|I think I'm making a side dish.
The kids think I'm trying to trick them into eating something gross.
When I write a story that mentions my kids are picky eaters (or, StarchAndCheeseitarians, as I call them), I get at least one comment that starts "I'm sorry, but", then continues something like this…
"Why do you let children dictate family meals? Don't give the kids any options. Eventually, they'll get hungry enough to eat what you serve them. That's what my mom did for me/that's what I do for my kids. Now our little angels eat everything we put in front of them, and love it!"
When I read these comments, here's what I get from them:
"You, sir, are a complete failure as a parent. You're letting the inmates run the asylum. So, let me tell you how to raise your kids. Show a little backbone, put those rug rats in their place, and they'll fall into line. They'll all be eating brown rice and braised kale in no time."
I always delete my first response, then my second. By the third try, I've calmed down enough to leave a neutral response, something like "I'm glad that works for you. It doesn't work for my kids."
One commenter actually got right to the point. "I'm not trying to be mean…but this is exactly what's wrong with America…" I deleted that comment without bothering to respond.
I got yet another comment like this after my New York Times interview. I wrote this post so I can email a link to it every time I get one of these "helpful" suggestions.
I'm jealous when I read these comments. These people don't have kids who are picky eaters. I do. My kids are very particular about what they put in their mouths. And it hurts me. I love food, all kinds of food, and I love cooking. I cook a wide range of foods for the kids. And, some of the time, my kids absolutely refuse to eat what I cooked.
I've already tried everything the commenters suggest. Cook and serve unprocessed foods? That's what this blog is about. Expose them to fruits and vegetables? My kids grew up going to the farmers market and the CSA with me every weekend. Don't give them any other options, and wait for them to get hungry? Tried that. My kids dig in their heels, and one is willing to skip entire meals if they don't like what's served. I've tried a "one bite rule", to get them to taste things over and over, and get used to the taste. This resulted in gagging more often than not.
To try to save my sanity, and come up with strategies to get my kids to eat healthier, I read up about picky eating. Here's what I learned.
All kids are predisposed to like fatty and sweet. Kids get a strong aversion to bitter tastes starting at about eighteen months. In nature, bitter usually associates with poison, so this was a good evolutionary strategy - right around the time kids learned to walk, they started to dislike bitter.
This is why chicken fingers with french fries and barbecue sauce is on every kids menu in the country. Kids want the fat, sweet, carbs, and bland.
After that, the science of kids taste gets muddled. There are a lot of things tied in with our sense of taste, and different people can have wildly different taste experiences. A lot of tasting is biology - tastes are hard wired into us. As an example, some people are born with a set of genes that makes them sensitive to bitter tastes in green vegetables. (See the NOVA link on picky eaters, below).
Kids aren't all the same; they have a range of taste sensitivity. Some are "live to eat" kids, who will eat anything. Most are in the middle, where they prefer fatty and sweet foods, but can eat vegetables grudgingly. Then you get to the picky eaters, who for one reason or another, view wide swaths foods as "gross". Their tastes, like their personality, are a part of them. Parents can help expand those tastes, but we can only help so much - to a large part, the kids are who they are.
*I have a range, even in my own kids. One is a middle of the road eater, one leans strongly towards the picky side, and one is deep in the picky camp, with a very defined list of what is acceptable to eat. As in, no fruit or vegetables. Yes, this terrifies me.
The good news is, as kids get older, their tastes change. The range of food they'll eat expands dramatically, usually in their teen years. In other words, most picky eaters grow out of it. I can see hints of this in my kids; the variety of foods they will eat keeps expanding. I keep exposing them to things, and hoping for a big breakthrough…but we're not there yet, and I constantly worry that we will never get there.
Judgmental parents are confusing their good fortune with good parenting. They got kids somewhere between "live to eat" and "middle of the road". I got one in the "no way, no how" camp. But these parents believe all kids are exactly like theirs, in the middle of the road, and just need a little push. And they can't wait to tell me the error of my ways. If I would just use a little tough love, everything would sort itself out, and my picky eater would suddenly become an omnivore.
Believe me, I tried. Eventually, I got tired of dinnertimes full of anger, hurt, yelling, tears, threats, and tiny nibbles of food followed by gagging. I want dinner to bring us together as a family, not push us apart. What works for us is serving a bunch of different foods, keeping it as healthy as we can, and serving something the kids will eat at every meal. (Which is usually a carb, like bread, tortillas, or rice.) Then, we let them eat what they want, and I try not to get pushy or obsess about it. Some days are successes, some are failures, but we seem to be headed in the right direction.
If this is such a painful topic, why do I write about it in my blog? Why not just ignore it, so I don't have to deal with all the back seat parenting? Because I'm not alone. There are other parents out there, struggling with what their children will (and won't) eat. Some of them have kids that are just as picky as mine. I hope sharing my experience helps them out. Also, writing it out helps me work through my own issues. It took years to figure out how to eat with my kids, and it is still difficult. But I believe in the value of family meals and home cooking, in eating healthy and eating a variety of fresh food. So I push on. I hope I'm showing others a way forward too.
So, to everyone who wants to tell me how to feed my kids:
The way I feed my family offends you. You assume what works for you will work for everyone. I wish it worked for us, but it doesn't. I'm glad it works for you, really, and I hope it continues. Your kids will be better off for it. But can you do me a favor? Can you assume I'm not a bad parent, and I'm doing the best I can for me and my family? Thanks.
What do you think? Questions? Other ideas? (He asks, hiding behind his desk chair...) Leave them in the comments section below.
A quick summary of the science of picky eating, from NOVA scienceNow. [PBS.org]
The Science of Picky Eaters
Picky Eaters: Expert Q&A
Stephanie V. W. Lucianovic is a picky eater turned foodie, and wrote a book about it:
Parents of Picky Eaters, It's Not Your Fault [nytimes.com]
Suffering Succotash: A Picky Eater's Quest to Understand Why We Hate the Foods We Hate
Ellyn Satter wrote the book(s) on picky eating, and how to deal with it without losing your mind:
Child of Mine: Feeding with Love and Good Sense
Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family: How to Eat, How to Raise Good Eaters, How to Cook
DadCooksDinner Loses Weight...Then Gains Some Back
Family Dinners and Small Kids
Family Dinners and Busy Kids
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Nothing like having children to bring out the judgie-ness in people, huh? I think you are doing absolutely right and what all the rest of us do (even though some won't admit it): doing the best we can through trial and error. I have a feeling your kids are going to grow up and be pretty adventurous eaters! And if not...well, that's OK too!
I understand where our dissenters are coming from, but they are probably from my age group (50) and older. Back when we were kids you ate it or you went hungry. (I went hungry alot...but then to this day I can go without food for VERY long periods of time, haha!) But it's an entirely different world today. There are more supermarkets, more food, more variety, cheaper prices (albeit for lesser quality IMO). Our country is awash in food. We can afford to indulge our children. We have more money, time, and food choices. I think, in the final analysis, my generation is...a ...little...jealous. And they take it out on you. 🙂
Annie O says
Just one word - BRAVO! Good for you!!!
I am not going to comment on picky kids, having no kids myself, and being a former very picky eater. I do remember though, trying things and realizing that some of the things I had been avoiding I did actually like. Just wanted to mention one more resource - Amy Dacyczyn, author of The Tightwad Gazette, wrote about how she conquered picky eating, and compared and contrasted her method with Ellen Satter.
Mike V @ DadCooksDinner says
Thank you to everyone for the comments. It's good to know I'm not the only one out there who has to deal with this!
Mike V @ DadCooksDinner says
Thank you...and thanks for the spell checking!
Mike, I have been sampling your recipes with much success for the past 4 or 5 months. I don't think I have tried one that I or my family didn't like/love. Sounds like your approach to kids and their pickiness is similar to mine. There is something to say for limiting their choices and not giving in to their every demand. But, as a dentist, I can tell you that what different people can tolerate in their mouth differs quite widely. Majority of my patients have no problem with tolerating different tastes or stimuli at their appointments. While some physically can't tolerate certain things. The tongue reacts to different stimuli in many patients no matter how hard they try to help me. With taste buds on the tongue, surely this translates to food taste. Also gag reflex is so different for different people. You just have to accommodate a little. Enjoyed reading this entry Mike. (delete this part.... biology is spelled wrong.)
Tammy H says
Just thought I would put my two cents in, feed your kids what they like to eat. Some of them may over time start to like and try more foods and some may not but the reality is a good meal time is when everyone is happy, talking and enjoying food they like. I am not syaing they should live off of macdonalds and fruit loops but thier tastes will develop and this is a process like all others when raising a child.
Big D says
Great post. Agree wholeheartedly. I've settled on a "compartmentilization" approach to appease my vegetarian and starch-and-meatatarian daughters, doing as much plating and assembly as possible at the table. I blogged about it today (
http://bigdinthehouse.blogspot.com/2012/08/picky-picky.html) and I've also posted a few recipes under the "Food" label.
I have 3 children - and they seemed to get pickier according to birth order. The only thing I can say about the baby (now 6) and his eating habits is, "well, at least he doesn't like pop". As you can see I am grasping at straws. I agree with you that is the luck of the draw. Good luck (and to me, too).
Michael Ross says
Mike, I think if you keep doing what you're doing - preparing the right foods and eating by example, and getting the kids involved in cooking - things will take care of themselves. I was a pretty picky eater as a kid, but once I grew up, my tastes changed, and as I learned to cook for myself, I tried and liked more and more foods.
Mike, I found this blog because I was trying to find different things to try to feed my own picky kids. I have a 5 year old daughter that hates fruit. She refuses to eat any kind of fruit, but I've expose her to all kinds of vegetables and she will now eat salads, asparagus and will even let me put spinach on her ham and cheese sandwich. For me that's a win. My 3 year old only wants his meat mechanically separated meat, basically hot dogs, fish sticks and chicken nuggets. He won't eat any other kind of chicken, beef or pork, I've tried. No matter what I cook the kids have to try it. Nothing is more deflating as a parent than spending time cooking a meal and have your kids say "Yuck"! I've always read kids have to be exposed to different foods multiple times before they will accept it. With my daughter I'm starting to see all that exposure is starting to work. As for my son, his pediatrician said his son did the same thing. It's a phase a 3 year old go through trying to have some control in there life. He is like if the kids are growing and healthy he doesn't care if he eats a hot dog, he'll grow out of it. Kids are very active and crave foods with lots of sugar and carbs. I tried "sending your kids to bed without eating the dinner their given", and it did not work. I say all kids are different and you have to do what's best for your family. Your doing a great job, don't let people who think they know more about your family than you do get you down.
With you here as well ! We've only got a 20-month old, but he's already in the picky-eater routine. Some days foods that he ate just last week he decides are no longer worthy and he's clamping his mouth shut and twisting away. We do our best to find the healthiest food that he will actually eat (hummus on bread is a current go to snack), but crackers and chips are king. The interesting thing? If we blend it into a smoothie, he'll eat anything. Fruits, spinach, flax meal, you name it, if it's in his smoothie cup, apparantly it's all good. So I suppose it all balances out...
It does my heart good to read this. I have three, the youngest, who is only just turned 1, is the ONLY good eater. The other two are deep in the picky zone. Parents who do no have picky eaters do not understand. They just don't And it is so good that you wrote this. I wish parents would just start giving each other the benefit of the doubt. Don't assume that I don't try everything within my power to get my kids to eat healthy. Don't assume that I'm letting them rule the house. Like you I want to enjoy meals with my kids. I LOVE food. LOVE it. And too often it turns into fights and tears and gagging if I try to force them into eating. Really, it's one of my biggest parenting struggles and to hear people flippantly write it off as me being a bad parent makes me want to punch someone.
So thanks for this post! And even thought I won't try to serve any of it to my kids for the next ten years, my husband and I think your food rocks. 🙂
Shane K says
I'm with you on this one Mike. I have two kids, 11 and 5. My 11yo will try most things, but still likes the sweets more than anything, and pretty much only eats Broccoli and Artichokes (with LOTS of butter each) for veggies. My 5yo is autistic and his diet consists of Grilled Cheese, Peanut Butter Sandwiches, Baby Pancakes, Baby Carrots (rarely), Broccoli stem only, and Apples... oh... and Hershey Chocolate Bars (Hershey brand only). If he doesn't like the look of it... he won't touch it, literally won't touch it or pick it up. And I thought I was a stubborn person until he came along. I've had people say to dig in my heels and push my 5yo son to try more things. I just look at them dumbly and tune them out. Every kid is different and sometimes we have to go with the flow, even if that means making brocolli every night because that is the only vegetable my kids will eat.