it disappeared in less than five minutes. Almost every kid at the party had at least one piece – and there was still some leftover cheese pizza at the end!
I was at the grocery store just the other day, and a little girl – maybe three or four years old – grabbed a jar of olives off the shelf and said “Mommy, what are these?”
To my surprise, the mom responded with “those are olives, you wouldn’t like those” as she put them back on the shelf. Why would you ever tell your child that they wouldn’t like something?
If, for some odd reason, my kid didn’t know what an olive was at that age, I probably would have said: “These are olives. Some are green and some are black. Some have a mild flavor and some have dry wrinkly skin and have a really strong flavor. My favorites are the ones called Kalamata Olives. Should we get some of each and go home to compare them and see which ones you like best?”
Always go for the food that has more flavor, more texture, more fresh ingredients, and of course, more nutritional value. Be excited about it and your kids will pick up on that excitement. (You have to be a role model and love good food yourself for this to work, of course. If your cupboard is full of Twinkies and cans of Spam, Vienna Sausages, and Cheez-Whiz, then there’s probably not much hope for your kids I’m afraid.)
We never had pasty white bread in the house (yuck), sugary breakfast cereals (pure poison), or plasticized “American” cheese slices. And my kids didn’t drink soda more than once a month (probably less) until they were about eleven years old – it’s definitely harder now, but we still ration the soda consumption as much as possible. We try to keep it to once a week or so, and only a single serving – none of these “free refills”. You might as well just put your kids on a glucose IV drip if you’re going to do that to them!
In general I’m a vocal “anti-fast food” fanatic (which kinda makes sense after producing the movie Muffin Man), but there are times when it’s fast (hence the name) and convenient. Instead of trying to convince the kids that fast food doesn’t taste good, which I knew would never fly, I’d always lean on the nutritional aspects and say “I’m sorry kids, I know it’s not the healthiest food in the world but we’re in a hurry today so we’re going to have to pick something up from drive-through.”
We would never use fast food as a “treat” and I would always apologize to them when we did have it.
They started wising up at about age nine ... but by then we were out of the critical years, and now they can understand for themselves how bad for you this stuff is and why we don’t eat it very often.
Of course there are times when we’re in the mood for a burger. But in that case we usually want a really good burger with fresh ingredients. Hard to find, I know, but we have a few favorite “local” places that will still make a burger cooked medium-rare to order, which doesn’t taste like it’s been morphed into pink slime sometime in its past and reformed to look something like a mass produced chunk of chuck.
Overall, I'm happy to say, my experiment has been a success. The kids do have some foods they prefer over others of course, but we can go to any restaurant or anyone’s house for dinner and they will eat whatever is put in front of them without complaint. They love the flavor and understand the nutritional benefit of fresh fruits and vegetables. If there is something they don’t care for, it’s because they just don’t like the way it was prepared ... not because of a general dislike for some particular ingredient. And most importantly, they are always eager to try something new.
Now, as we head into the teenage years, I’m realizing that we have a whole new batch of issues to deal with. If anyone has suggestions on how to get them to clean up after themselves and take showers more often, I’m all ears!