Secret to raising healthy eaters: don’t feed your kids crap; don’t force “good for you food” down their gullets

Cauliflower photographed in Woolworths store i...

True story: the 3.5 year-old is rooting around his plate, and then looks up at me in anger.

“There is no more cauliflower here!” he hollers. “I want more cauliflower!”

I give him more cauliflower. Our dinner guest blinks, and not at the unique brand of rudeness that belongs only to 3.5-year-olds.

“How did you do that?” she asks. “I mean—he just asked for more cauliflower. How did you do that?”

And as I open my mouth to answer, the 11-year-old does so for me, by catapulting his cauliflower onto his little brother’s plate.

“Here, eat mine,” he says. “I’m not so into cauliflower these days.”

And I shrug, and look at my friend, and wonder if she needs me to extrapolate? And I think perhaps she does, and while food remains pretty much the only part of the parenting puzzle that I feel confident soapboxing about these days, I’ve boiled down that particular lecture to two very succinct points. Very short, brief—did I already say succint?—points, which, alas, aren’t actually heard by most of the people who ask me to elucidate them.

So to my friend, I just shrug, and I change the subject.

But to you, to you I’ll tell my secret.

It’s two-fold.

1. Don’t feed your kids crap.

2. Don’t force your kids to eat good food.

There you go. That’s it.

Do these two things, and your 3.5 year-old will scream for more cauliflower. Your 11-year-old might not even want it on his plate. But he’ll eat it again. When he’s 12. Or maybe not until he’s an adult. And maybe he’ll never love it—I’ve never learned to love brussel sprouts or celery, although I have now become one of those obnoxious people who can’t get enough kale (I know! Who knew?). The point: he’ll have a palate for good food. He won’t eat crap (much). And he won’t associate good food with battles, torment, cajoling and Mommy going on a power trip.

I think #1 is actually easier. However you define crap (in my world, if it needs a list of ingredients, it’s probably crap)—just don’t feed it to your children. Parents make this difficult for themselves because they’re—what’s the word I’m looking for… oh, yes—hypocrites. They don’t want their kids to eat chips, store-bought cookie dough and sodapop… but they want to eat it themselves. So it’s in the house. Available. Taunting. Forbidden.

If you don’t want your kids to eat it—don’t eat it yourself. Don’t have it in the house.

Sidenote: I let my kids eat crap at other people’s houses (with minor exceptions—there are things I will not let them put into their bodies. No discussion allowed). At parties, fairs. I don’t make it a forbidden, madly desired fruit. It’s just never in the house. If it’s in the house, they can eat it—whenever they want. It it’s not in the house—it’s just not an issue.

Sidenote 2: I don’t call crap a treat. Sometimes, when life falls apart, and the only way the children will get any calories into them is if I whip through an A&W or Wendy’s on the way home, we do it. It’s not a treat. It’s Mom-doesn’t-have-her-shit-together-today-so-you-have-to-eat-crap-I’m-so-sorry. The children: “We love A&W hamburgers!” Jane: “I know, but I feel so terrible about feeding you such bad-for-you-crap!” The children: “It’s okay if it’s just once in a while, right, Mom?” Jane: “It won’t kill you immediately.” Yes, I’m mildly insane. Back to the post proper:

So, see, not feeding your kids crap—really, pretty simple. Not forcing your kids to eat good food—a little harder. But just as important. It’s there. In the house. On the table. Available. Never forced. Don’t ask the reluctant two-year-old to take one bit. In a couple of weeks or months, he’ll reach for it on his own. Don’t threaten the five-year-old that she can’t leave the table until she eats her broccoli-carrot-chicken whatever. Just don’t. Trust that in a house full of food, full of good food—the children will eat as much as they need, and they will learn to eat and love good food. Eventually. Not on your schedule. But as their taste buds develop and as their willingness to experiment grows.

Trust that in a house full of good food—they will neither go hungry nor choose crap.

Yeah. That’s it.

1. Don’t feed them crap.

2. Don’t force them to eat good food.

Do those things, and there are no battles, no issues. Just kids who eat when they’re hungry, and only as much as they need to. Kids who leave desert unfinished because they’re full, too. Kids who prefer to ask Grandma to make them her special soup for lunch than get taken out for fast food.

“Mom! Why did you let Ender eat all the cauliflower before I came to the table?”

“Sorry, Flora. Next time I’ll save you some. Cinder? Do you have any left on our plate?”

Kids who fight over the last piece of cauliflower.

More like this:

Picky eaters: how can he know he doesn’t like it until he takes a bite?

The family the eats together: “Help! I can’t make my kids sit still through a meal!”

44 thoughts on “Secret to raising healthy eaters: don’t feed your kids crap; don’t force “good for you food” down their gullets

  1. I like that, “Don’t feed them Crap!!” Seriously no truer words spoken and it really is that simple!! And my god love how they were fighting over cauliflower. Just great!!

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  3. My son is a cauliflower loving kid, too. His sister just wants sugar in any form. We’ve raised them the same (minimal crap, modeling healthy eating habits, splurging on holidays, etc.), but I think she has my chocolate gene. Poor kid 😉

    • DO NOT EVER DIS CHOCOLATE ON THIS BLOG. Yes, I’m shouting at you, Stephanie. People who love chocolate are just better. (You can love cauliflower and chocolate. Not incompatible. Although now that I’ve written that, my tastebuds are imagining cauliflower-flavoured chocolate and I want to vomit. Thanks. Thanks a lot.)

  4. The two things I’ve done right: My kids eat well (my MIL continues to be astonished that they all willingly eat broccoli) and they all love books and reading. I skip right over the “picky eaters” and “reluctant readers” articles. They don’t apply here.

    I’m reading David Sedaris’s newest book and he has a riff on what would have happened if he’d tried to pull the “I’ll only eat white food” bit with his parents. It’s hysterical. They’d have given him joint compound, he says. For starters…

  5. Yeah, but the trouble is that people will have to cook first! 😛
    Totally agree with don’t have crap in the house, dont’t dish out crap as a treat, and don’t force your kids (although we do tell them that they must try a bite before any rejection)

  6. This was well timed for me. My son is 20 months and loves Broccoli (I can’t stand the stuff, but I’m not going to tell him that). Recently he has been not eating as much as we might like, but I guess it is just because he isn’t hungry.

    • Kids (adults, too, really) often eat in spurts: like a pig for a day or two (or a week), and then they seem to subsist on air and the occasional apple slice for a day (or two or a week). Toddlers, especially. If you’re ever worried that he’s not eating enough, remember his stomach is only about the size of your fist… (smaller if you have large hands 😛 )–and compulsively write down everything he actually does eat for a week. And you’ll see that it’s actually quite a lot. xoxo Jane

  7. Can you please write a book so I can refer to all of your awesome advice as I reach each difficult part of parenthood? Because you’re good…

    I have the pickiest of eaters. She was great as a baby when I could puree whatever I wanted and feed it to her, but I’ll be damned if I can get anything of real substance into her mouth. It drives me bananas. And sometimes I wish she WOULD eat crap, but she won’t. Anyway, it’s always been a stressful point for me as I try and try to get more things into her, but then I read something that made me pause. A woman who had been battling with her picky eaters took them to the doctor and the doctor said to stop making it such an issue – put the stuff on their plate, but don’t force it. She did it, there was no change in what they ate, but when they went for a follow-up, the kids told the doctor things were a million times better at home because they didn’t “feel sad” at the dinner table anymore. Totally hit home. So I still try, but I no longer say, “EAT!” in that desperate tone. 🙂 And every once in a while, when I’m not looking, she’ll shock the crap out of me and put a piece of egg in her mouth or try to stomach the idea of putting a piece of pasta or bread close to her face. 🙂

    • See, the benefit of having three children, homeschooling, and churning about 10,000+ words of business prose a month is that no one ever got force-fed anything because I didn’t ever have time to even think about putting anything in their mouths. Getting it on the table was about as much as I could manage… 😛 Sit there and cajole the child to eat something they didn’t want? Um, I had deadlines to meet after supper… Very bad moral in there, don’t you think?

      I think parents create picky eaters. Just as parents are the ones who create power struggles around eating. But that’s another post…

  8. I completely agree. I have done the exact same thing at my house. My son has sensory processing disorder so h was a very late eater. I would put just one piece of a couple pieces of food on his plate. Carrot, chicken, broccoli. I am sorry, but I am very intolerant of the people who say my child will only eat nuggets and pasta. At some point mom decided that the child would eat nuggets and pasta and that was easy. Present the food, don’t force it, they eat it. Sometimes we have crap when we’re out, rarely ever in the house, but when it is, it’s fair game! Great info!

  9. You are SO right “don’t feed them crap!” I only recently have let my son have McDonald’s nuggets and I regret it. Luckily, he does seem to understand that the chicken at home is quite different and is, actually chicken. You’ve inspired me to try broccoli again, so thank you! I used to try and hide it in other foods, but now I’m just going to begin presenting it again.

    • You’re welcome. 🙂 I do think the “when you’re feeding them crap, don’t label it a treat” sub-point is pretty important too. “Yeah, we’re going through a fast food drive through today–this is not a cause for celebration and we don’t do this more often because I want you to be healthy…” Same thing with the chicken-like nugget product, right?

    • No dissing your gorgeous self allowed on my blog. Children help us change our own eating habits, though, don’t you think? If you wouldn’t feed it to them… why are you eating it?

  10. I like this. The secret to all parenting success is be vigilant but calm down already. If only we could realize this at birth rather than after experience sets in.

    • Great point, but I don’t know if it’s possible. Unless you’ve been really lucky to an auntie to someone else’s first and second borns, and watched them “calm down already.” But maybe even then it would be different with your own?

  11. I think this sounds great and so logical…unfortunately I fear it’s too late for me to turn my kids into super healthy eaters. They each do okay, one kid eats more veggies, another eats more fruits, all do pretty well with proteins, but yeah I made the mistake of also having too much “crap” in the house….

    • You can always stop having “crap” in the house. Or less? And for the record, I think each family’s definition of “crap” is unique. I’m mildly insane, I know–we have no juice in the house. Or even non-salt rice crackers :P. But my kids can eat butter and duck fat by the tablespoon if they so choose (before age 4, all sometimes chose thus).

      Anyway, the ages your boys are at–if if weren’t for the crap, they’d probably always be hungry! My eldest is turning 11 and I think I need to up his “white food” intake so that he doesn’t bankrupt us… and you have four!

    • My eldest has always gone through carb-only (with peanut butter as sole protein) phases. My middle needs protein in her gullet every 45 minutes during a growth spurt. My little ate an entire watermelon yesterday. Point: it’s all real food.

      • I’ve never been much of a meat eater, peanut butter and cheese are lovely sources of protein. 🙂 An entire watermelon? I could totally see my little fruit and veggie eater consuming one. She has been known to eat a whole container of grape tomatoes at one sitting (last year we didn’t really get many of them out of our garden because she would go out there and steal them!) Yes I’d rather have them eating those things than junk food!

  12. Love it!

    We also subscribe to the whole “don’t keep junk in the house” method. If we’re taking a trip or having a party, I’ll sometimes purchase some candy or chips but they are not a weekly or even monthly indulgence.

    We just keep putting stuff on the kid’s plate. Whatever we are eating. Sometimes he eats it. Sometimes he doesn’t. I try not to worry. . .even the weeks when he seems to be only eating things that are orange. . .(Carrots, cheddar cheese, steamed shrimp, and cantolope – could be worse, right?) Ha!

  13. You are a wise, wise woman. The hardest part for me is not indulging in some occasional crap. My husband and I hide cookie dough in the fridge and make ourselves a few fresh-baked cookies after the kids are asleep a few times a week. I am searching for that fine line between nixing sweets altogether, creating a treat-obsessed daughter, and finding some treats that are less objectionable.

    Also, I love reading your family dialogue. So vivid, so funny, so real…

    • I feel that I ought to clarify that we do not eat some kind of whack health food store 100 per cent all the time diet — my kids eat cookies. Ice cream. Chocolate. Pies. Jelly rolls–I make a killer jelly roll. Desserts and delicious things are a wonderful, wonderful part of life and eating and growing. It’s possible to eat stuff like this–indulge–enjoy–and still have no power struggles and raise happy, healthy eaters. Maybe I need to expand this into another post…

  14. I’m going to have my husband read this post. He is the worst offender about having crap around. He doesn’t listen to me when I say this stuff. Maybe, he’ll listen to you!

  15. I agree! Oh, and I try and try! My husband loves crap and treats it like gold when we have it, making out job harder. He loves veggies too and so our kids eat them as well, but they REALLY LOVE the crap.

    • Great minds and all that. 🙂 Altho–you have three kids too, right? So, no time to pander to a potential non-eater, picky eater. Too busy to fret and hover… I think that must be part of the equation. (As well as the don’t feed them crap thing, of course.)

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  19. AH what a perfect post!! A reader left your link on my own site and I can see why!
    It is my food philosophy entirely, but also, I think the heart of it can be applied to my whole parenting… provide loads of good stuff, don’t make a fuss about the bad stuff… and then just trust your kid.

  20. Pingback: Magic Words #2: Have Your Taste Buds Changed Yet? | Sacraparental

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