Friday, March 25, 2011

Picky Eaters

As you know, you and I are Super Tasters, and if you end up having children, they are likely to be Super Tasters, as well.

Children are notoriously picky eaters. This may partly be because they are sensitive to certain tastes, smells, or textures - but it is also a power thing, a way of controlling their world. Small children have a limited arsenal of Power Tools available to them, and refusing to eat what is on their plate is one of them. It's a good one, too; it drives their parents absolutely up-the-wall crazy.

But staying a Picky Eater is not a good thing. It limits your options, and it limits your ability to live life to the fullest. This is not something you want for your kid.  A full understanding of any culture rests significantly in the cuisine, as does a large part of tradition and celebration.  Food nourishes both the body and the soul; you don't want to deprive your child of the ability to share fully in such an important part of life.

Being a picky eater also makes you a pain in the butt to anyone who has to either cook for or eat with you, which can seriously hamper your social life.  Not something you want for your kid.

So. What do you do when faced with a toddler who has decided s/he is going to live indefinitely on nothing but hot dogs and cherry juice?

First, remember that this is not a crisis or a moral failure on either your or the child's part. Stay calm. A healthy child will eat anything, if s/he is hungry enough - and if s/he is not hungry enough to eat whatever is on the plate, then s/he is not going to starve to death or become seriously malnourished in the near future.

Start this way: First of all, let the child choose a number of items - no less than 3, no more than 5 - that you will not ask them to eat. Either you will never cook those items, or you will make something separate for them. Everyone has the right to genuinely hate certain ingredients, and to have some control over their diet.

Once you have established which items the child will not have to eat, you explain the Dining Rules of the House.  This is easiest to do at the beginning of a particular meal; I would use lunch, because it is more informal and because there are usually fewer items in question than at dinner.

Put one spoonful or bite of each of the things you cooked for a particular meal on the plate. Calmly explain to the child that from now on, s/he must eat each thing you put on the plate before s/he can ask for more of any particular item. If s/he does not want to eat each thing, that is okay, s/he can ask to be excused from the table - but there will be no extra of a favored item until everything on the plate is eaten, and there will be no snack or drink except water until the next official meal.

If each thing on the plate has been eaten, then s/he can have as much as s/he would like of any dish on the table (not of any plate on the table, of course - every diner gets to own their own food).  The point is that s/he try everything, not to force the child to like or eat any particular thing.

Stay pleasant, but be firm. Stick to the plan. Do not react emotionally if the child decides to eat nothing; be pleasantly agreeable if s/he asks to be excused and has eaten nothing (or has eaten everything but the green beans). This is their decision, and they will have to live with the consequences of that decision.

Do not react emotionally if they later beg for a snack, insist that they are starving, or even throw a giant tantrum. Just tell them firmly that when they got down from the table without finishing, they made the decision that they didn't want to eat anything until the next meal. Then ask if they would like some water.

Your kid is going to test you.  Especially if the kid is around 3-4 years old, which is when the really extreme Picky Eating tends to show up.  Right around the time that your kid is really trying to test the boundaries and see how far the parents - and the world - can be pushed.  It's a power thing, and every kid goes through periods where they are fighting for dominance, even though it wouldn't be good for them if they 'won'.  After all, a world where the child is stronger than the parent is a world where nobody can be counted on for protection and strength when things get scary.

So expect tantrums, crying, whining, and expect that a particularly willful child will refuse to eat for a few days.  Do not worry - again, if your child is healthy, s/he can go relatively foodless for quite a while without becoming malnourished.  If s/he is truly hungry, s/he will eat pretty much anything.  Once s/he knows that you mean business, it won't take long for her to figure out that it's fairly easy to choke down one bite of just about anything.

Two warnings:

1.  If your child is particularly resourceful - which can be a nice way of saying 'sneaky' - make sure all the cupboards and the refrigerator is childproofed.  It's harder to make your point if the child is creeping into the kitchen and stuffing herself full of crackers and raisins between meals!

2.  Do not allow a child to change his/her mind about those Will Not Cook items too often.  Once a month is more than enough, and I'd go for longer than that, maybe review those items every three months or so. And do not let the child change the items during an actual meal.

With kids, what is Yucky today is fine tomorrow, and a favorite item today is going to be Gross next week.  Experience is going to guide you quite a bit as far as knowing whether a particular item is really hateful enough to go on that list.  If the child is really insistant on putting in an item that you feel is not really a true hate for them, just remind them that it's going to have to be a trade-in for something else from the former list, let them make that decision... and serve the former hated item in the next day or two.  The child will figure it out pretty quickly.

Usually the list stays pretty stable.  For you, it was tuna, liver/liverwurst, hot spicy things (except Admiral Soup), and oysters.  You still aren't big on tuna...

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