Tuesday, January 31, 2012


I can’t help but have all sorts of thoughts when I hear about picky kids.  I try to keep them inside, but as a few of my close friends can attest, sometimes they come out in rather a tirade.  Pickiness is a subject that really frustrates me, as there seems to be an epidemic of pickiness in America these days. I’m trying to wrap my brain around the possible reasons.

I know mothers hate mealtime battles and would love to help their children choose healthier foods, but they never seem to know how.  Even some of the best families I know appear to get confused about the difference between offering a child a chance to choose between two options that legitimately exist, and the perceived need to provide or even fabricate a choice for every situation. And then those kids get disappointed -- and unintentionally rude -- when they're not offered a whole range of eating pleasures at once. Sadly, when a mother asks me how we make it work in our home, my answer always elicits some regretful excuse.  So I’m a little bit baffled.  Here are some of my stories, in the hope that they can inspire a few positive experiences for someone.  

First of all, somehow I hit on a brilliant rule early in our parenting, one that has worked wonders. Our rule is, no complaining.  It’s that simple.  Of course, there’s more to the context of it, but that’s the crux. And the beauty of it is, this rule can adapt to just about any situation I can imagine.  The main purpose of it is to NOT have any negative feelings associated with eating food.  I don’t want family members carrying those into life, that’s doing them a great disservice, especially in this age of eating disorders.  At our table, we appreciate food, or we simply remain silent and/or hungry. I think in the long term, my kids will remember the good food and positive feelings, rather than the few times they were a little hungry because dinner didn't appeal as much. And the immediate effects have been pretty wonderful, too. Overall, my children have learned commendable tastes and attitudes at the table. What seems to characterize them very broadly is a recognition of effort and quality, an appreciation for my conscious choice to feed them from my own hands every day. Here's how it works.
I make what I make, I serve it onto everyone’s plate without exception, and you can eat it or not.  Of course, I admit I am pretty strict about food in general -- I put a LOT of thought into my menus and ingredients to balance them, provide whole grains and veggies, stuff like that.  We don’t keep easy snacks around, and we stick to regular mealtimes.  But all that is possible because I don’t pander.  I largely don’t take anyone’s taste into account.  I literally cook what I want to eat, and figure that kids throughout history and geography have had much less say and have not been the worse off.  My family doesn't expect any choice in what ends up on their plate, so they are sincerely grateful when it’s good, and express that frequently.  (S. has helped prompt them in that habit.)  I don’t even realize anymore how wonderful that is until we have other kids eat with us once in a while, and they inevitably say something that brings us all down.
There’s not really any alternative available if you don’t like what I serve, though I do tell my kids generally they can always eat a fresh fruit or vegetable without needing permission.  But our practice sends a wonderful message -- it lets people know that I don’t mind if their tastes differ, that everyone has something that they prefer to eat or not, but that we won’t a) force them to eat or b) accept any “ewwww”s or “yuck”s that ruin the enjoyment of someone else’s meal.  If they do complain out loud, THEN they are required to try the offending food.  There have a been a handful of times when this has been a force issue, but for the most part I tell them they just have to nibble, and even the tiniest nibble willingly done often results in a shrug and a “that’s not too bad” reaction.  And if it doesn’t, it still sets the right example for anyone they might have influenced negatively, so nibbles it is. And in fact, my kids have now become the main enforcers for the rule, either for each other or for visitors. They let individuals know that we don't complain here, and tell them they'll have to try the food if they do.
If there is a sticking point that I run across most when this topic comes up among friends, it's nutrition. We're so worried about it for ourselves, and even more for our rapidly growing and developing children, and it seems to loom over everything. But, I’m not afraid of the specter of malnourishment. Cultures and foodways differ very greatly in their nutritional emphases, but basically it comes out that any meals prepared in a traditional kitchen will meet the overarching needs of those who consume them.  Truly, a child is not going to become nutritionally deficient in a matter of hours, or days, or even weeks.  Months, possibly.  But I don’t think our kids are in danger of not eating well for months on end...unless, of course, they learn to rely on sugary gogurts or juice boxes as some kind of nutritional insurance. I don't really care what my family eats at any individual meal, not exactly, but I care a great deal about the lifelong habits they're forming: to accept what's offered with graciousness, whether or not they like it; to be familiar with and eat plenty of fruits and vegetables; to learn to know when they're full.

While my kids could do a LOT more to learn to keep their clothes clean when they eat, not to mention their hands, faces, and the inevitable library book, they are at least bound to make any host feel appreciated.  And in the end, I hope they will have a sense of the wholeness of the earth and where their sustenance comes from, and that they will learn how to think about food, prepare it, and pass it along in healthy and harmonious ways.


  1. Kristin, I'm lovin' what you've done with this blog. Food has never been so insightful! I can't think of anyone who could blend food talk with profundity as artfully as you do.

  2. You're pretty awesome, K! I do my best with Alex, but I'm looking forward to having actual conversations about food with him (rather than the endless enforcing akin to this stage). I guess I worry more, too, because he's always been so stinkin' skinny. :/
    Anyway, great post.