Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Family Dinner, Part II

(Sorry for the absence. Not much sleep being had around here lately. Also, interviewing for jobs sucks. Now, back to Experiments in Cooking for a Family.)

I asked around for book recommendations to figure out how to properly feed small children. I know way too many families that have to make separate meals for each kid, and I wanted to avoid that if at all possible. When my brother and his family visit my parents, for example, my sister-in-law has to email a shopping list to my mom. The list includes the exact brand and variety of bread that each kid will eat, which means buying 3 separate loaves of bread. Same for deli meat, peanut butter, and yogurt. My mom makes chicken nuggets and pancakes and pasta for dinner every night, and still very little gets eaten, and my mom spends the entire visit trying to figure out how to orchestrate elaborate meals to make everybody happy. She annotates her recipe cards to indicate which of them might possibly be eaten by which of the kids. It's ridiculous.

So, keeping in mind that all toddlers are picky to some degree, but also that eating habits develop over time and tend to stick around for life, I wanted to get LL and Kermit on healthy footing. I wanted a book that would be realistic for a working mom to implement, backed up by actual studies and research, aimed at developing healthy habits for the whole family, and all while avoiding the guilt-ridden tactics that a lot of parenting books seem to employ. The suggested reading was the classic Child of Mine by Ellyn Satter.

I enjoyed it a lot. It made sense to me. It provided straightforward recommendations for how to approach mealtime with young children. The key take-away points for me:

- You can't force a child to eat something they don't want to eat. Trying to bribe or coerce or punish them tends to make things worse. The same goes for trying to limit how much of something a child eats. Instead, parents should decide what food to make available and when, and the child decides how much of it to eat.

- Kids are curious. They want to emulate their parents, and they want to try new things. If you put food out for them and they see you eating it regularly, they may not eat it right away, and they may not like it the first time they try it, but eventually they will choose on their own to try lots of foods and eventually they will enjoy eating a wide assortment of foods.

- Kids like having control, and they are more accepting of things when they can control it. For food, this means that, as much as possible, put all food out on the table in serving bowls and let kids take as much or as little as they want. The only exception should be desserts, which should be portioned into single servings for each person at the table.

- Make a variety of food for dinner, put it all on the table, then sit down and eat as a family. Don't honor requests for other foods, don't get anything else, but let your child eat as much as they want of whatever is on the table. Make sure that there is something that you know your child will eat. (Satter suggests always putting bread on the table for every meal.) Then stop worrying about your child. If he decides to only eat bread for this meal, he'll eat something else at the next meal. If he doesn't eat any vegetables, he won't get scurvy, and he'll probably try it next time. As long as you are calm and uninvested in the exact quantities your child eats of each food, he'll explore them on his own. Sometimes he'll try lots of stuff, other times he won't. That's okay.

We've been taking this approach for several weeks now. I make dinner, I put everything on the table, and LL decides what he wants and what he doesn't. For the first several days, we had a conversation like this at the beginning of every dinner:

LL: Cottage cheese please Mommy!
Me: We're not having cottage cheese tonight. Tonight we're having chicken and potatoes and bread and carrots and blueberries and apples and milk.
LL: I don't want chicken. I want cheese please Mommy!
Me: I understand, but tonight we're having chicken and potatoes and bread and carrots and blueberries and apples and milk.
LL: Peanut butter sandwich?
Me: No, sorry, no peanut butter tonight. Tonight we're having chicken and potatoes and bread and carrots and blueberries and apples and milk.
LL: Oh.
(LL eats bread and blueberries and milk.)
LL: Cottage cheese now Mommy?
Me: No, sorry. But if you'd like, you may have some chicken and potatoes and carrots and apples, and there is more bread and blueberries, too.
LL: Oh. Um, may I try the chicken?
Me: Sure, take as much as you'd like! Would you like me to help you cut it, or can you do it by yourself?

He has mostly stopped asking for specific things for dinner. (We still have meals occasionally when he really really really wants something in particular that's not on the "menu," but he moves on fairly quickly.) Left on his own to eat or not eat whatever is put on the table, he almost always has some starch, some protein, and some fruits or vegetables at every meal. There have also been a few nights when he just had milk and bread, and we're okay with that. He tends to ignore new vegetables the first few times I serve them. Then he starts asking questions about them. At the next meal, he'll put a little bit on his plate but won't eat it. The next time, he'll take one bite and declare that he doesn't like it. One or two more meals, and suddenly he's eating it. It's a slow process, but very low stress, and it is making our meals much more pleasant.

Next post: I have a strategy for dinners, but what should I cook? I buy a bunch of cookbooks, try out some elaborate meal-planning, and figure out how to keep groceries in our house.


  1. This approach will make your life SO much easier. But you already know that--you won't have to make elaborate plans when visiting other houses like your brother's family.

  2. I should read that book. It sounds like I'd like it because that is pretty much what we already do.

  3. Such a nice post to read. I am endlessly baffled by my daughter's eating habits. She will delicately pick out every little sliver of a pea from stir fried rice, for example, because it is green, but happily munch away on really spicy pickled vegetables or a mango lassi or horseradish cheddar.

    Our version of what you are describing is that I serve dinner, and people who don't want it may either have milk or cheerios for a snack. I am currently all about the one-dish meals (usually crockpot prepared over the weekend) so having multiple items on the table seems like more work than just offering cheerios.


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