Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The toughest food critic: your toddler

Does your daughter eat everything? How do you get her to do that?

That's the questions I've been asked an awful lot by other parents. I've even had a couple of requests for a "How to cook for kids" cooking class. I doubt the cooking class is going to happen because I don't believe in the idea of "kids' food." But I'd be happy to share my experience with feeding Samantha in the hopes that it helps someone else feed their bundle of joy.

If your 9 month old is spitting up the wonderful vegetable purees you so lovingly prepared, I want to tell you that I feel your pain. Feeding babies and toddlers is not unlike dealing with the toughest food critic. It's a very time consuming and emotional experience. Is she eating too little? Is she eating too much? Why won't she eat any meat? Is she getting a good variety of vegetables? She was eating sweet potatoes just fine last week; why won't she touch them now? She isn't eating anything besides bread -- what do I do?

Now that Sammy is 21 months (and ever since she turned 15 months), she's been the easiest kid to feed. She eats everything we eat, uses a spoon and a fork all by herself, and is a pleasure to have at our dining room table or take out to restaurants. But this was definitely not the case when we started with solids. The book that helped me a lot was Child of Mine: Feeding with Love and Good Sense by Ellyn Satter. Not every piece of advice from that book worked for us, but many did. Here are some child feeding principles that I've learned in the past year.

Offer a food infinite number of times
You don't need to beg, trick, or cajole your kid into eating anything. All you have to do is offer the food. But that's an important task, and you need to not give up on it. How many tries will it take before your kid finally likes a particular food? No one knows. There are studies that show that it takes an average of 7 tries. My daughter loved green beans and broccoli the first time I offered then to her. She spit out bananas the first 10 times I offered them to her, and yogurt the first 15 times. Was I putting my poor child through some cruel and unusual punishment? You wouldn't think so from the way Sammy devours bowls of yogurt and granola these days.

Of course, offering the food you know your child disliked the first 5 times is an enormous trial. "How many times am I supposed to be throwing out the carrot puree?" you wonder. You put so much of yourself into preparing your baby's food, and it is so painful to see your kid reject it. But there is light in the end of the tunnel. If you go through these first 6-12 painful months without giving up on any food, you'll be rewarded with an omnivore toddler and feeding your little gourmet will become both easier and more enjoyable.

You think you know what you child likes and dislikes. Think again!

My mother-in-law asked me what Sammy eats and doesn't eat when we were coming to visit for Thanksgiving. I confidently told her that she eats everything except for orange vegetables (sweet potatoes, butternut squash, etc). Why was she suddenly boycotting them I didn't know. She used to love them when she was a baby, but around 12 months she wouldn't have anything to do with them. I kept offering them to her for almost 4 months. But all my efforts were to no avail! I told all the grandmas to not avoid anything just because Sammy doesn't eat it. Surely, there'll be plenty of food for her even without butternut squash. Well, guess what -- she gobbled up black bean soup with sweet potatoes at Grandma Louise's and roasted butternut squash at Grandma Tanya's. Why was the ban on orange vegetables suddenly lifted? I have no idea. Maybe a new location...

If you eat your broccoli, you can have a cookie...
If you were a marketing executive at a broccoli company and this was your marketing campaign slogan, you'd probably get fired. What makes a kid think that a cookie is special and broccoli is icky is your attitude. Never offer a food as a reward for eating another food. If she doesn't want broccoli, so be it. But don't tell her she can have a cookie if she suffers through eating broccoli. Eating should be a joy, not some painful experience that you get paid for with cookies.

How can I let my poor child go hungry!?
Parents' biggest concern with offering food their child didn't eat last time (or 5 or 10) is that their poor little tyke will be hungry. I have news for you my dear worried friends. Just because your kiddo won't eat carrots doesn't mean he needs to starve. How often do you serve a meal of just carrots? Not to often, right? There is probable some pasta, rice, or bread; some chicken, meat, or fish; and some fruit. Yes, I know. Eating just rice doesn't make for a very balanced meal. But you have to keep in mind that not every meal needs to be balanced. Occasionally, Sammy gets so excited about a food that she won't eat anything else in that meal. Last week, the strawberries stole the show and that's all she ate for dinner. Believe it or not, life went on. Now I know not to show her strawberries until she eats at least a bit of the other stuff. You can also use hunger to your advantage. Offer the most problematic foods first when your child is the hungriest.

I haven't seen too many emaciated American children. If anything, I've seen too many plump ones. If your child is truly hungry, they'll eat. If they refuse to eat every single food that you put in front of them, they are probably not all that hungry. I know how much a parent enjoys watching their kid happily shovel the food into their mouth. But try to avoid the temptation to open a box of mac n' cheese or chicken nuggets. Your child will not starve to death without them.

It has to taste good

Kids are not polite. Think Anton Ego from Ratatouille. "If I don't like it, I.... don't.... swallow!" So, take of that but-it's-good-for-you hat, and put on your please-the-food-critic hat. Why do your kids like chicken nuggets and Kraft mac 'n cheese? Two magic words: salt and fat. Add salt and fat to your food, and kids will like it too. Won't it defeat all the health benefits of making your own food? Hardly. Buckwheat dressed with salt and butter still has a ton of fiber, protein, and iron. Besides, your children need fat and cholesterol. Those are the building blocks of their growing bodies. Just because your doctor might have told you to go easy on the butter, doesn't mean the same applies to your toddler. Another thing you can do to greatly improve your little gourmet's acceptance of different fruits and veggies is take a knife skills class. If you learn to cut veggies into small dice, not only will they cook more evenly, but your child might be more accepting of them. It always surprised me that my daughter would eat zucchini cut into brunoise (1/8 inch dice) and lightly browned in olive oil, but wouldn't eat it if I cut it into bigger dice. She is also a huge fan of sectioned oranges, but not very receptive to them if I keep the membranes.

Kids' food
The concept of kids' food doesn't exist in all countries. Sure, there is baby food for babies who don't have teeth yet, but there is no such thing as special food for kids in most of the world. I am not sure how this concept came about in the US. Waiters always ask us if we'd like the kids menu when we eat out with Sammy. We never even look at it and just give her bites from our plates. I have once ordered a salad with roasted beets hoping to give some to Sammy. When I saw 5 lonely little beet pieces on top of baby greens, I asked the waiter for a side dish of just roasted beets for Sammy so that I don't have to deal with her screaming "more" in 30 seconds. He looked at me like I was nuts, but brought me a bowl of beets anyway. He looked even more perplexed when he returned in 20 minutes to find Sammy's happy magenta face and an empty bowl. "How could she eat them all?" he said in bewilderment. "Kids don't like beets!" Well, sure. If you tell them that they don't like beets, but like brownies, it will be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Neither Jason, nor I have a sweet tooth, so there are normally no sweets found in our house. We don't have a ban on sweets. Once in a while, I'll bake cookies and Sammy is usually the first in line, but sometimes not. A few weeks ago, I gave her a freshly baked chocolate chip cookie for a snack. She took a few bites and then noticed me putting prunes into a stew. She started pointing at the prune box and making demanding noises. I gave her a prune, and then another, and she ended up eating 5 of them. She forgot about the cookie! Even my mouth dropped.

This reminds me of another good trick to get your kid to try a new food. Make it just slightly out of their reach. The forbidden fruit is always the sweetest :) Put this food on your plate during the meal, but not theirs. You'll be surprised how quickly they notice that you have something they don't. Of course, it has to be very special if Mommy and Daddy are eating it! Before you know it, they'll be begging you to try it.


Anonymous said...

Good for you, Helen! We also don't believe in the kids' menu or special kids' food, and we're all much happier for it. Our now seven year old daughter's favorite meal is (and always has been) a bowl of beans with a little cheese melted on top. A book we read which was very helpful (if a little obsessive) was Super Baby Food. Check it out, it gave us lots of very good ideas.

Merry said...

My kids are also omnivores and most of your advise is the way we feed our kids. You can never know from one day to the next what the favorite food will be, not the most shunned. It changes all the time. My kids are 2 years old and 4 years old, and have lately been joining me in eating artichokes...

life said...

Your kid is lovely very much.I'll have my kid soon.

emiglia said...

These are some awesome tips! I don't have kids, but I've always wondered how my mom raised four such adventurous eaters: we never looked at the kids' menu either. She couldn't remember how she did it, so now that I have your tips, I'm tucking them away for someday.

Christiansen's Hog Heaven said...

We have had similar success with our children. There have been times where we offered our 4 year old son ice cream in the evening and his reply was, "No thanks, I'll just have some celery." Although I am sure we have subconsciously done some of the techniques you mentioned, the most successful factor has come from our love of gardening. Our gardens are a family affair. Our boys get so excited from planting and nurturing a garden that they can't wait to eat the fruits and vegetables. We often find unripened veggies in the garden that have been picked with little bite marks in them.

Helen said...

that's so great that you involve your kids in gardening. I wish I was exposed to it at a young age. Maybe then I wouldn't have this unexplainable fear of worms and bugs.

Heather said...

My daughter is 20 months old and she changes her mind from day to day. I don't have the time or inclination to make special meals for her, so she gets what we eat (although some nights all she does want to eat is bread).

Her curious habit has been her repeated refusal to eat most cooked vegetables. She only likes them raw. Perhaps some children respond to texture more than taste. So she gets a crudite snack while I fix dinner.

I also notice that she wants to eat whatever I am eating, even if it's the same thing on her own plate. If I want her to try something new, I take a bite first in hopes that it piques her interest.

Bubblybunny said...

Great post! I was just thinking this afternoon how my baby's preference changes from day to day. The day before, he hated carrots. Yesterday, he gobbled them down. Today, he didn't like them but tolerated it enough to eat some of it. He's only 8 mo. old and I wondered how I'm going to survive the next few years. I also felt bad for my poor carrot purees!!

erica said...

Thank you so much for this! I don't have kids yet, so maybe my pride comes before a fall, but my biggest food pet peeve of all is the myth that kids need their own special food and are somehow unequipped to eat vegetables or complicated foods. Your strategy is exactly the one I'm looking forward to using with my kids, so I love hearing that it works. Thanks!

adele said...

My parents come from China, which is one of the cultures where they don't have "kids' food." They didn't believe in catering to my whims - if I didn't like it, I was free to not eat it, but they weren't going to make me something else.

It worked. I'll eat pretty much anything.

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Vanessa said...

Hi, your child is too cute, my son is now 18 months, now I am facing lot of problems for his food... I am so confused what I will do with my son......But now I am feeling some free, when I read your advice....I will follow your advice.

Rachael West said...

It is amazing how kids work. I have two small children, my daughter we call her a hoover because if you put it in front of her she gobbles it all up, but my son... we're lucky to get him to sit and eat a few bites of dinner.

I use to fight and fight, but now... I make him up a plate and if he is hungry enough he'll suck it up and eat. It works. I believe a child is only picky if you let them be picky. If you give the the option to not eat something and substitute with something new they'll always expect it.

Rachael West

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Helen said...

Hi there,

I really don't know what else to add. My daughter will be 3 in a month and everything I wrote in this post still holds true for me. She is a very adventurous eater: loves duck, lamb, caviar, asparagus, beets, and pretty much any fruit and vegetable. But she doesn't like cheese of any kind (not even cream cheese). I just don't worry about it. She might grow out of it. It's always around and available to her, and she knows she just has to ask. I still don't offer any alternatives (our dinner is her dinner), but make sure that each meal includes something she can eat. If all she eats is bread, so be it.

I also don't worry about her weight. She is tiny (bottom 3%). But she is perfectly healthy and well developed. If you start panicking every time you go to the doctor because your kid is not average, you'll make your life and their life a lot more difficult than it needs to be.