I refuse to worry about what my kids eat for dinner.

I refuse to worry about what my kids eat for dinner. March 23, 2015
boy eating beet for some reason
If you were a better mom, this would be your kid.

Today, I’m making Zuppa Toscana. When I share recipes I’m trying, people often ask, “Will your kids really eat that?” The answer is: some of them, yeah. Some of them, no way. A few of them, maybe. And I am fine with that. I have two goals when I serve a meal: at least half the family should eat it, and mealtimes should be reasonably pleasant.

My policy is: I decide what to cook, and they decide whether or not to eat it.

We don’t have food battles (or food cold wars). We don’t save plates of untasted food and keep serving them, meal after meal, until the child consents to take just one bite. I know that other parents have done some variation of this, in hopes that a child will eventually begin to develop a taste for some nutritious or delicious food. But I’ve found that learning to eat new foods is a lot like learning to read or learning to use the toilet: you can either teach the kid when he’s ready, or you can teach and teach and teach and teach a kid until he’s ready — but either way, it ain’t gonna happen if he’s not ready.

I guess it’s possible that an especially serene parent would be able to patiently, consistently insist that a child try some despised food ten thousand times; but I do not possess that serenity, and things would get ugly fast. I’m already warping my kids enough over other issues. I don’t need to add “But WHY don’t you like kale?” to the list. The table is no place for guilt trips or power struggles.

So, I bring a dish to the table, and I ask each kid individually if he wants some. They have to say either “yes, please” or “no, thank you” — no retching noises or horrible faces allowed. If they want it, great. If they don’t want it, I just move along. With this approach, and with the passive peer pressure of older kids visibly enjoying different foods, I’ve had kids refuse a dish fifty times, and then gradually develop a taste for it, with no prodding or nagging from me.

If they don’t want what I’m serving, they are allowed to fill up on side dishes or fix themselves toast, eggs, a sandwich, cereal, or leftovers.  A child as young as four or five can get himself a simple meal.

Wait, wait! Don’t I want them to be healthy? And don’t I want to avoid wasting time and money on cooking foods that no one will eat?  Sure. This is why I aim for meals that at least some of them will eat. But I don’t worry about each kid having a balanced meal three times a day. I don’t even worry about having a balanced diet each day. I take the week-long view: as long as they have a reasonably nourishing, balanced diet over the course of the week, that is good enough.

And sometimes kids will just eat one food for a long, long time. This is common, and it is fine. Just keep offering a variety of foods and not making a big deal out of it. Give your kids daily vitamins to make up whatever deficits are in their diet, and don’t keep a lot of complete crap in the house for them to fill up on.  They will survive, and there will be peace in your house. As long as your kids have energy and are growing normally, there is nothing to worry about.

There is (probably) something beyond picky eating called Selective Eating Disorder, where adults not only won’t but can’t get themselves to eat more than a few, bland, nutritionally questionable foods; but I’m 99% sure your kid is not developing this disorder. Keep this in mind: the eating disorder researcher in the article says “Kids are at greater risk of becoming picky adults ‘anytime the food environment is coercive or tense.'” So avoiding that situation should be your first focus if your child is a picky eater.

To sum up: offer variety. Don’t cater to them too much. Don’t make a big stinking deal out of it. Take the nutritional long view. And if they don’t like the tasty soup you made? More for you!

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  • Lesterlynn

    I love this. It reminds me of what Ellyn Satter teaches with the Division of Responsibility in Feeding. Parents are responsible for deciding what, when, and where food is served. Kids decide whether they eat it and how much. It’s a remarkably sane approach to feeding.

  • Eileen

    I’m not a very controlling parent. Particularly when it comes to food, which can be a battleground for any family, but particularly children in adoptive situations. Typically we have some version of chicken along with vegetables for dinner, so I guess I don’t really offer variety, but I would never force food on my kids. Don’t like what I’m making? Eat some cereal. Have some eggs. Heat up a frozen pizza. You’ll live. They’ll like what I’m making eventually. Or they won’t. I don’t care. I have found that food preferences are largely genetic. I don’t take it personally. People from some backgrounds just don’t get us folks with a predisposition for bland food. They take a hardwired preference and label it stubbornness. But I promise that those of us in the family with Irish genes are never going to go crazy for some curried whatever, no matter how many times it’s thrust upon us. And if we wouldn’t all keel over from heart attacks and diabetes by the time we were thirty, we’d happily live on a diet that consisted solely of bread, butter, and salt. Meanwhile, the adopted kids are much more epicurious and for the most part will try (and eat) anything you put in front of them.

    • Heather

      I was talking to someone once who said that she read somewhere that a lot of people who like strong or spicy food are actually “undertasters” who don’t taste things as strongly (strong things taste more like other people’s normal and normal things taste bland), so they tend to have much more adventurous palates.

      • Eileen

        I have heard that before as well. And to some degree it HAS to be true. I know my sense of smell has waned slightly as I’ve gotten older and with it my tolerance for stronger tastes has increased (although my stomach can still only handle so much spice). But, I also think we are just genetically hardwired to prefer certain flavors. For instance, even when you’re talking about junky things like Skittles, my white (Irish gened) kids will prefer the cherry (or whatever the red is) flavored ones while my brown skinned kids prefer the grapes and oranges. And since spiciness is just another sort of flavor, I think it’s highly possible that liking stronger tastes is also a hardwired preference.Another interesting thing is that the Irish gened folks in our family could eat the same thing, every. single. day. My adopted kids would go crazy if we did that. I just sent my 3 youngest kids off to school this morning. Only one of the younger ones is bio – he literally eats scrambled eggs and toast every morning (as do my husband and I). If the other two grade schoolers choose eggs, I have to switch them up – scrambled, sunny side up, soft boiled, etc. – whatever they’re in the mood for. But many days, breakfast for them could be anything – scrapple, cereal with or without fruit, leftover dinner, etc. There’s such a stark difference in food preferences along biological lines in our family that I have to believe taste preferences are largely genetic (or at least they begin that way).

        • jay

          Eileen, your thesis on ethnicity and kids’ tastes is very interesting. I have three kids, and one can only handle bland foods. I would love to see more of this in the literature.

  • Kristin Quinby

    We fix a meal. They choose whether or not to eat all, some, or none of it. My mantra is, “Eat it or don’t eat it, but DON’T TALK ABOUT IT.” I don’t want to hear about the taste, texture, “spicy”-ness, or anything else (unless you’re telling me how FABULOUS it is.) Don’t try to negotiate with me about how many bites you have to eat before getting a piece of bread or dessert (if there is any). Nothing else till breakfast.

    It is IMPOSSIBLE to please 9 children at ANY meal. “Impossible?” you say. Yes. One of them hates pizza. Another hates tacos. And another thinks that brussels sprouts night means he won the lottery. (I love that 9-year-old. He likes EVERYTHING I fix).

    I credit this attitude to watching my parents and sibling spend hours at the dinner table fighting about food.

  • That’s what we do as well, although we do ask them to take at least one bite of something they haven’t tried before. Occasionally they’ll discover that they actually do like what they had initially refused to try.

    I also wait to feed the baby until the older kids are done eating, because then he’ll clean their plates. 🙂

  • cececole

    Your approach is just plain common sense (no less that you have tried it out on your older kids and proved it). You force a kid to each something they are opposed to = stress all around and maybe you will entrench them in refusal. You serve kids only ‘food they like’ and other than running a restaurant buffet kids will probably end up with a less-balanced diet than if you do it your way. Seems to me like it is just good parenting to introduce kids to a variety of foods…..the world is full of different foods to discover. I heard a parenting talk at my church mom’s group that recommended an approach one much like yours when my son was in kindergarten, so that was how it rolled around here (except when we were having pricey crab cakes, I’d make him chicken nuggets–not that I gave him that choice lol). If a kid doesn’t like the meal being served, always made sure there was cereal, peanut butter and applesauce available for them to make an alternative.

  • MamaKate

    One of my kids has SED. Four do not. I don’t appreciate the unquoted implication that it was something I did tto make the environment tense. We have a lot of eating disorders in the family- and eating disorders are not about weight or someone telling you to eat your broccoli.

    • Dannibrown77

      I think you need to re read that section. I looked an did not find anything resembling blame or finger pointing.

  • anna lisa

    I only have one truly picky eater. The poor kid really gets teased by his siblings. His little brother really likes to rub it in his face that he will eat anything we will eat, (and weighs almost as much as him, even though he is almost three years younger) The picky one is doing way better than me when I was 11. He will trade an entire bag of trick or treating candy for one good bar of Belgian chocolate. I would have been content to survive on cereal, PB&Js, pizza and Snickers bars. My husband thought I was a food freak when he met me, but it hardly bothered him. He wouldn’t dream of begging me to eat. My Mom begged me my whole childhood.

    When I would go out on dates to eat with him I would sit there a lot of the time and watch him savoring all kinds of different ethnic foods. Eventually I developed a little jealousy about all the scandalously happy little groans of pleasure he would make. I knew I was missing out on something–and he clearly wasn’t bothered that there was more for him. I gave up the ivory tower, and now I can’t believe how lame I was.

    Yesterday, eight of us waited in line for 35 minutes at our favorite Oaxacan taco stand, La Super Rica Taqueria. We all ate like orphans, hardly speaking–even picky boy, who ignored their jibes about the guacamole. When I proposed that we take a picture and send it to the two oldest kids, in NorCal and Oregon, the two oldest ones at the table vetoed the decision on the basis of cruelty, and questioned my possible malice for even suggesting it.

    I wouldn’t have eaten 98% of the foo in that place when I was their age. Now I lovingly refer to going there as “the pilgrimage”.

    Some of us are just late bloomers and need to learn to connect the dots for ourselves. Until then, in *my* family, it’s: “you don’t like avocado? Great! More for us.”

  • Stephs2cents

    With my oldest child having multiple life-threatening food allergies, mealtimes are complicated enough, thankyouverymuch! If the kids think I’m putting up with commentary and critique after the pure kitchen magic I’ve managed to whip up that fills their bellies and tastes okay, they are swiftly corrected.

  • bearing

    OK, I have a similar philosophy, but I’d like to pick the readers’ brains about logistics. Let’s say a kid opts for the cereal/toast instead of dinner route. Do you let them hop up and leave the table to make themselves some toast while everyone else eats dinner? Does mom run into the kitchen to fetch the toast while her own plate gets cold? Or does the cereal-eater have to sit patiently at the table until others are done and then may make herself a plate (or ask someone else to help?) And then she’s eating while the others are doing the dishes…? How exactly does this work and also be peaceful? (I’m not trying to say it won’t work, I just was wondering how that looks in real life… it has never felt peaceful to me, nor respectful to the cook to have kids running back and forth to get the things they really feel like eating, all through the meal). What limits do you put on this so that the goal of a peaceful dinnertime can be met?

    • simchafisher

      Because our dining room table (and dining room) isn’t big enough for everyone to sit in at the same time, meals are not what most people would consider peaceful, at our house. We all gather and pray together, then I dish out the food to those who want it, and those who want something else go fetch it for themselves. We have kids eating on the stairs, in the kitchen, etc. It’s just how it has to be right now. I consider it “peaceful” when there is laughter or pleasant conversation instead of fighting or angry silence. Even at a more formal meal, there are little kids going to and from the bathroom, people fetching towels to clean up spills, fill their water cups, etc., so I don’t think of a lot of action as disrespectful.

      • Carisa Feierabend

        Oh ok good! I’ve been feeling bad, because even though our family has grown to 9 our kitchen table has stubbornly refused to grow with us and still only seats six. When we were first married our rule was every night dinner was eaten around the table as a family. But now only the children fit at the table. So hubby and I either eat at the counter or in the living room (the kitchen, dining room, living room is actually one big open space). So I am happy to know that other big families do the same. I have the same rules as Simcha too. I make it and either you eat it or your don’t. I don’t care either way. lol With 7 kids it is impossible to please everyone. And with all the spills and refills, there is a lot of wandering away from the table. We have never been a “may I be excused” kind of family.

  • LiveOaksandSpanishMoss

    Growing up, my father was the one who was super picky, so in comparison I looked positively adventurous. There were a few foods that I still don’t eat, that seem absolutely disgusting to me and that I can’t force myself to eat without gagging – but very few. I used to not eat onions, and not even want diced onions cooked into something. Now I happily throw slices of onions in stir fries. Some things you just grow out of.

  • Kelly Moening

    Good for you and hey at least your kids get an option for a simple meal.  If you don’t like dinner at our house you don’t have to eat it, but move on.  Surprisingly none of my kids have starved to death!

  • Beth

    Oh, yes. This is excellent. We only have four and we have already begun this. I finally feel like I can breathe when I sit down at the dinner table because I’m not anxious about a massive, collective toddler fit erupting.

  • Ellen

    What I tried when raising my two boys, and it worked very well, was “Is you tongue grown up enough for that yet?” I would have them try just a small taste of whatever they didn’t want to have, and then let me know if their tongue had grown up enough to like it yet. This way, even if they didn’t like it, they saw liking it in the future as a distinct possibility – just not right now. In fact, they WANTED to like it. And when they would even think it wasn’t so bad, they would excitedly say “I think it’s almost grown up enough!”
    Just an idea that worked from a mom who had plenty that didn’t.