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!”

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

English: By Ruth Lawson. Otago Polytechnic.

Never, ever take advice from me on potty training. Or weaning. Or cleaning house. (But if you ever want to feel better about the chaos in your house, come see my kitchen when I’m on deadline. Last week, I was ankle-deep in stuff. Stuff=shredded egg cartons that Ender destroyed with a cheese knife while I tried to get the last paragraph for a profile of a leadership transition at an oil sands company nailed down just right.) But if you want, you can take advice from me about food. I’ve raised three garburators—by which I mean not children who eat junk food, but children whom no one can ever call picky eaters. They’ll eat anything.

But, wait. There’s a caveat. Not anything all of the time. Taste buds change, see, and sometimes kids don’t have the taste buds—or have taste buds that are just too sensitive—for the food we’re offering them.

One of the things we’ve always talked about as Cinder and then Flora didn’t like something / didn’t want to try something was that “taste buds change.” (Interlude: yes, it’s possible to know you won’t like something without tasting it. I will not eat steak tartare. You cannot make me. I will not taste it. I extend the same right of total refusal to my children. If they think it looks and smells gross, that’s enough. One day, they might think differently. Until they do, I will not force them. Back to tasting change buds… er, changing taste buds:) So when my eldest went off broccoli, when I’d make broccoli, I’d ask him if his broccoli taste buds changed yet–and he’d sniff it or look at it, and say no. And then one day he said, yes, but only in soup.

It’s easiest to relate to this if you’re recently gone through a taste bud shift yourself. During my Ender pregnancy, I totally went off broccoli too–formerly one of my absolutely favourite, could eat it every day vegetables. It’s been years, and those taste buds haven’t come back yet. I seem to forget this every week and order broccoli… and then look at it wilt in our fridge through the week, taking it out every couple of days to
look at it with disgust, (I don’t have to taste it to know I don’t want it) until, finally, I put it out of its misery and puree it into a soup my children devour while I watch them and eat something else… or, if I’m too lazy to fix myself a second lunch, drown my bowl of broccoli soup with hot sauce so I can’t taste its foul cruciferousness.

Mmmm, hot sauce…

Point: when introducing children to food—offer. Put on the table. Eat it yourself. Make it again. Ask if they’d like to try it. Ask if their taste buds for [X] have come yet. But never, ever force. Not even one bite.

Unless, of course, you’re willing to reciprocate? When Jocelyn is making a yummy mud pie with dirt and worms and beetle carcases, would you need to take a bite to be able to assert that you don’t like it?

Unfair comparison, I know. Switch mud pie for something you haven’t liked forever and ever. Shrimp? Egg? Sushi? Tripe? Would you have a bite if I offered it to you?

Don’t expect more of your little ones when it comes to food than you would of yourself. That, I think, is fair.

What do you think?

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