Wednesday, January 18, 2017

So You Want Good Eaters?

There is a deepening pool of pint-sized picky eaters in the United States. It is a hole that parents have dug themselves into with the double-edged shovel of convenience and personal taste. Picky children often lead to picky unsatisfied adults. Having picky eaters is a ridiculous problem to have, but just because it is ridiculous doesn’t mean that it isn’t real. Do they have this problem in Haiti? No. Do they have this problem in Africa? No. Do they have this problem in military school? No. It is absolutely of our own making, but it can also be of our own unmaking.
Before we go any further, let me say that I have spent years acquiring various forms of expertise in feeding children and producing great eaters. I spent four years earning a bachelor’s degree in dietetics and an additional year doing an internship at a second university so that I could become a Registered Dietitian. I even worked for a while at a web based company focused on child nutrition, writing healthy menu plans for busy families. But this educational and employment history is not what makes me an expert on feeding children. My most important expertise is a product of experience: for the past decade I have lived in the trenches, nourishing a growing family that now consists of six kids and two adults. (Side note: I love saying I have six kids. I get strange looks like I just said I own 37 cats or have six toes on my left foot.) I not only have six kids; I have six great eaters. All right, that’s a small exaggeration. The one year old is still rounding into form, and for right now her eating is still a team sport.  And I’m not an expert in a fuzzy, qualitative sense either; my expertise is quantifiable. According to Malcolm Gladwell, a person must devote at least 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to a certain activity before becoming an expert. (You can read more about that in his excellent book Outliers.) And people: I’ve done the math. I breezed by that number some time last year. * You may or may not be in the same boat as me. If you are, congratulations! This blog post is not for you. If you haven’t quite hit 10,000 hours yet, you’re in luck; you might glean some practical wisdom from what I have to say. Statistics suggest that you probably haven’t hit the 10,000 hour mark yet: the average American spends more time watching cooking shows than actually cooking. (On average an American devotes 24 minutes to food preparation per day, and “food preparation” is a loose term that includes activities such as microwaving a Cup O’ Noodles. For more on the culinary habits of Americans, see Michael Pollan’s wonderful book Cooked.)
            Periodically other parents (my co-combatants against underage mental instability) ask me why I have such great eaters. “Mine are so picky,” they say. What they mean by a picky eater is a child who is frustratingly, mind-numbingly, bull-headedly opting out of almost all foods that are good for them.  And what do I mean by great eaters? Quite simply I mean children that will eat a variety of healthy, real-food options and do so willingly, if not gratefully. My kids eat everything from green salads to vegan chick pea curry and unpeeled carrots. (I’m not talking about those mini, flavorless, shaved orange bullets that pass for carrots now-a-days either: real carrots.) With child #1, Gabriel my oldest, he ate anything.  We felt like the best parents as he downed fruit, beans, and broccoli. He even asked for turnips once for breakfast at age 15 months. We knew we had scored a victory as new parents at that point. Then came #2, David, a more “normal” eater. He would often gag on foods he did not care for, but unless he actually threw up, we persisted in feeding him a variety of real foods, and eventually he got the idea. Now almost 9 years old, David is a superb eater just like his older brother. Our other children have shown varying degrees of willingness to eat what is served at meal times but eventually they all get with the program too. Here is the program:
          Eat three full meals a day. Eat them at the table and not in front of a screen or in the car. Don’t leave the table hungry and don’t let your kids leave hungry either. There is no more food showing up for at least a couple of hours. And if food is served between meals, it will be real food like fruit or nuts—no fake foods allowed. You know what I mean by fake food: anything that comes in an individually-sized box or wrapper. No crackers, granola bars, or Pediasure. Even juice and milk sippys are a big no-no in our household. Why would a child eat real food at the dinner table when they know that if they can just hold out for twenty minutes the mini bar will open up for business? Until you stop the intravenous drip of honey-nut cheerios and gold fish you will never develop a good eater. And while we are at it, can we PLEASE stop pretending that 100% fruit juice counts as a fruit? Juice is just fruit sugar in a concentrated, liquefied form. Better yet, only serve water at meals and between meals too. Water is what your body really needs and won’t serve as a temporary calorie crutch like those other drinks.
         Next, if you do not eat all of what is served at meals there are no snacks or dessert. Period. The next thing that will show up on your plate is the same exact food you saw at breakfast, lunch, or dinner, so you better just eat it now. Time will not improve the taste, and children learn that fairly quickly. A friend’s child paid me the compliment of telling his family that, “Sister Hutchins (me) makes her kids eat ALL their vegetables!” Why yes she does, and it’s not even a problem. They actually like vegetables. And if they want dessert, they will eat them in a timely manner. In our home you have seven minutes to finish your food after the adults are done eating, and then the dessert train leaves the station—and by the end of those seven minutes, all of your vegetables had better be gone! We can’t have meals dragging on forever. If your lunch becomes your dinner, or your dinner becomes your breakfast, you’ve lost your reward.
[Side note: I do serve dessert. Twice a day- yikes! Did she really just say that? Yes: I’m not anti-sugar or treats, I just know where they belong- after a real meal. This has been a huge motivator over the past decade for finishing meals. Yes, they get a treat twice a day but they don’t get junk in between meals. Soda and Yoplait count as desserts.]
        This is where you must stick to your guns. Perhaps even spoon feed your child when necessary. I’ve had to feed pea soup to my three year old (now five year old) all the way up until 11 o’clock  the next morning. Was she better the next time we served pea soup? You bet she was. She didn’t like it but she ate it. If you say it, mean it! If you say it, do it. This applies to all parenting, but when it comes to food, never forget who is the parent and who is the child. I have seen multiple parents on multiple occasions try to sweet talk their child into eating a meal, give up, and then give them something else a few minutes later.
            I believe in an open door immigration policy but a closed door pantry policy. My ten year old still has to ask for a piece of fruit between meals. Is this tyrannical? Perhaps, but he is an amazing eater, and scarcity creates a sense of value. My children are not underfed either, far from it. They eat large portions at meals because I am not raising cows that graze all day—I’m raising active children. I know of some parents that create a shelf of acceptable options that the children can choose from but what if they are choosing at 5:30 pm right before dinner?  Eat consistently, not constantly. And for heaven sakes, if you want them to eat like an adult eat like an adult yourself! If you expect your children to eat on a schedule, then so should you. For us, it is breakfast at 7:15 before school, fruit in the morning around 10:00, lunch at 12:00, afternoon (real food) snack at 3:30 after school, and dinner at 5:30 pm followed by dessert. Every family will be a little different.
Another major point of stress that can be avoided with a little bit of foresight is planning meals ahead of time, especially dinners. I have a rotating list of perhaps ten things I make for lunches with some left-overs thrown in and about eighty dishes I can make for dinner. Many of those dinners I have decided do not meet our family’s needs or tastes anymore and we have out grown them but they are still on standby if I need them. There was a time there at the beginning of my marriage when I would try out one new recipe a week and see if I wanted to add it to my repertoire. Now experimentation is more of an occasional exercise and not a regular one.
This leads me to my next point: cook. Cook from scratch as much as you can as often as possible. I’ve been making jam, picking corn, baking bread, boiling beans, fixing cookies, and whipping up dinner for almost thirteen years now, and I’m a great cook. (If you haven’t had my double chocolate chip cookies with a hint of mint, you haven’t lived- thank you Hershey’s Mint Chips!) I don’t mention this as a point of pride; fifty years ago everyone was a great cook. Both my grandmothers were great cooks, and I’m guessing that yours were too. Maybe even your mother was. Becoming a good cook is merely a matter of time and priority. You do something enough, you just get good at it. Teach your children that dinner doesn’t come out of a box or wrapper. Include grains, vegetables, legumes and even homemade desserts. Serve vegetarian whenever possible. Beans, Beans, Beans! Lentils, breads, legumes, nuts, and seeds, are all good. Just call me the queen of bean. I can make beans twenty different ways without even breaking a sweat because really they are just a blank canvas waiting to be painted. They are also cheap, filling and nutritious. Eat a whole-foods, plant based diet. Or, as Pollan put it, “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” (His wonderful book In Defense of Food is another foodie must-read. If you want more of the scientific detail on the “what” and “why” of this food philosophy I encourage you to read The China Study by _ T. Colin Campbell and Thomas M. Campbell )
Also, let your kids into the kitchen with you. It will provide excellent mommy-and-me time, (or daddy-and-me) but your children also become invested in the final product if they help make the food. They will need those skills to have confidence in their own kitchens. It has been shown that if a teenager can make at least ten things when they leave the house they will be much more likely and willing to cook for themselves, which will help them avoid many of the potholes of unhealthy eating so prevalent in today’s society.
            As a final piece of advice you will notice that I keep using the pronoun, “we.” That is because I have an amazing supportive husband who has been right by my side through all the ups and downs. He has been the one to spearhead many of these good habits in fact. If you really want to start reversing picky eating you both need to decide on your own rules and both stick to them, a united front. We both know that a two year old or even a stubborn six year old is a formidable foe, solidarity is a must. Dads you are CRUCIAL in making this work so kids don’t go to you when mommy says no. In fact, surprise your wife, be the catalyst of change and go to her to get the ball rolling.
So that’s it, that’s my advice. Do you simply wish you had good eaters or do you really want it? Wishing is easy, but wanting involves WORK. We have a saying in our house, “You get what you get, and you don’t throw a fit.” This applies to work, gifts, screen time, meals, you name it. It also applies to your children. You get what you get and work from there. You can have anything you want but not everything. You can have good eaters or convenience. (And by the way, having a picky eater is not always so convenient) This will not work perfectly for every family all of the time. All families are different and have different problems and needs. If you are starting with a picky 11 year old even marginal successes should be celebrated. Children have allergies, texture issues, peer pressure, media bombardment, scheduling difficulties etc. that will just have to be dealt with as the occasion arises.  Think of this as more of a process than an event that either will or will not happen for your children.
I love food. Many if not most people have a tortured, love-hate relationship with food. Not me, I just love it. (Unless I’m pregnant, which has often been the case, and then that is a whole other ball of wax). As far as I’m concerned, food is a wonderful blessing from God. If you love it, and your body, that love will pass on to your children. If you don’t yet love food and think of it as a blessing from God, pray. Pray personally for help knowing what to do; pray before all meals; pray over your garden and your garden of souls. HE will help you. And now, good luck—advice is easy, and parenting is hard. If your kid needs to go to food boot camp, send them to me. I can fix that. Just call me the food whisperer.

In case you were just scanning for the bullet points:
  1. Eat three full meals a day. Eat them at the table and not in front of a screen or in the car. Don’t leave the table hungry and don’t let your kids leave hungry either
  2. Only real food between meals like fruit or nuts
  3. Banish milk and sippys and anything but water from the table
  4. If they don’t finish a meal it is the only food available until it is gone, no snacks or dessert
  5. Institute a closed pantry policy, be the food police of your kitchen
  6. Meal plan
  7. Cook as much and as often as possible
  8. Eat plants
  9. Get both parents on board
  10. Pray
Bonus: Celebrate the Process!

*I spend approximately 80 hours per week working as a stay at home wife and mother caring for my home and family. I easily spend a quarter of that time planning, shopping, growing, preparing, cooking and feeding the small subjects that reside in my palace. 3 hours a day = 20 hours a week, and I get feedback—from my children, my husband, and my dinner guests all the time. I have done this at least 50 wks/year for over 10 years (my oldest child is almost 11). 20 x 50 x 10 = 10,000 hours. 


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  2. Some great ideas, thanks for sharing!

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  4. My son was adopted from China. He came home with oral aversion, he hadn't probably been exposed to solids and was gravity fed. The paperwork said he was using a spoon and eating foods we doubted were true. If I decided if he didn't eat again until he ate the new food I put in front of him he would have dehydrated to the point of hospitalization. You have a lot of qualifications and as a new mom if I followed this advice I'd have been talking to social services. Even a kid in a country with starving people who may have been food insecure will not eat if they are starving if it's a new food or something they are unsure of. Toddlers can't tell you they are upset about the texture or color of the vegetable. And a kid on the spectrum is often diagnosed because of their pickiness, something you may not get a label for until they are 4. Wouldn't you hate to have made the house a war zone over a raw carrot at age 3 only to find out at 4 that they have autism. This is excellent advice if you are sure your kid doesn't have sensory issues. This will probably work for 90% of kids. But you will not really know if your kid is in the 10% of kids where this is going to do more harm than good. I'm sure you are proud they eat more than 25 vegetables. But would you eat a scorpion on a stick? Let's be honest most adults won't eat everything that is edible. If you can be selective about what you eat why can't you let a kid pass on a food. Can't you leave a few carrots raw if one kid hates them cooked?

    1. Dear KMS,
      I can see that I have hit a sore spot. Good on you for being sensitive to your son's needs. He's a lucky kid to have such an attentive mother. If you re-read my article I did mention that, "This will not work perfectly for every family all of the time. All families are different and have different problems and needs. If you are starting with a picky 11 year old even marginal successes should be celebrated. Children have allergies, texture issues, peer pressure, media bombardment, scheduling difficulties etc. that will just have to be dealt with as the occasion arises. Think of this as more of a process than an event that either will or will not happen for your children." I totally get that there are many exceptions to the rule but I don't think that that necessarily changes the rule. I was lucky enough to be with all my children from day one and none of them ever displayed any abnormalities in nursing or feeding patterns so this worked for them. I don't "leave a few carrots raw" hypothetically speaking because I do not run a restaurant and it teaches entitlement instead of gratitude. Having great eaters is important to our family but I also understand that it is not the end all and be-all of good parenting, just a small piece of the puzzle. If this advice doesn't apply to your family, it doesn't apply. It does for others. Like I said at the end of the article, "advice is easy, good parenting is hard." You just keep being a great parent while other people are trying desperately to do the same. Good luck with your son!

  5. Alana, that was amazing! I loved your information and rules about food in your home. We have a lot of the same rules, but I am going to try and implement some of the ones you mentioned that we don't have. You are a great writer! You packed the information in, but did it with humor and sincerity. Brilliant. Just brilliant. Thanks for posting it!