I have written on many occasions of the thrill of teaching children to enjoy new foods. Repeated exposures is the key! The adult gets to choose what, where, and when, the child gets to choose how much and even whether to eat! Be cheerful, be upbeat, be casual!
Repeated exposure is the key! I love the way “French Kids Eat Everything” describes the reaction of French parents to a child’s declaration, “I don’t like this!” They don’t, apparently, get worried. They don’t try to force the kid to eat it. They certainly don’t offer alternatives. No, they are quite nonchalant about it. This reaction is normal. It is only to be expected.
“Well, no,” they will say, matter-of-fact. “Of course not. You haven’t tried it enough yet.”
Because, you see, in the French world view, it is a given that it takes a few attempts before you begin to enjoy a new food. That’s just normal. But in time, you will. No biggie. Everyone does.
This is a large part of my approach to feeding the children. I feed them what I feed them. I do not worry about “kid-friendly” food, which is so often so nutritionally void, or even outright unhealthy. (It is ironic to note that so-called “kid-friendly” food is about the un-kid-friendliest edible substance out there.) I feed them interesting, varied food, heavy on the vegetables, moderate on carbs, light on meat. And yes, they eat it, without tantrums (them or me), because I just keep putting it out there. Over and over again. Expecting initial resistance, but also confident that, with repeated exposures, they will first observe, then taste, and eventually learn to enjoy the food.
I do this with the children every single working day. Food education — by example and experience, not by words — is part of my job description. I don’t know why it took me so long to have the thought, but about six weeks ago, I thought to myself, “If it works for the kids, I’m betting it’ll work for adults.”
Further consideration pointed out we adults do it, too, only we call it “developing a taste” for something. And then there’s that whole “acquired taste” idea. What else is that, if not learning to like something through repeated exposures?
That’s when I decided that it was time for me to put my money where my mouth was — or, perhaps, my mouth where my principles were — and learn to like something. Try it on. See if it really works. I mean, I know it does. I can cite things the kids didn’t like initially, but loooove now. But for myself? What would it be like to start with something I genuinely didn’t like, make myself eat it time and again, and see if I could find myself actually enjoying it? (Research suggests that 7 – 15 tastes is sufficient to accomplish this. Really! That’s all! I wouldn’t be forcing food down my revolted throat for months on end.)
The problem is, what don’t I like? Not many things, really. My mother did a great job of teaching me to embrace new foods, but despite her very best efforts, I have a few genuine dislikes. Liver and lima beans I’ve mentioned before, I’m sure. Not a huge fan of shrimp, though that’s absolutely a texture thing, not a taste. Blue cheese.
Hmmm. Now, I love cheese of all descriptions. Mild, strong, hard, soft, flavoured, herbed, garlic-ed, rolled in nuts. Mmmmmm, cheese. Except blue. Have never liked it. At all. At a restaurant, I once inadvertently ordered a poached pear dessert with a Stilton cheese dressing, because pears! walnuts! cheese! I would LOVE it, right? Yes, well. Too bad that Stilton is a blue cheese. Who knew?? I actually gagged when I tasted it.
So. Blue cheese? Bleah.
The perfect project!
Off I go to our local produce-and-cheese specialty shop. They have a hundred different kinds of cheese, I’m sure. All manner of them. I approached the fellow behind the counter, told him of my project, had him suggest a couple of mild blues. “Here. Try this one. It’s not a true blue cheese, more just a brie with veining.” Okay. I love brie! That was my first attempt. Veining. I can manage a little veining, right? (And, please note, I’d decided I wasn’t going to mask it in any way. Smearing it on crackers and eating it is about as unadulterated as it gets, short of licking it off my fingers.)
I let the kids in on The Great Blue Cheese Project, of course. I pointed out how, in recent memory, Jazz had learned to like kiwi, and was currently learning to like carrots. Josh had learned to like beets. Rosie had learned to like beets, too, and is currently tackling zucchini. Poppy has just learned that while she doesn’t like cooked asparagus (yet), she does like it raw.
So. Lots of food-learning happened and happening in this house, every day. And now MARY was going to learn to like something! THIS was the cause of much fascination. And hilarity, as Mary made much of that first bite of blue cheese with her avid audience.
I sniffed it. And pulled a DISGUSTED face.
“I don’t want to eat this! I don’t like this!”
“You can’t learn to like it if you don’t try it!” Grace is a word-perfect imitation of me. (Grace, who, it turns out, actively likes blue cheese, and politely pines for the small piece I had purchased for myself. Oops. I should’ve bought enough to share.)
“Do I have to??” They’re LOVING the role reversal here. Loving it. They gather around to encourage.
“Yes, and then you will get to like it, and it will be one more good thing to eat for you!” Jazz hasn’t got the words quite down pat, but she obviously gets the gist.
“Oh, okaaaaaay,”, and with great reluctance, I take a teeny, tentative bite. The kids wait, mouths open, eyes wide with delight. My revolted face causes them to scream with laughter. I play to my small gallery.
“BLEAH! I don’t like it! Blue cheese is YUKKY!”
“But you tasted it! Good for you!” Grace pats my back, her small hand offering comfort.
“It was hard, but YOU DID IT!” Jazz has heard that one often enough.
“Yay, you are tasting it, and soon it will be yum-yum-YUMMY for you!” Poppy, my eager little cheerleader claps, then throws her hands in the air.
Boy, these kids are good. They have heard and absorbed all my messages. This is GREAT!!
The blue cheese … is not so great. I don’t like that musty scent up the back of my mouth and into my nose. I tamp down visions of mold spores percolating into my brain. My revulsion may be exaggerated, but I am not enjoying it.
But the project continues. Over the next few weeks, I went back to the cheese store several times, each time going for a stronger cheese. I have blue cheese once a day or so. And you know what?
It got easier every time. Really and truly. Even as the cheese got stronger. It went from gross to neutral to pleasant. And then there was the day I’d bought some blue and some asiago (I love asiago, and this was a new, softer version) had both on lovely crisp rice crackers … and liked the blue better!
Good heavens. It actually works! You know, I had done this with kids, I believed it works … but experiencing it myself was another whole world of conviction. I’m an adult. My tastes are more established. I am likely, much as I hate to admit it, to be ‘set in my ways’, at least a bit. And here I am, a whole new realm of taste opening up to me.
How’s about that?! This is so cool!
My next step? I’m going to go back to that restaurant, and order that poached pear dish! And you know what? I’m betting I will love it.
Meantime, the kids have been observing every step of the way. Laughing at my theatrics, and being drawn along the process, this time as observers. It’s been a learning experience for everyone.
We’ve been having a lot of fun with lunches these past three months or so. It started with my experiment — a huge success! — then was enriched by a book I read (more on that in another post), and has now become a highlight of my day.
A meal with five toddlers, a highlight? Yes, indeed.
Way back at the end of January, I re-jigged our food schedule. No more snacking at Mary’s! (Now, I’d have kept up the afternoon snack had the children not already been getting snacks on the way home from daycare. With them getting a snack from their parents already, there was no need for me to be giving them one as well.)
So we were eating less frequently. Lunch became a bigger deal. For starters, it now has three courses: a vegetable starter, the main course, and dessert. (Dessert being the snack they would have been given in the mornings.)
But, in keeping with the ideas in the book I’d been reading, I decided to make lunch more of an event in terms of attitude. So now, when we sit down to lunch, the children all in their chairs, I bring out the first course on a tray. I use pretty serving dishes.
They sit in eager expectation as each child’s food is served. The first portion is a ‘taster’, which they are required to eat. It varies in size depending on the age of the child, but that is the portion they are required to eat. The older children know to wait until everyone has been served before they begin to eat. The 20-month-olds, who don’t get the whole ‘wait for everyone’ thing, are given their bowls last.
We made a game of waiting, at first. I still do it sometimes. “No eating until Mary’s ready to eat, too! Is my bum in the chair?” And they’d all peer at my bum. I stand while I dish the food out. Then I’d begin to sit. Sloooowly. They’d wait, giggling, spoons at the ready. I’d slowly, slowly, slowly lower my butt (good for the thighs, this is!), and then, just before sitting would be accomplished … POP up with a jump! Giggle, giggle, giggle.
It made them pay attention, it got the point across. It was fun.
It was so much fun that they took the practice home. Jazz’s family was having a picnic on their living room floor one evening, and Jazz wouldn’t let anyone eat until she sat down. “Where’s my bum??” she asked. No one could eat till Jazz’s tiny butt was on the blanket. Which was kind of missing the point, really, since Jazz wasn’t serving the food. Still everyone had fun, and the point was made that we start eating together.
Daniel’s mother was thrilled to report to me that Daniel had instituted the practice with his grandparents, her in-laws. Daniel’s mother was accustomed to a meal beginning only when everyone had been served, but at her in-laws’ place, everyone begins as soon as the foot hits their plate, and so, by the time the last person gets their food, the first person is done! “That’s not even friendly!” she wailed.
But now, see, with their adored grandson declaring, “No! We don’t eat till Nana sits down!!”, the family is now eating together, and mom is delighted.
Gee. Now I’m providing family counselling along with the meals!
We sit down together, and then I pour water into each of their cups. For a festive touch, my water is in a wine glass. We tap our glasses around the table. “Cheers!” The children love this. LOVE.IT. I never forget this, for if it looks like I’m about to, a chorus of small voices pipe up. “Mary! We didn’t do ‘cheers!’” That can never be!
I love this. Toddlers earnestly clinking cups and sippy-cups around the table is freakin’ adorable, people! Little Rosie, who always sits on my left, is a highly enthusiastic cheers-er, and I’ve learned to keep a solid grip on my wine glass when her cup rockets towards mine.
So we ‘do cheers’, and then we hold our cups up, salute the others around the table, and chorus together, “Have a good lu-unch!”
And then, and only then, do we commence to eating.
Each child is given an initial ‘taster helping’. The older children (2.5 and up) are expected to actually ingest this. They don’t have to like it, but they do have to chew and swallow. It will be small: anywhere from one bite to four or so. The younger children don’t even have to ingest it. They’ll get one mouthful of whatever it is, and as long as it goes in the mouth, that’s sufficient, even if it comes straight back out. Sometimes, for the very youngest, it’s sufficient that they play with it a bit.
The expectation, you see, is that they probably won’t like a lot of things the first try. Or the second. So when a child says “I don’t like this”, I don’t apologize and remove it from her plate and hunt around for an alternate. I simply say, “That’s because you haven’t tried it enough yet.” I’ve explained how at first your tummy and tongue might see a new food and go, “YUK!” But then, you’ll try it again, and they’ll say, “Well, maayyybeeee.” And after a few more tries, your tummy and tongue say, “YUM! I LOVE this stuff!!!” All this illustrated with dramatic facial expressions, from disgust to utter delight.
Because tummies and tongues, they can be a bit slow on the uptake. But they get there!! We can now point out to examples of this: Jazz likes kiwi now; baby Josh now eats beets. The first time Josh encountered a beet, he wouldn’t even look at it. Seriously. Closed his eyes and turned his head away. Sometime over a couple of months, through frequent exposure and familiarization, he began to try it, and now? Now he eats them without any hesitation at all. Two and three helpings.
They’ve seen this happen. They believe it will happen for them.
“I don’t like this” is no longer an end-point. It is merely an expected passage on the journey to loving it.
Not that is not to say all is completely sunshine and roses. Only yesterday Jazz, the pickiest of the crew, had an almighty hard time swallowing her taster portion of salad. Seems she has a terrible time with arugula. Poor kid sat chewing and chewing and chewing and chewing, but just couldn’t make herself swallow. But you know? Because was genuinely trying, I had sympathy. Arugula is pretty peppery stuff, and a lot of toddlers have texture issues with leafy greens. But the taster isn’t optional. If you don’t finish that, your meal stops there. At four, Jazz is expected to stay at the table and keep us cheerful company, but meals proceed in sequence. Don’t finish part A, no moving to part B. But she persisted, and some sips of water, along with the potential reward of some dried cranberries (also in the salad), eventually sufficed to git ‘er down.
“I did it!” she said, with shining eyes, cramming those cranberries in.
“So you did, sweetie. It was hard work, but you did it.”
“And soon my tummy and my tongue will learn to like agooroola!”
That? Is pretty damned sweet.
In another of her so-interesting, well-written and thought-provoking posts, Carol asks: Was your baby a “good eater” who turned out picky?
I am about to make a sweeping generalization. I acknowledge up front that there are exceptions to every rule (and I’m sure you’ll think of one when you read what follows), but it is reasonably safe to say that:
Babies are great. They open their little birdie mouths, they swallow what you put in there. Yes, I’ve had a mouthful of strained whatever sprayed all over me when Little Birdie Mouth suddenly decided she really didn’t like that stuff, after all. (Mind you, when a baby does that, it’s more often because they’re simply not hungry. It’s their so-subtle way of saying, “I’m full now!” Stop offering the spoon when that happens.)
Babies are social. Whatever you’re eating, they’re game to try. They’ll bounce and wave their arms appealingly, and the doting momma or poppa will pop a morsel in there. What parent hasn’t enjoyed that game? Pop in the bite, then watch the expressions flow over their face: surprise, wonderment, delight… and sometimes disgust or dismay. But they’re always open to trying the NEXT bite!!!
That’s the thing about babies, I think, the critical thing. They’re always open to new foods. They don’t view new food with suspicion. They are “good eaters” not because they like everything — who likes everything??? — but because they’ll try everything once. They WANT to try it. They’re even excited to try it. Their working assumption is that food is a good thing, and that, until proven otherwise, they’re going to like it, and thus they like most things. That is a good eater. (Someone who eats as much as they can, at every opportunity, indiscriminately? That’s not a ‘good eater’. That’s a glutton.)
And then food is not about the social any more. Food, like everything else in their world, is about the primary pressing psychological need of the two-year-old: establishing their autonomy. They are their own person, DIFFERENT from mummy and daddy. They are also unsophisticated little people. The best way to establish themselves as an autonomous, independent, separate person in their own right is to SAY NO TO EVERYTHING MUMMY AND DADDY SAY. (Because it’s best to keep these things simple, no?)
This is where it gets confusing, because everyone has food likes and dislikes. I loathe, loathe, loathe liver and lima beans. If I can possibly avoid eating them, I do. If I’m served them in public (though, really, who serves that stuff to guests?), I’ll do all the masking tricks — cut it into teeny bits and hide it in the mashed potatoes so I don’t feel/taste it going down, feed it to the family dog, slip a piece to my husband, rearrange it on my plate in hopes of convincing someone I ate more than I did… Because those things? I gag at the very smell of liver. It’s just so gross. (You can love it if you like. I’m only talking about me, here. Though my poor husband has to order it in restaurants if he’s ever to eat it at all.)
If it’s like that, you don’t want to force your poor kid to eat something that truly makes them feel ill.
But more often with a two-year-old, it’s not a genuine food dislike. It’s the autonomy thing. “I am NOT you, mummy, so I DON’T like potatoes! I am NOT you, daddy, so I HATE green beans!” And at every. single. meal, there is some damned thing that he/she WILL NOT EAT. Every.Single.Meal.
Gets exhausting. Only made worse when it’s not consistent. The thing she REFUSED last week is happily ingested this week. But next week? Or next meal? She’ll HATE it again. Gah.
But if it makes them gag? That’s your cue, right! If it makes them gag, it’s a true dislike.
Nope. Not necessarily. Sometimes they’ll be so determined NOT to eat That Loathsome Thing that they will, in fact, gag on it, maybe even upchuck a small amount… and then eat it happily next week.
It helps to remember a few things:
1. This is not primarily about liking or disliking food. This is about independence and autonomy.
2. A normal, healthy child will NOT starve themselves.
3. A normal, healthy child MAY choose not to eat.
4. If a normal, healthy child chooses not to eat, this is your child’s choice. YOU ARE NOT STARVING YOUR CHILD.
This is where it all either falls apart, or comes together, with that realization. As Carol said, quoting a nutritionist who was almost certainly quoting Ellyn Satter, “The parent is responsible for choosing what, when, and where the child eats. The child is responsible for choosing how much, and even whether, to eat.”
Once you have that straight in your mind, everything else becomes clear. You provide healthy food at sensible intervals. That’s it, that’s all.
Once you understand that all you have to do is make the food available, once you understand that it’s not up to you to see that it gets ingested, then you can just relax and eat your meal. You won’t spend any time coaxing, teasing, begging, pleading. You won’t get anxious. You won’t make alternate meals. You’ll never fall into the fatal trap of feeding them meal after meal after meal of plain pasta (something! ANYthing!) nary a protein or a vegetable in sight, declaring “it’s better than nothing!”
Because you know what? It’s not. It’s not better than nothing. “Nothing” is better than “something!-anything!”. Yes, a child who is allowed to choose not to eat may choose to go hungry now and then. It won’t kill them. (It won’t kill you, either.) In fact, I’d go so far as to say that in order for a child to develop healthy eating patterns, it’s not only inevitable, it’s pretty much essential that they experience hunger now and then. So they know what it is.
Letting your child choose not to eat is mutually respectful. Where is the dignity in begging, pleading, threatening, and grovelling, trying to get your oh-so-stubborn toddler to open his mouth? (And then, even harder, to swallow!) It’s demeaning for both of you. (But mostly you.)
And all that begging and coaxing? That’s just feeding the beast. You — not your toddler, but YOU — have just turned the drive for autonomy into a bona fide power struggle. Your toddler is now in control and she knows it. And you’ve made that happen by buying into the myth that it’s up to you to see that the child eat. See what trouble that silly notion gets us into???
Imagine, rather, that you say, “You don’t have to eat it if you don’t want to, but this is what we’re having.” You say it nicely (but firmly), and you follow through. If she doesn’t want to eat it, she can either stay at the table and keep you company nicely, or she can get down and do something else. Until the next meal. And you get to eat your meal in peace.
(If he can’t do it nicely, if he expects something else to eat and is outraged that you won’t provide it, he can stay in his time-out spot until you’ve finished your meal.)
Once this becomes the normal pattern, the outrage will cease. It may take a while, particularly if you’ve trained him/her to expect alternate meals. But hold fast and they will learn! The child will learn that it really is her choice, that you really will respect her right to eat or not, but won’t be pandering to whims… then the genuine likes and dislikes will have a chance to emerge over time. You won’t pander to them, but you can take them into account.
And eventually, your child will out-grown and out-learn the knee-jerk “I don’t YIKE dat!” It won’t be necessary.
And when that happens, when you step out of the dinner-time push-pull and they learn they do have autonomy, they’ll probably discover that in fact they do yike most of it, after all.
they just grow up and get rude…
Remember how I advised you to deal with the pickiness now, before it becomes a life-long habit?
It seems that, along with those words of wisdom, I should also address the issue of older children who believe that everyone should cater to their dietary whims as mommy does. Because those older children become teens who become adults — who still hold to this ridiculous notion. You are not just creating picky eaters, you are creating Dinner Guests from Hell.
Follow that link! The article is acerbic, fun, and her conclusion — I expect you to eat what you can, ignore the rest and not make trouble — absolutely bang on. If all those picky adults’ parents had followed her advice (and mine!) years ago, we none of us would be facing these dilemmas today.
Won’t eat dark meat… good lord.
Generally, the younger children will eat pretty near anything you plonk on that high chair tray, or poke into their mouths with a spoon. (Occasionally, yes, something comes blasting back out of that 7-month-old mouth, but not nearly as often/commonly as with older children.) Just let them get a little older, let them start feeling their “I’m autonomous!” two-year-old oats, and suddenly you have someone refusing this, refusing that, refusing anything that isn’t white, that isn’t sweet, that isn’t macaroni…
So yes, I see my fair share of tots who turn their sweet little button noses up at my delectable offerings. I work with toddlers, of course I see that!
But as I say, it doesn’t last. Why?
The key is knowing who controls what. Who’s in charge of your child’s intake?
Hint: not you.
YOU control what is served, when it’s served, and where. Your child chooses whether to eat, and how much they’ll eat (though you can certainly put a cap on it, you can’t really enforce a minimum).
YOU provide a range of healthy foods at set intervals.
YOUR CHILD decides whether to eat it.
So far, any of you with picky eaters are shouting at me. “I KNOW that! That’s exactly the problem, isn’t it??”
Sort of. But not really.
It’s only a problem if you try to take on the child’s role of intake, and let the child take on your role of “what”.
Are you following me?
You provide a healthy meal. Your little darling says, “No broccoli. I want macaroni.”
Well, no. YOU decide what is served, not them. And THEY decide whether they’ll ingest it.
“I know you like macaroni, but tonight we’re having broccoli.” YOU decide what. Your child decides whether. It may well be that they will decide not to eat the broccoli. That is their right.
Of course, that’s not how the child sees it. They don’t want to be hungry. They want what they want. And you’re saying “No macaroni, but you can eat BROCCOLI”????
So of course they throw a fit.
I know. It’s awful. And don’t you just want peaceful mealtimes? Don’t worry. You’ll get them… only not just yet. Fits are almost inevitable when you’re teaching new patterns, so let’s take a look at your reacton to a fit. If you change his meal because he’s throwing a fit, you are being bullied. You are being bullied into doing something less-than-healthy for your child. Your child may not intend to bully you — they just know they don’t want that damned broccoli — but in the end, you are teaching your child you can be bullied.
And once you start that, it never ends. So, if you cave in to a fit, are you buying peace, or guaranteeing ongoing strife?
“I know you prefer macaroni. But tonight we’re having broccoli.”
[The fit commences.]
“Oh, dear. I guess you’re not hungry. Away you go and play, then.” (Or, if the fit is too loud and ugly to ignore, you calmly — think robot — take them and deposit them in their room.) “When you’re ready to be calm and quiet, you can come back.”
But why would I go through that, you ask? So what if she wants nothing but macaroni and bananas? It’s better than nothing, right?
You have ONE thing going for you — in a big way — in this food struggle. (You have more than one, really: you have the fact that you are the parent, you are the chef, you buy the food. But for many parents, that isn’t enough.)
The ONE thing you have that’s really, REALLY on your side and will inevitably tip the scales in the favour of healthy eating?
Your child’s hunger.
“AHHH! She’s telling me to starve my child!!!” There you go again, taking on your child’s role in the feeding dynamic. YOU are not “starving” your child; YOUR CHILD is refusing perfectly good food. There is a world of difference here.
I find myself hauling out the same things that were said to me, many years ago… because certain parenting techniques just never, ever wear out.
“But mummy, I’m HUNGRY!”
“No, you’re not. If you were hungry enough, you’d eat your sausage.”
And of course, she was right. And when I GOT hungry enough, I did eat that sausage… because I knew there was nothing else forthcoming. It’s entirely possible (because I was a stubborn little thing) that there were some nights I went to bed without supper.
My mother knew that choice was my right and was willing to let me make it. I’m better for it, because now I enjoy a wide range of foods. There are fewer than half-a-dozen things I truly don’t like. (Liver and lima beans top that list.)
“Starving”? North American children have no idea, none at all, what it’s like to “starve”. This is a good thing! But let us be clear here: Starving children will eat dirt to ward off the hunger pangs. They would never in a million years turn their noses up at broccoli.
So no, you’re not starving your child. And be assured that your child won’t “starve” themselves, either. (Yes, there is a rare medical condition whereby a child actually will do that… but it’s rare.)
If you’re hungry, it’s the most natural thing in the world to expect you to eat. (And it IS!)
This is a process. It may take a few days (for stubborn children, even a couple of weeks) before they realize you are dead serious. What they see is what they get. No options. And you can’t waffle on this, not even once. As soon as you do, all that suffering has been in vain.
For particularly recalcitrant kids (I recall doing this with one of my own, I forget which one), I’ve been known to pull out the rejected lunch at snack time. And then again at dinner. (Told you I was stubborn. Push me too hard and I get downright ornery.)
But stubborn (and maybe even a bit of ornery) is necessary when we’re talking creating healthy habits for a lifetime.
Really what it is, is consistent. Stick to your guns, and your child will eventually learn to eat. You don’t coax, you don’t argue, you don’t indulge in long drawn-out negotiations at the table. You can go easy, and only put one or two bites of a new/problematic food on their plates. And then they can eat it.
If you can face the “or not”, you will produce healthy, varied eaters.