food trauma?
January 19, 2011 7:46 PM   Subscribe

Parent-filter: In our household we expect our toddler to eat the same food as we eat, or at least eat a certain number of bites before leaving the table. This is rewarded with dessert. For new or exotic things, we also expect them to 'try' the food before opting out. A close friend considers the above expectations to be 'forcing' a child to eat, and that it 'makes her sick to her stomach.' She instead suggests that the proper approach is to always have on hand foods that the child is known to like, and to provide these upon prompting.

Setting aside the issue of 'our house, our rules' and the potential presumption of the friend, are these reasonable rules to have, or are we setting up our kid for food issues in the future?
posted by leotrotsky to Food & Drink (126 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
My parents did what you do. I eat many foods and enjoy exotic and ethnic foods.

My boyfriend's parents did what your friend says to do. He refuses to eat vegetables other than carrots, green beans, and corn. He says it makes him gag. This is an adult. A grown ass man.

I think you're on the right path.
posted by katybird at 7:50 PM on January 19, 2011 [100 favorites]

Parents will be criticized no matter what you do. Your friend is probably always getting lectured or judged for "spoiling" their child.
posted by muddgirl at 7:54 PM on January 19, 2011 [10 favorites]

my parents did what you did when i was a child. if i refused to eat something that was served, i didn't eat anything. i'm now willing to try almost anything and eat a lot of different foods from different cultures. it's not like you're shoving food down your child's throat. your friend pretty much needs to mind her own business.
posted by violetk at 7:56 PM on January 19, 2011 [4 favorites]

Seconding katybird here. My parents were of the "we feel like Ethiopian food, so we're going to have Ethiopian food" variety, and I turned out much like them.

My wife grew up in a chicken fingers and macaroni type situation, and she's still a picky eater.

You're doing the right thing.
posted by Oktober at 7:56 PM on January 19, 2011 [3 favorites]

Having grown up a rather picky eater, I did alright in an environment where I was expected to "at least take a few bites of" more or less anything. However, I was never forced to eat large quantities of anything I didn't like, and there were certain foods which literally made me gag (as in, I would have vomited had I been forced to attempt to eat more than a bite or so of them) which I was not made to eat.

As with most things when it comes to children, I think a middle ground - probably closer to what you describe than what your friend suggests - is probably the wisest course of action.

For what it's worth, I have a friend whose parents were considerably more strict than mine about forcing him to eat certain foods, and he is WAY pickier about what he will eat than I am, as adults.
posted by Juffo-Wup at 7:57 PM on January 19, 2011 [7 favorites]

My parents did the same thing you do and I eat exotic, ethnic foods too and have never turned anything down so far except snails (ugh!). Believe me, I didn't want to eat liver growing up, but unless I ate three bites I wasn't getting anything else. That's just the way I was raised.

I know parents now who say their kid "will only eat chicken nuggets", etc. One father I know actually went to Wendy's one night when they were in a rush and the children "wouldn't eat those chicken nuggets" because they weren't as good as McDonald's, so they ended up driving to McDonald's. I expressed surprise (what I really wanted to say was "who are the parents??") but I restrained myself.
posted by la petite marie at 7:57 PM on January 19, 2011 [2 favorites]

You have to do what feels right for your family. Kids will always be weird and picky with food, no matter what you do. I'm not sure being a picky eater as an adult has anything to do with how they were fed as a child, it seems to have more to do with overall immaturity.

Go with your gut and accept other people's parenting advice with a grain of salt.
posted by katypickle at 7:58 PM on January 19, 2011

Ignore your friend, you are doing fine.
posted by COD at 7:58 PM on January 19, 2011 [2 favorites]

Just as a data point, in day cares in Texas, state regulations preclude us from forcing children to eat or rewarding or punishing using food.

I think bargaining over food ("eat three more bites") does lead to the child eventually negotiating over every meal to a degree that can become annoying.

From a child development stand point a better system may simply be to offer the food you are eating, and then refuse to negotiate. The child eats or doesn't as they please and are not offered alternative foods. If there's to be dessert they get that regardless of what else they've eaten. This way meal times are less stressful. I once read a blogger say something like, "When it came to forcing my kid to drink milk I asked: what's more important milk or peace?" and the answer was peace.

If food is more important than peace in your house I think that's a totally fine battle to choose. If your current system isn't compromising the peace then I think it's also totally reasonable.
posted by Saminal at 7:59 PM on January 19, 2011 [21 favorites]

But to more directly answer your question, my food goddess Ellyn Satter advocates for a Division of Responsibility:
* The parent is responsible for what, when, where
* The child is responsible for how much and whether
Her whole site is filled with good ideas.
posted by muddgirl at 7:59 PM on January 19, 2011 [70 favorites]

You are right, you friend is wrong.
posted by Daddy-O at 7:59 PM on January 19, 2011 [5 favorites]

No one escapes food issues, no matter what tack you take.

From what I can tell, parent rules change as children age. Your rules for your toddler won't be your rules for your teenager. So expect to be flexible over time.

I also think that children have very little control over most of their lives, and some kids find food to be the only area over which they have any control--if only the power of refusal. (it doesn't take long for kids to realize that a choice between two options isn't much of a choice, no matter how empowering and clever and enlightened some parents think that is)

I feel for kids and I feel for parents when it comes to food. Try to avoid showdowns as you move forward.
posted by vitabellosi at 7:59 PM on January 19, 2011 [5 favorites]

I don't know if I would choose to use dessert as a reward, or to have a set number of bites, but those are minor points of personal preference. I'm on your side and plan to do basically the same as you with my hypothetical toddler (with some variance for the kid's needs and temperament). How else will the kid ever learn to like new foods, and how will you not go insane preparing "adult" meals and "kid" meals? As a kid I liked dark chocolate, pickles, indian food, and coffee and I'm very grateful to whoever first fed them to me.

I know you set it aside, but I do think your friend is on very thin ice saying that anything about your parenting (short of abuse) makes her sick to her stomach!
posted by crabintheocean at 7:59 PM on January 19, 2011

I have to give pretty much the exact opposite answer to katybird. My parents did what you do and I hated/avoided fruit and vegetables for years. It was crazy to discover there were actually fruits and vegetables I *did* like when they weren't being forced on me (even the dreaded spinach, when fresh and not in the sopping mass), and I didn't discover that till after college.
posted by Ashley801 at 8:00 PM on January 19, 2011 [4 favorites]

I've found, almost without exception, that parents who share your friend's approach to meal time end up raising children with extremely narrow and unreasonably picky culinary habits. I think there may be a causal relationship.
posted by BurntHombre at 8:01 PM on January 19, 2011 [4 favorites]

There are more ways than your way or her way. I don't think it's a good idea to use food (especially dessert) as a reward, which is what you're doing. Put delicious healthy food on the table and your kid will eventually want some. Bribing with dessert is sending the message that they have to eat the yucky things to get to the good things, which are filled with fat and sugar and non-nutritional calories. I do think it's a reasonable expectation you have, that your child eat what you eat. And your friend is strange.
posted by iconomy at 8:01 PM on January 19, 2011 [17 favorites]

We are similar to you.

We have a 28 month old. She gets what we get for dinner. The one concession that we give her is bread and butter. That is always available, even at the start of dinner (so we are not pulling it out in response to her refusal to eat because that would mean that she's in charge... heh). So if she really doesn't like something, she is welcome to eat that.
posted by gaspode at 8:03 PM on January 19, 2011 [4 favorites]

As long as you're not forcing the kid to eat something they really don't want (which it doesn't sound like you are), then yes, these are reasonable/fair rules to have. My parents were a lot like you when it came to food. I could eat, or I couldn't. Except for that green bell pepper incident. *shudder*

(I like bell peppers now.)
posted by AlisonM at 8:05 PM on January 19, 2011

My kids, at 3 and almost 2, eat some of the craziest things-my friends all say they can't believe my kids eat guacamole, pad thai, california rolls, etc. because their kids live on hot dogs and mac and cheese. Now my kids have bad days too but the rule in our house is that you try it. This seems reasonable to me. If I know I'm cooking something likely to result in conniptions based on a strong or unusual flavor, sometimes I'll modify a percentage of it to make it a milder version of what we are having. That way they'll try it and like it and be more willing to try whatever I cook up the next night without a fuss. I don't force them to eat it all but I don't make them a special meal either. I try to split the difference. So it's up to them.

And while I know I am not yet to "the future," my kids have very mature tastes for their age and I think the reason is that they are strongly encouraged to try things before deciding it's gross. I don't see them doing a total 180 anytime soon so I don't think your approach is likely to scar your kids. In fact, it seems like it would make them more adventurous eaters.
posted by supercapitalist at 8:06 PM on January 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

I wouldn't force a kid to eat more than a bite of something to try it. If they truly hate it, that's legitimate*, and they can eat other things on the table. But substitute another meal for what's on the table? Ridiculous, and likely to result in a lifetime of picky, provincial eating.

I used to believe it was wrong to force them to eat at all if they weren't hungry, but now I know that leaving it optional will just result in whining for food an hour later, and I'm not willing to cater to it. My kid now eats at least a small amount of the meal's protein, whether she thinks she's ready for it or not.

*I say this because I know some adults with truly traumatic memories of being forced to eat onions or cheese or whatever and it disagreed with them to the point of making them puke.
posted by fingersandtoes at 8:07 PM on January 19, 2011

In my house growing up (and we were very, very poor, so that might be a data point) there weren't food rewards.

Food was the reward.

As in, "your reward for eating this is that you don't go to bed hungry."

I was never forced to eat anything. I was expected to eat as many of a given vegetable as I was years old. Alternative meals WERE ABSOLUTELY NOT AN OPTION. I could eat what was available, or I could choose to not eat. I never, ever chose to not eat. That said, I also was NEVER EVER sent to bed without supper, regardless of how bad I had been.

That's not to say food wasn't good, it was great. My dad's cajun as the day is long, and has a wicked ability to make great food from normally "garbage" ingredients. And it's not to say we didn't have sweets or whatever, we certainly did. I'm just saying there wasn't a food-based "reward" as such.

I learned early to not take food I wouldn't eat, either. My mom had a nasty habit of making it reappear. True story that once as a child, my brother requested oatmeal for breakfast at about 7:30am, and was given it. By the time it came, he decided he didn't want it. At lunch time, he was presented the same bowl of cereal, and scoffed. At dinner...same bowl of oatmeal. At about 9pm, he ate the oatmeal. Lol.

I think you're on the right track. My lady and I have both decided that our son is welcome to be as picky as he wants, but he will have the same rules as we it or don't, but don't expect something else. I say bullrubbish to kids who eat fries and chicken nuggets and moms who prepare 3 dinners because everyone thinks they're a king.

Today, I love all kinds of food and there's very little I won't eat. Except canned peas. I hate those bastards. Beef tendon? Sea Urchin? Yes please. Canned peas though...I'll go hungry.
posted by TomMelee at 8:07 PM on January 19, 2011 [15 favorites]

It's a bit early for this, but as your kid gets older, get him involved in menu planning, and make it clear that those things, and only those things, will be served at dinner. Give him one night a week to plan a meal (and eventually make/help make it), within certain restrictions.

I think my parents did a pretty good job, and they did something like the above as soon as I could conceive of planning at all. They wouldn't bend over backwards to get me chicken nuggets, but if I hated the main dish but liked the sides, that's what I ate. I still have foods that I viscerally dislike (mushrooms), but on the whole I'm an adventurous eater, and was for a long time.
posted by supercres at 8:08 PM on January 19, 2011

And having "try one bite" deals means that the kid is going to hate that one bite, because they have a preconceived notion that they will. Either they really believe that it tastes bad, or they just don't want to admit that were wrong, the result is the same. Or maybe that was just me...
posted by supercres at 8:10 PM on January 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

My children eat what we eat or simply go hungry, no fill in snacks magically appear to reward their misbehaviour.

They eat everything, including more chilli than many Australian adults.

They also know that nagging for chocolate or whatever is the quickest way to get it left on the shelf.

Apart from your friend's presumption in telling you what a bad parent you are, she's dead wrong, the way to get future food issues is to give in in the way she suggests.
posted by wilful at 8:12 PM on January 19, 2011 [2 favorites]

I agree with you about having your child eat what you make for meals rather than having kid-friendly food at the ready all the time, but I disagree with both eating a certain number of bites and giving dessert as a reward. It's actually ok for a child to walk away from the dinner table at the end of the meal without having eaten a single bite. Until we teach them to attach food to social/emotional ties, kids only eat when they're hungry.

Your friend is likely raising another "beige-itarian" who refuses to eat anything other than chicken nuggets, french fries, and mac&cheese.
posted by headnsouth at 8:13 PM on January 19, 2011 [3 favorites]

My parents never forced me to consume entire meals of things I didn't like, but they did require me to try new things with at least a few bites. Then, if I still didn't like the offered food, my options were limited to a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or just not eating. My mother would not prepare special meals for those of us that didn't like something. Also if you didn't eat dinner (either what was prepared or the fallback of pb&j), you didn't get dessert if it was on the menu. Then again we didn't have dessert often. My only thing with that, is that using sweet foods as a reward can lead to unhealthy eating habits/attitudes about food. But other than that, I think your approach is pretty reasonable.

And especially with young children, trying new foods repeatedly is good for them. Sometimes you may have to offer them the same food 10-12 times before they'll try it, but eventually they will.

That'd be my advice. Ask your toddler to try (1-2 bites) everything you prepare for dinner, every time. If they balk, don't force it, and do give them an alternative. Decide on one thing you know that they'll eat, but make it something "plain" and not too exciting and not something they really love, if you know what I mean. For our house it was pb&j, for your toddler it might be a turkey sandwich or whatever. Make that the only alternative to eating the prepared meal, and it's the same thing every time. Boredom with that will soon make trying whatever you make more palatable.
posted by katyggls at 8:16 PM on January 19, 2011

You're doing the right thing. I can't say that I remember eating really exotic foods (like African foods) when I was young (there just wasn't anything like that in suburbia and my Mom wasn't that kind of a cook), but we were encouraged to eat fruits and vegetables and to try out lots of different foods (exotic and not). I feel that I have a better, more varied diet as an adult (AND fewer food issues than other people my age!) because my parents liked and introduced me to a wide range of foods when I was young. We ate very little in the way of junk and fast food, and the junky foods were tempered with a good variety of healthy stuff. Seriously, trying something healthy or exotic once or twice won't kill anyone, and, if they still don't like it, they don't have to eat it again. I remember trying guacamole when I was a kid.. I gave it a go, I hated it then, and I still hate it now. No harm, no foul. I'm still appalled by adults carrying on like babies when they see a bowl of brussels sprouts. You don't like something, fine.. don't eat it, but there's no reason to be all immature about it. By having your children try foods, you're not only influencing their food choices in the future, you're also teaching them to become more mature human beings who will hopefully apply this to other aspects of their life as they grow up (think: not to 'judge a book by it's cover' and learning to get to know people before judging them). So, yeah, I think you're doing the right thing, and I think your method could have far reaching benefits beyond your child's relationship with food.
posted by Mael Oui at 8:21 PM on January 19, 2011

You are not harming your child by encouraging them to try new things, or even requiring them to. This is actually a good thing.

On the other hand...

This is rewarded with dessert.

This could set you up for future issues. If dessert is a reward, then you can inadvertently teach a kid to cheat, or you could be "teaching to the test," where they're learning to just skate by with minimal effort to please you and only you, and not actually instilling a good habit they'll keep long-term.

Dessert is special, a "sometimes food" as Cookie Monster now says. But it's not a reward for good behavior.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 8:22 PM on January 19, 2011 [7 favorites]

You are doing fine. Your friend should raise his or her children the way they want to, but you've made a good choice for your kid. Sole exception: I agree, dessert should be calmly presented as part of the meal, when it is just that, and not as a reward that you 'earn' by eating stuff you don't like.

If you think the dessert is dominating attention, just serve small portions, and be sure a lot of times it's fruit or something healthy of that kind. But don't make it the holy grail.
posted by Miko at 8:24 PM on January 19, 2011

The rule in my house is that you have to try the food, once. You can spit it out if you don't like it, but you have to try it. I also never made a big deal about it if my daughter truly didn't like it, and always said "That's okay, maybe your taste buds will change in the future" and left it at that. As a result, the only foods in the world my 11 year old daughter to refuses to eat are raw tomatoes and Kraft dinner. And she has now decided that her taste buds have changed, and will eat tomatoes as long as the seeds and goop are scraped out. There have occasionally been meals she didn't like, but very rarely. We have never had any power issues over food, and she happily tries exotic new foods all the time.

Of course, I also always keep foods she likes around, because that seems like a nice thing to do.
posted by squid in a people suit at 8:25 PM on January 19, 2011 [2 favorites]

I think you should do what you want to do, not what your friends tell you to do. Are your children undernourished?

I was raised in a house where I had to eat whatever was set in front of me. My parents made regular foods and exposed me to various "ethnic" (hah) foods. There were things I didn't like, but I just had to eat. Parsnips, okra, kale, various Afghani foods, lots of vegetables, etc. Once I was out of the house, I really avoided things I had been compelled to eat as a child. I'm not saying I ate only chicken nuggets or mac & cheese, but I definitely avoided a lot of vegetables for years.

Then I started dating someone who encouraged me to eat these things I used to avoid, and it turns out they weren't that scary! They're great, in fact.

So you can make your kid eat interesting stuff and they can still end up a picky eater, at least for a while.
posted by MonsieurBon at 8:31 PM on January 19, 2011

I'm no expert, but I can say that my husband, whose parents made him eat things he hated as a child, is now really weird about food and will only eat a limited range of things. My own childhood experiences couldn't be more different—my mother even indulged my three week phase of eating nothing but green beans—and I will now eat pretty much anything except eyeballs.

I know a number of people who harbour lingering resentments about being forced to eat foods they hated as a child—foods they still cannot eat, yet may well have come to enjoy had they been allowed to come to them in their own time.

Having your kids eat the same food as you, and exposing them to a range of flavours as early as possible, is a terrific idea. But in my opinion it's essential they have the ability to opt out of eating something they don't like. A couple of bites is fine, but being forced to finish platefuls of food you hate can genuinely feel like torture, and is the sort of memory that can stay with someone their whole life. It doesn't sound like you're doing this, but it's worth mentioning.

The dessert-as-reward thing is another matter—I don't think it should be a reward, tied to praise, or eaten with every meal—but what do I know.

[On preview: I think muddgirl is dead on.]
posted by hot soup girl at 8:34 PM on January 19, 2011 [2 favorites]

So when I was a kid my parents were pretty busy being students and writing big ass theses and they did not have the time or inclination to make more than one dinner. So, I ate what was for dinner (from a reasonable solid-food eating age) for dinner. If I didn't like it, that was unfortunate. I could eat as much or as little as I wanted, as long as it was what was being served to everyone. I eat pretty much everything now, and while I do have preferences, I am up for just about anything.

My stepbrother, on the other hand, refuses to eat his dinner a lot of the time and my stepmother will make him his own meal after he has refused the original one. This seems, to me, to bree entitlement. Just don't forbid anything outright, or force your kids eat anything. Let their appetites guide them, but don't let them think that they will receive special treatment if they whine long enough.
posted by hepta at 8:36 PM on January 19, 2011

Your kid will eventually eat what you eat. Set a good example, don't be too food-enabling or food-withholding, and your kid will likely turn out to be just as adventurous as you are.

Beige-itarian kids are spawn of adults who are still beigeitarian at heart.
posted by supercres at 8:41 PM on January 19, 2011 [2 favorites]

I tend to agree with you more than your friend and it does seem that people whose parents didn't cater to their food whims are more flexible eaters in adulthood.

On the other hand, I have a friend whose parents would keep serving her the same food, day after day, (I mean the same physical plate of food, kept in the refrigerator between mealtimes) until she ate it or starved (presumably they wouldn't have actually let her starve). My point being that it can get a little crazy at both ends of the parenting spectrum. For what it's worth, that friend is a somewhat picky eater now.
posted by geegollygosh at 8:49 PM on January 19, 2011

I love eating nearly everything and am always trying to find new stuff to taste. My parents are both kind of picky eaters with different preferences so I guess we ended up with a wider selection for me to try. I went through phases where I didn't like specific things, and the general rules were:
-No snacks before dinner apart from water.
-Try "a couple bites" of the new thing, all casual no-pressure, like, no big deal, just some different food, no need to get worked up about it.
-I had to have SOME kind of vegetable with my meal, which early on led to me eating lots of frozen peas and learning how to wield a carrot peeler, if I rejected whatever green thing was on my plate.
-About two or three months after a rejection, the parents would inevitably offer the food again and suggest that I try it once more.
-There was always a fairly regular rotation of new things to try so food became an interesting experience for me.

It worked out very well, and I have maybe the healthiest relationship with food among all of my friends. My parents marvel at my lack of pickiness considering their own tendencies. There are three things on the planet that I won't eat, and that's because I've tried them over 8 times trying to like them: natto, yellow summer squash, and grrr raisins in baked goods.
posted by Mizu at 8:57 PM on January 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

Oh, and I should say, my parents held themselves to those rules as well. My mom really isn't a vegetable person, but she always made herself have something with dinner - when I was 10 she was choking down her spinach while I was happily eating the excess. These days she really does like a lot more veggies and thank god, because otherwise she'd be diabetic. So, set a good example, I suppose.
posted by Mizu at 9:00 PM on January 19, 2011

Although trying to feed your toddler the same thing you eat may have some merit, many pediatricians advise against this approach, especially if it's a power struggle (and it often is, with toddlers). See Dr. Sears:
posted by mrstrotsky at 9:03 PM on January 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

I have horrible memories of being forced to eat things I find completely repulsive. Ironically, most of this was 'normal' food. I don't like red meat. In the Midwestern household, red meat figures prominently in most meals. I was told I was bad and a picky eater and that there was something wrong with me. The emphasis was definitely on 'you'll eat what I tell you to eat because that's what's for dinner, and you need to eat what normal people eat.' If the emphasis had been on 'yay! let's try new things! what do you want to try?' it might have gone a little better. It took me a long time to figure out that there isn't anything wrong with me. I actually enjoy cooking a variety of foods now (Foods which would NEVER have made it into our house, and which my Mother still turns her nose up at). So don't punish the kid for just not liking something.
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 9:14 PM on January 19, 2011 [3 favorites]

We offered our three children a well balanced meal that was certainly tasty and reasonable (not too spicy). They decided if they were hungry enough to eat it. Sometimes they balked, but accepted that the next meal was only hours away. We did not tie in a reward system, although, we would occasionally offer a dessert if the meal was eaten (or at least tried). No quid pro quo. We also would have the occasional nuggets and fries on a Saturday night if we were going out and a baby sitter was there or if we were traveling and it was simply the most convenient alternative. All of my children have different eating habits. One, is a white food (pasta, breads, rice, pizza) kid who now as a teenager is starting to try other foods. It took his incredible appetite from sports and the no alternative meal to get him to try things.

We tried the take a "no thank you" bite requirement for a while, but that was simply not effective and seemed to generate more tension than it was worth. We also lead by example in that there are some meals made at home that I will not eat (fish) and I do not take an alternative.

None of my kids was ever malnourished or sick from missing a meal. As PB&J was always an option at lunch, they could always eat 3 or 4 of them if they were concerned about dinner.

Also, now that they are old enough (teenagers!), they can now make their own meal and clean it all up as long as it is balanced and they tell me in advance so that I don't over buy the meat or chicken or tofu or whatever. They do have to eat with the rest of the family. We also do a "dealer's choice" night where one of them gets to pick the meal and make it for the entire family as long as it meets certain minimal requirements such as has a veggie. Self sufficiency goes a long way.
posted by AugustWest at 9:16 PM on January 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

Tell her she's 'forcing' you tonparent incorrectly as she does, and that it 'makes you sick to your stomach.' Explain that you prefer to raise your kids in a way that's consistent with the adults that you hope they'll become.
posted by anildash at 9:22 PM on January 19, 2011 [5 favorites]

So it's all pretty much been covered by this point but I just wanted to say that your friend likes hyperbole MORE THAN SHE LIKES TO BREATHE. What an arrogant thing to say that she's "sick to her stomach."
posted by GuyZero at 9:28 PM on January 19, 2011 [3 favorites]

Our family tradition is that the child has to try something before they say they don't like it. After trying it, they don't have to eat it if they don't like it. No rewards are offered for trying something, it's just not negotiable, or reasonable to say you don't like something without trying it first. No picky eaters in our family.

A caveat for you, though. Forcing a child to do more than taste something just sets you up for an unnecessary battle, and rewarding with dessert may set up bad eating habits later in life. I don't have any citations to back that up, though.
posted by annsunny at 9:30 PM on January 19, 2011 [2 favorites]

OMG, PLEASE keep doing what you're doing! Your friend is nuts.
posted by tristeza at 9:36 PM on January 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

We have a four-year-old who was diagnosed twice with "failure to thrive." There's nothing wrong with her, but she's tiny -- she's still under the rear facing weight limit for her carseat -- and she's perfectly willing to starve herself to the point where her hunger is everyone's problem. To that end, we've adopted Ellyn Satter's philosophy, as muddgirl mentioned above. What Satter mentions in her book, and what we've had to stick to, is that you can either eat what I've made for dinner, or you can have cereal with milk. You cannot say that you hate the meal, you cannot make yucky noises, you cannot push the plate away, and I may ask you to try the meal, but if you don't want to eat it, you don't have to.

However, if you (where "you" is the 4yo) want the cereal with milk option? I'm not getting it for you. I've made dinner. Lily has to get down the cereal, get down the bowl, pour the cereal into the bowl, get out the milk, pour the milk, get a spoon, and clean up any resulting mess. She's actually damn good at it now, rarely makes a mess, and probably only chooses the cereal option 3 days out of 7, which is a huge improvement -- she went ten days eating cereal for every meal. Additionally, we don't do bedtime snacks; once dinner's over, no more eating for the night.

It's totally defanged dinner for us, which used to be a screaming nightmare. Lily has abruptly branched out into many other foods, although she maintains that she still doesn't like collard greens. I do cater to her in terms of snack foods, much as I cater to myself; I watched in disbelief, my soul almost suspended from my body, as my hand reached out to grab the box of SpongeBob-branded GoGurt, but it is what it is. She's 4. And when I make strongly-flavored or or very spicy food, I'll frequently either make a portion that's less heavily seasoned or else I'll save some of the protein to serve her with the sauce on the side, because I think that's fair.

FWIW, this is the approach recommended by my nutritionist; when she found out I had a preschool-aged daughter, she actually hijacked our appointment for ten minutes to tell me how important it was not to fight about food nor to short-order cook for her, and to recommend Ellyn Satter's books. "If every parent followed this advice," she said, "I'd be out of a job by the time their kids grew up."
posted by KathrynT at 9:40 PM on January 19, 2011 [20 favorites]

I also think that children have very little control over most of their lives, and some kids find food to be the only area over which they have any control...

Indeed. I think that's why I ended up with an eating disorder in my teens that wasn't properly diagnosed or treated until I was 26. I never grew out of that "eating is the only thing I can control" phase. (Hooray for my husband for being the only person on the planet who can get me to eat even when I don't want to.)
posted by luckynerd at 9:42 PM on January 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

We served family food to both our kids. We weren't tyrants about it. I wouldn't expect a toddler to eat lobster and steak, or spicy foods. I'd provide an alternative. Both grown kids are relatively wide ranging eaters, but the younger won't eat: fish, mushrooms, olives or avocados. I don't know where we went wrong there.
posted by SLC Mom at 9:50 PM on January 19, 2011

given the "makes her sick to her stomach" phrasing, and the fact that the issue is food choice, I can't help but wonder if your friend herself has some unexplored issues regarding food choice in her own childhood...

for what it's worth, I lean towards the "here's what's for dinner" perspective... it's how I was raised and I don't seem to have any particular food issues...
posted by russm at 9:58 PM on January 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

You're right; your friend is wrong.

I know people who reached adulthood limited to cheese pizza or hamburgers with not veggies or sauce.

Don't let your toddler become one of them. They're sick-looking and their sweat smells rancid.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 10:02 PM on January 19, 2011

Be careful about names for things, and try to guide yourself by Calvin & Hobbes as much as possible. You want to make food seem as normal and enjoyable as possible, and not give your kid a chance to think that there are foods that will actually jiggle off the plate and eat them. They will learn about these foods, eventually, and find out about an entire class of food designed to kill them - "vegetables" - so please avoid telling them that they've in fact ever eaten them.

My mother didn't start referring to raw spinach (which I love) as spinach until I was in high school, because I HATED cooked spinach and was afraid I would change my mind. "Brown soup," my favorite thing in the world, was actually just cream of lentil soup. Etc. This might not work for your child, but I was almost an extremely picky eater, saved by not knowing or ever wondering what I was eating (what is this? brown soup. oh, ok then.) They also didn't make a big deal out of meals, and learned not to make me try anything - since I would have already made up my mind to hate it. Eventually I would get curious anyway, but if my parents ever said anything like "just try it, you'll like it" I would get ridiculously stubborn about insisting I hated it even if I actually thought it was pretty good and wouldn't touch it for years.
posted by ke rose ne at 10:23 PM on January 19, 2011

I grew up with a large black Labrador dog. I would get one warning: if you don't want to eat your dinner, Pip will get it. Pip got precisely one meal of mine. Since no new meal magically appeared, I rapidly learned that unpleasant food was better than no food at all.

Fussy eaters shit me. Eat your greens.
posted by tim_in_oz at 10:42 PM on January 19, 2011 [3 favorites]

My dad, who is a pediatrician, says that the two things he would do differently if he were to parent young children again would be a) make us wear bike helmets and b) not fight over food. He now counsels his patients' parents to prepare one meal, no alternatives, and the child can choose to eat it or not. No rewards/punishments. Just "this is our food, and you can have some if you choose to".
posted by judith at 10:53 PM on January 19, 2011 [5 favorites]

My mother hated it when she was forced to eat things she hated, so she went out of her way to avoid that with me. Instead my parents went with the "keep trying it, sometimes tastes change" explanation, and basically required I eat a couple of bites just to make sure. But I wasn't fussy, either, and my mother was a good cook, so there was always something desirable on my plate. (We didn't usually do dessert, either. Still hungry after dinner? Have a piece of fruit.)

I am now 41, and I still do the try-a-bite thing. I have been consistently rewarded - discovering a way I actually like Brussels sprouts at around 38 was the most recent experience. There was a particularly pleasant epiphany around spinach in my primary school years. (There has been no significant forward motion on lima beans, kidneys or liver.)

I think fighting about food entrenches everyone involved, but I am not a parent.
posted by gingerest at 11:11 PM on January 19, 2011

My parents had your approach. I'm one of four kids, and for sanity's sake my mom cooked one meal for dinner. Period. If we didn't like it, we didn't have to eat it (though we were resoundingly mocked if we refused to try even a small bite - there was rarely dessert in our house). And we could add, decrease, or otherwise eat the offered food in whatever combination we liked (e.g. noodles with butter if everyone else was having spaghetti and meatballs). Nobody starved. We all pretty much eat whatever, as adults.

I never understood the kids who grew up in "catered to the kid's whim" families. I mean, if you have a food allergy, sure. That's different. But in general, I've always assumed that families that do it that way are families where the mom is not really respected as a full human being with agency over her own life. I mean, certainly she has better things to do than cook meal after meal in hope that this is the one that will make Sweetie Darling happy?
posted by Sara C. at 11:18 PM on January 19, 2011 [2 favorites]

Be careful about names for things

Anecdote time! When I was very small, my family had a ritual that, on Friday nights, my dad would make homemade pizza for dinner. It was just me, my parents, and my infant brother at that point, so my parents weren't terribly interested in making dumbed-down plain cheese pizza for the one kid who ate solid food, who was really only going to eat a tiny slice of the pizza.

Their favorite vegetable to put on pizza was mushrooms. Two year old me hated mushrooms. So they announced that these little brown semi-circular vegetables were not mushrooms. No sir. They were pizza beans!

I happily ate mushroom pizza for years before some jerkass came along and informed me that my pizza beans were, in fact, the hated mushrooms. I promptly went back to "hating" mushrooms on pizza. Of course.

Though I do love a good mushroom slice, as an adult. Heh.
posted by Sara C. at 11:38 PM on January 19, 2011 [9 favorites]

We had the one meal for everyone thing, and the expectation that we would try things. Dessert was treated as a reward. There are 4 of us and we are all still somewhat picky eaters as adults (although we will try things). So I don't think your approach guarantees a will eat anything person.

I'm still bitter about being forced to eat potato cakes. Battles over food (not necessarily mine) are a strong feature in my childhood memories. I'm not sure it's worth it.
posted by plonkee at 11:48 PM on January 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

Two things to add to what's already been said:

- once in a while it'll turn out that kids reject things because they have mild allergies or sensitivities to them.

- for years I hated certain vegetables. When I was a kid I'd gag or feel sick when I was forced to eat them, and my parents did usually make us eat some of of everything. When I got older (as in late teenage, early 20s) I discovered that those same vegetables, when prepared differently, could in fact be delicious. My parents always liked them steamed or sauteed; for me the gateway was frying with lots of spices or roasting or stir frying with very flavorful sauce. Now I can eat those same veggies with minimal preparation (though I still think that's less tasty) but it took the spoonfuls of metaphorical sugar to help me get there.

So make your kids try specific ingredients, sure, but let them experience many different preparations.
posted by mail at 12:05 AM on January 20, 2011

I'll chime in to say that whether you're doing the right thing depends on your kid, so pay attention to how this works out for the child. I was a picky eater as a kid, because I had a hugely visceral reaction of disgust if I had a food I didn't like in my mouth; in other words, trying something new, especially if I didn't like the smell of it, or how it looked, was a really high-stakes thing. It could make me gag, or vomit. I still struggle with this.

My oldest son is like this, and we do not push with him. We encourage, we say mellow things like, "Oh, well, maybe another time," or "you might find you like it if you try it again sometime," but we do not demand or push or make one food a reward for another one or any of that. My parents did that, and food-wise, it fucked me up good for a long time. My adult life has been a long slow process of expanding my palette, and I don't think there's a long enough life to get me to the point of eating as wide a variety of things as most people. This may just be part of who I am, but I do believe my parents made it worse by pushing and pushing me, and punishing, bribing, cajoling, and demanding when I was a kid. I hope, for my oldest son, that that process of opening up his food options will happen faster and more easily if we don't make it a big heavy deal, or a control issue between us.

On the other hand: our kid #2 can try a new food, and if he doesn't like it, he will chew it, swallow it, and say calmly, "I didn't really like that." Before we had kid #2, I would probably have sided with your friend: having suffered in this way as a child, I would have said, "Oh, God, please don't do this to your child! It's torture! It's abuse! It could screw him up for life!" But kid #2 would probably do fine in a family that had a two-bite rule or something similar, because trying a new food is a low-risk activity for him. (On the other hand, we don't demand with him either, because he is usually willing to try new things. It's just how he is. But if we wanted to, we could do that without it being especially hard on him, or messing him up for a long time.)

So, I would say two things: 1) your friend needs to back off. My closest friend and I parent somewhat differently, and we agreed years ago that we were not going to stick our noses in each other's business unless we really thought it was life or death. That's a pretty good guideline, I think.

2) Keep an eye on your kid, and don't let food become a major battleground, because it's not worth it and, depending on the kid, could cause long-term problems. It won't necessarily, if your kid is like our #2. If you're paying attention, you will probably be able to tell. And, if you have another kid, it could be different for that kid, so pay attention. I have three kids and sometimes it feels like I have to be three moms at once to give them what they need: flexible with one, firm with another. It's a constant learning process.

If you do decide to back off a little, you can still set clear boundaries. When I was 12 or so, my mom finally gave up and said that she was no longer going to force me to eat what she cooked, but that neither would she cook a meal for me. I could get it myself. This seemed very reasonable to me, even at the time, and still does. I ate a lot of cheese and cracker dinners as a pre-teen, and it was OK.

With my kids, I don't force, and I will help them find an alternative, but I won't cook a second meal. I will re-heat leftovers, or slap a sandwich together, but that's as far as I can go without feeling resentful and put-upon. And I expect the kids to be polite about it, not to fuss and whine and complain but just to say nicely that they don't care for what I made. At this point, I have a good idea of what the kids will and won't eat, and I include the alternatives in my meal planning, or make sure there's a side dish they like and can fill up on. As they get older (my oldest is 9), I transfer some of the responsibility for this to them.
posted by not that girl at 12:39 AM on January 20, 2011 [4 favorites]

You're fine.

I mean - what did families do, back when there weren't always chicken nuggets available? What do families do in parts of the world where you can't just run to the McD's or get a loaf of Wonder Bread? Kids will eat what you're eating. Nothing wrong with encouraging them to try a little bit of everything either - I personally would put it forth to them as an opportunity rather than as an obligation, and don't really like rewarding with sweets but honestly do what works for you and your family.

On which note, no amount of my parents' cajoling got me to try Indian food or sushi; no, that one was all peer pressure. Listening to an Indian friend talk about and recommend Indian foods got me from 'holds breath in Indian restaurants' to 'thinks Chicken Tikka Masala is boring and over-westernized' in about two years (these were the years 13 - 15, by the way - my parents had pretty well given up). And hearing my Chinese friends all talking about how eel was the best sushi was a very good way to learn to shut up my own internal 'ick' response.
posted by Lady Li at 12:42 AM on January 20, 2011

My parents always made me eat a certain amount of food whether I was hungry or not, punished me until I complied (eg can't leave the table, no TV), piled on with guilt (omg starving children Bob Geldoff) and rewarded me with more food when I complied - sugary, fatty dessert. You don't have to be Einstein to see you're setting up and reinforcing an unhealthy pattern of behaviour. Food isn't something you MUST DO RIGHT NOW THIS WAY OR ELSE.

Put out a range of healthy foods. Don't want it? OK, off you go, come back later if you're hungry - when all these delicious fruits and vegetables and low GI starches your parents are eating will be here waiting for you. You don't make something else. You don't give them ice cream for dinner. You just put the food out, and you let them take it or leave it, and you don't make them feel bad about it. 'Eat when you're hungry, and only til you're not hungry' is probably the best message you can give a kid if you don't want them to end up obese - like me.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 1:45 AM on January 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

My parents never forced me to eat anything. Anything I steadfastly refused to eat, I didn't have to eat (piccalilli, anyone?). Anything I wanted to try, though, was given a fair chance. I love liver, cabbage (mashed potatoes and cabbage was my first solid meal) and other things that most kids would turn their noses up at, such as heart.

Making someone do anything is the fastest way to get them to hate doing that thing. Even now, there are foods I'd like to try that I just haven't gotten around to trying.
posted by Solomon at 1:46 AM on January 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

We do a combination of what you and your friend do.

We offer Toddler Zizzle the food we make. The vast majority of the time, he eats it. If he really truly doesn't like or want something, then we don't offer him that food. Sometimes he's not in the mood for what we're having, so we make sure to also have something we know he won't refuse on the table -- like yogurt or peas or one of his other favorite foods. This way, we'll know there's something he likes, so food doesn't have to be a battle.

We rarely have dessert. And when we do, Toddler Zizzle gets to have some regardless of what else he's eaten. Much like your friend, I'm not a fan of using food as a bribe.

My parents brought me up the way you're bringing up your child, but I was six or seven before those rules were set out. I eat just about everything and am willing to try just about everything. My brother, brought up in the same house with the same family, has an incredibly narrow selection of food that he'll eat as an adult. Take that for what it's worth.

But also know that you have to do what works for your child.
posted by zizzle at 2:50 AM on January 20, 2011

You're right; your friend is wrong.

This isn't about right and wrong, or about doing P as a child results in Q as an adult. It's about the relationship between you and your child (or your friend and her child) and how it's handled in that context. If your eating rules feel like Gitmo, regardless of what they are, they are expressing that. If they feel like adventure and opportunity to try new things in a safe environment, they express that. So, which are they?
posted by Obscure Reference at 4:24 AM on January 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

It might be helpful to note that correlation isn't causation. I'm an adult picky eater, but not my sister. We were raised by the same parents in the same household. People are different and have different tastes in food. You're not going to "ruin" your kid because you fed them chicken fingers for dinner instead of something that required a fork and a knife.
posted by autoclavicle at 4:26 AM on January 20, 2011 [4 favorites]

I did what you do and my kids (10, 8, 3) will pretty much eat anything. It actually made my life easier when we found out my daughter has Celiac Disease because she was so willing to try new foods. The transition could have been so much worse if she was only eating chicken nuggets and mac'n'cheese.

My sister-in-law does what your friend does and every meal is a disaster with her son. He is so picky that it's a nightmare.
posted by TooFewShoes at 5:09 AM on January 20, 2011

We have our son try "at least one bite" of new or unfamiliar foods. But if it's been established that he doesn't like certain foods (like eggplant) then we don't force it on him just because we feel like having eggplant. I'll make carrot sticks for him (takes 30 seconds) and he'll eat those. Because we don't make a huge fuss over these things, when we do insist that he at least try a bite of something new, he'll usually go for it. We also find that sometimes if we have a food that he is on record as not liking, if we say "Try it, you might like it now" or "You might like it prepared this way" he'll sometimes give it a go. Sometimes not. But like commenters above, based on my own childhood, I refuse to make the dinner table a battleground.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 6:21 AM on January 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

My parents always made me at least try what my mom made, and have a few bites. They did give me the alternative of cereal if I really didn't like something, but I wasn't at all a picky child (loved veggies, etc.), so it was rare when I chose cereal. Some kids would love to eat cereal every night, so that's not the best approach for some families. I was also expected to eat whatever people made at my friends' houses to be polite. I grew up to be non-picky.
I have friends whose parents were more accommodating and they're still picky. I have a friend who just now in is mid-20s is starting to try things he didn't "like" and is realizing they're not so bad, for example, pretty much all vegetables.
posted by elpea at 6:24 AM on January 20, 2011

Oh, and not to play anthropologist, because IANAA, but it hasn't been THAT long since a time where people didn't have enough food laying around to give kids a bunch of options. You ate the food you had, or you didn't eat at all, so I don't think it's inherently cruel to make kids try the foods you have prepared for the family.
posted by elpea at 6:25 AM on January 20, 2011

My 7 yo is autistic which results in texture and temperature issues. If I didn't push the issue of trying new foods, he would only be eating yogurt. As it is, the on vegetable he eats as served is corn. Everything else has to go into the food processor until it has the consistancy of baby food.

Ignore your friend. You're doing ok.
posted by FunkyHelix at 7:04 AM on January 20, 2011

Wow, this is timely. I was just given very similar advice by my brother in law. He told my partner and I that we should just always provide food that our kid will like, and to let them choose what to eat.

This is a man at 24 years of age has a hard time picking out a restaurant, much less choosing an entree, because he typically only eats cereal, rice, pizza, and fast food. The baked chicken breast we made the other night was even a stretch for him.

My reaction was to politely hide my shock that he was giving us eating tips, and then plan on doing the exact opposite of whatever he recommends.
posted by Tooty McTootsalot at 7:11 AM on January 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

I think that a "try everything" attitude is great, and I don't think alternate meals are helpful. But I think there should be a line where a kid - even a small one - is allowed to not like something. They shouldn't expect a buffet of alternates either, but if it's that big a deal let them opt out without punishing or withholding rewards. "No, thank you" is an important social skill.

I'm an adult who regularly eats goat and raw fish and tofu and chard (none of which were ever offered to me as a child), does not eat slimy-ass unseasoned carrots, and doesn't talk to her dad much. It's not only about the carrots, but the carrots have something to do with it.
posted by Lyn Never at 7:14 AM on January 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

I grew up in a household with many siblings. We had a word for picky eaters: hungry. None of my 6 other siblings are picky eaters as adults, nor am I.

well, except for lima beans. I *hate* lima beans.
posted by dgran at 7:30 AM on January 20, 2011

Lots of good advice here. The only thing I'd add is that kids go through phases when certain flavors or textures may be more or less appealing. Some of them are close enough to universal that child development books mention them. My toddler had no problem with wilted greens ... and now won't eat them at all. It's the texture. Suddenly everything with a similar texture is giving him trouble. So we just put a very small amount on his plate and if he ignores them, he ignores them. And if he puts them in his mouth and spits them out, he puts them in his mouth and spits them out. We figure they'll get interesting again later.

He gets what we get; the only concession we make is that when there are things that are "hard" for him, we put less of that on his plate, and don't make a big deal if he picks around it. Right now, though he adores spicy curry, he is very anti-spicy-sausage, including both pepperoni and fancier ones. No idea why, the curry is definitely "hotter," but we just give him a serving of whatever with only a few sausage pieces. He usually eats at least one accidentally and then leaves the rest. That's fine. We try to be AWARE of current food dislikes, but not to CATER to them. And I think it's fair for adults to have certain foods they categorically reject (I can't stand the texture of pudding, it freaks me out) as long as they aren't rude about it and aren't "beige-itarians" (great word), so I don't worry too much if my toddler rejects things. He eats what we eat; he'll either come back to the rejected food later, or maybe he just doesn't like spicy sausages, full stop.

(I have read that the whole "eat two bites of your beans to try it, and you can get dessert," isn't child-developmentally great, but my parents did this with me (as many bites as we were years old, even) and today I only eat dessert maybe twice a month, and only because my husband has a sweet tooth, so it didn't screw me up for life. I think we all do parenting things in ways that are suboptimal, but work, and most of it probably doesn't mess our kids up that badly. And of course you have no way of guessing which ones will mess up your kids badly!)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:39 AM on January 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

(Regarding the spitting out, my toddler is 19 months and still in a high chair ... he's kind of pushing with his tongue and grabbing with his hand to get it out of there and back on his tray, not spitting it across the room or making a production of spitting. That would not be okay. :) )
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:41 AM on January 20, 2011

Also, regarding food refusal -- like a lot of families, our breakfasts are the same couple of things all the time, and our lunches are typically from a limited arsenal, as are afternoon snacks. If your kid is eating breakfast and lunch (and snack, if applicable) and refusing food at dinner, I wouldn't exactly worry he's going to starve even if you don't cater to him with a special dinner of chicken nuggets but expect him to eat GROWN-UP FOOD at dinner.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:46 AM on January 20, 2011

According to your friends logic:
  • children should be allowed to eat candy 24/7.
  • they should never be compelled to do chores, go to school, or go to bed at a set time.
  • children should live their lives in accordance with their own whims
When you remove the rules, unless the child has learned to make good choices, it will be a disaster. Your job as a parent is to help them make good decisions. When children are young, they require help, and sometimes you teach them by making the decision for them, so that they can copy your choices.
posted by blue_beetle at 7:54 AM on January 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

I grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania, and my parents would sometimes make us eat foods that we didn't like, but we never ate exotic/ethnic food. Dessert was often treated as a reward. Now, at 28, I will eat anything. I discovered all sorts of ethnic food when I went to college in southern California and couldn't get enough of it. And nothing is too spicy. My sister, who also went to college in southern California, is the pickiest eater I know. My brother is somewhere in the middle. Go figure.
posted by kookaburra at 8:25 AM on January 20, 2011

I have raised two children well beyond toddler age (one is almost 14 and the other is almost 11), and am the aunt to about a million nieces and nephews and grand-nieces and grand-nephews.

My first born ate everything. He would beg for tomatoes in the grocery store, to eat like apples. We introduced food for the second born in the same way as the first born and she started out eating everything but then at 18 months, decided she was DONE with food. DONE. She would literally eat a pretzel stick and a yogurt for a whole day. We had to put her back on formula and we decided we just would not make food an issue with her. She was the most stubborn toddler I've ever had the privilege to be around, and god help me when she hits puberty. Anyway, she eventually grew out of the not-eating phase and now her favorite foods are Rueben sandwiches, rare steaks, and sushi.

We would let her have stuff she liked (pretzels, pbj sandwiches, yogurt) but we also implemented the "try me" plate. I'd put one teensy tiny bite of whatever I made for dinner on a little plate and she had to eat that one bite before she got her "special" meal. It never caused any battles, for whatever reason, and she did end up liking a lot of what she tried. We also never gave dessert as a reward, because I didn't want to establish a pattern of "good job done = sweets!" We rarely have dessert anyway, as my family-of-origin tends to go overboard with sweets in general.

I think you're on a good path, for sure. I can't tell you how many kids I know who refuse to eat anything other than the eponysterical chicken nuggets because their parents just let them decide what they're going to consume. Kids aren't the best judge of what's good for them in terms of food. It's part of our job to teach them healthy eating.
posted by cooker girl at 8:29 AM on January 20, 2011

Beige-itarian kids are spawn of adults who are still beigeitarian at heart.

That's the heart of it. My parents loved food and cooked interesting food, and we grew up eager to try new things. I didn't try mac 'n cheese until I was in a dorm and it was what people cooked in electric crock pots... I mean, I'm sure we ate plenty of blandish food along the way (spaghetti and spaghetti sauce, or oatmeal for breakfast, eg) but we also loved fresh veggies and spicy food from a young age. Having had family in mexico may have helped...

Which is worth keeping in mind - in other cultures, where those foods aren't "exotic," the kids are introduced to spicy tastes, or raw fish, or snails or whatever, when they start eating solid foods. So it's not like kids as a category can't eat those foods. It's really just what they're used to.
posted by mdn at 8:53 AM on January 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

nthing/bazillionthing that you're doing the right thing, or at least the thing we did (and to some extent still do with our tweeners) and they have turned out rather functional/not overweight, etc. Frankly, we go a bit farther sometimes, in that if one of them decides to turn all precious about something they've eaten before that they're now declaring "doesn't taste good," we'll say (in a nice way) "tough, eat it. This is dinner." If we're all going "ew, this got burnt" or something, that might be different, but we're not letting them eat something else because dinner has a pinch of salt or spice too much or too little.

No one should have to routinely eat foods they don't like, but eating something even if it's not cooked to your perfect specifications is part of being a grownup, and being snooty about food is a little too first-world for my taste when there are, as the cliche goes, people going hungry all over the world.

Don't go overboard with rewarding with dessert or any other food, but I can relate to trying to motivate a small one, and sometimes that's the tool at hand. Having both grown up where the arguments and showdowns often occurred at dinner, Mrs. RKS and I both hate conflict at the dinner table if it can be avoided.
posted by randomkeystrike at 9:03 AM on January 20, 2011

We're doing what you're doing - feeding our kids whatever we plan on eating, few exceptions (like spicy food). And now that's the expectation. If they don't want to eat what's served to them, I guess they can wait until the next meal. The only different for us is that we don't always give dessert. It's frequently served, but can't necessarily be counted on.

I've met parents who let there kids "rule the roost" with what's being served. That just leads to all sorts of extra work for the parents. Then they develop their own distastes for food that stick with them into adulthood.

On the other hand, as a kid I was a picky eater. My parents did not cater to my whimsical dietary choices and I simply suffered in silence (or later sneaked junk food). As I got older I learned to like many of the foods I refused when I was a kid.
posted by indigo4963 at 9:09 AM on January 20, 2011

Another vote to say that your approach (minus "dessert as reward") is much better than your friend's.

One thing that helped a lot when I was a kid was that my sister and I got to help make food quite often. It wasn't made to be a chore, it was something fun: we would fight over who got to stir the cheese powder into the kraft dinner. Obviously the tasks we could do started out super simple (stir the pancake batter while mom holds the bowl) and grew with us (mash the potatoes, crack the eggs, measure ingredients, eventually help cut things or stir something on the stove). I've found that if a kid has a stake in the meal because they helped cook it, then they're way more likely to want to eat it. Measurements and doubling/halving recipes also helped with our math skills, and both of us are now really confident cooks because we started learning early. Cooking at home is usually a lot healthier and more affordable than going out to eat all the time, so I am really thankful that these habits and skills were introduced to me so young. Knowing how to cook has affected my eating habits as an adult far more than any other intervention.
posted by vytae at 9:34 AM on January 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: I am the "friend" mentioned by the OP, but I am actually his wife. Just wanted to clarify a few things about my approach and experience. I grew up with parents who encouraged me to try things, but Never forced me to do so. I was always provided with a HEALTHY alternative. I grew up to enjoy just about everything. I am the stay at home parent, and my daughter eats many fruits, some veggies, lots of yogurt and cottage cheese. She is not a beigetarian!
I dislike the "eat a certain number of bites" and desert reward approach because it creates a lot of stress around food, which is the opposite of what we should encourage. I viewed friends and family who had power struggles over food, or those who were forced to go hungry, and always find those families to be less than harmonious.
Toddlers have small stomachs and tastes that change often. One of the ways they exert their growing independence is with food choice. By asking her to try new things, we do find she likes some, but providing a nutritious alternative is usually fine.
posted by leotrotsky at 9:42 AM on January 20, 2011 [10 favorites]

If you're married people working on figuring this out, a book I found really helpful was Preventing Childhood Eating Problems. It advocates a lot of food freedom for kids, with an emphasis on preventing food conflict and avoiding unhealthy emotional relationships with food.
posted by not that girl at 10:08 AM on January 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

There's a continuum, you know?

At one end, my parents made us clean our plate before we left the table. Farther along: my kids can opt out of eating, but they don't get anything else (unless, you know, they're sick or something). At the other end, guests get offered the same thing as my kids, though there's a few I like an extra lot so I will make sure to offer them milk instead of water or give tham some other choice between two things.

Our pediatrician (or maybe Doctor Spock) said that it might take twenty times before a little baby/toddler actually starts to eat the new food that you offer. We won't wait around that long, but we are willing to put up with a few groans to promote some life lessons about flexibility and acceptance. :7)
posted by wenestvedt at 10:16 AM on January 20, 2011

More anecdata for how it affects the child's future: I always had to eat what was served, and eat at least a certain number of bites. I don't think this was a bad thing at all, but I was and still am a very picky eater. It didn't make me love food/hate food/overeat. As an adult, I do love all sorts of international cuisines, and I love vegetables, but I'm still really picky about not liking certain foods, especially meats. So I don't blame anyone who is picky. For me at least, I think I was picky because I had a really sensitive sense of taste as a child, and now that has lessened somewhat. (Although I am a cilantro supertaster.) Some people are also really sensitive to textures and other sensory input.

As for my own child, she is super picky as well, and I can only imagine that she inherited my sensitive tastebuds. We eat a large variety of healthful foods in front of her, but I don't force them on her. Her daycare has taught her about taking a "no thank you bite." (Day care is so awesome!) My hope is that she will eventually join us in food adventures as she gets older if we keep setting a good example. But all kids are different.
posted by Knowyournuts at 10:19 AM on January 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

More anecdata: I grew up in a household so devoid of any treats that I used to eat spoonfuls of sugar out of the bag when I had a craving for sweetness. My stepbrother grew up in a household supplemented with cookies, soda, sugar cereals - any kind of food was available and what you ate was not a big issue. Surprisingly, neither approach backfired. As adults we both like treats but by no means eat them every day. I guess we lucked out. That, and I think being educated about what should go into your body goes a long way toward making good decisions, at least once you're grown up.
posted by Knowyournuts at 10:42 AM on January 20, 2011

Why has no one recommended the book Hungry Monkey. A Food-Loving Father's Quest to Raise an Adventurous Eater ?

I just finished reading it, it answers just question just perfectly and is quite a good read.
posted by omegar at 11:11 AM on January 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

My parents did the "always have on hand foods that the child is known to like, and to provide these upon prompting" thing when I was a toddler -- I lived for weeks at a time on PB&J and Campbell's chicken-noodle soup. Other times, I'd eat what they ate; it sort of went in phases. It wasn't a big deal either way, no drama.

As I got older, they went with the "you have to eat what we eat" technique, and that led to a lot of stress and fights. I was doing stuff like hiding my vegetables in plastic baggies and throwing them out the window as a teenager. Looking back, I wish they'd been willing to experiment a bit and/or serve veggies I did like... because of course there were some, and eating THESE PARTICULAR CANNED GREEN BEANS should not have been the primary issue.

At any rate, I'm not a picky eater. I love ethnic food, I love spicy food, and I love vegetables -- turns out they're great when fresh, or frozen, or pretty much anything but canned. I still won't eat many canned green beans at Mom's house, though. Sorry, Mom.

tl;dr: I think drama over food is at least as much of a problem as pickiness. The key is to balance the two. If the "at least a few bites" technique is working for you without major drama, fine. If not, I don't think there's necessarily anything wrong with serving a kid favorites at that age, especially if the alternative is drama.
posted by vorfeed at 12:09 PM on January 20, 2011 [4 favorites]

Why has no one recommended the book Hungry Monkey. A Food-Loving Father's Quest to Raise an Adventurous Eater ?

I was about to do this myself but you beat me to it! Disclaimer: it was written by a friend.
posted by dfan at 12:14 PM on January 20, 2011

"That's okay, maybe your taste buds will change in the future" and left it at that. As a result, the only foods in the world my 11 year old daughter to refuses to eat are raw tomatoes and Kraft dinner. And she has now decided that her taste buds have changed, and will eat tomatoes as long as the seeds and goop are scraped out.

I like this, because it gives kids an "out" if they decide they would now like to start (or stop) eating something.
posted by oneirodynia at 2:21 PM on January 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

I eat the blandest foods.

When I was growing up, I was made to eat "strong" flavored foods which I could not stand and still cannot stand. It makes me ill. I still have no idea why parents don't realize that not everyone, especially children, don't enjoy the same foods as they do.
If they take a bite and don't like it, why force them to eat it? I think that's horrible.

As a kid, I ate plenty of veggies and fruits... and really didn't have any issues except for things like spices/strong seasonings and anything that comes from the water (which we never really ate anyway).

I was also forced to sit at the dinner table until I finished my food - which became a habit as a teen and adult. This results in me to continue eating even though my body tells me "no more" and I end up feeling sick. But I have it stuck in my head that I NEED to finish the food and also not to waste it.

Maybe there's a middle ground. Encourage your child to try the food. But if they really don't like it, then why force the child to eat it?
posted by KogeLiz at 2:49 PM on January 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

When I was growing up it was eat what is put in front of you or go hungry. Breakfast was whatever you didn't eat the night before. Cold liver, lima beans, sauerkraut were often offered for my breakfast. If you didn't eat it at breakfast you went hungry. Dessert was used as a bribe; you finished your dinner and you got dessert.

I am an adult with a complicated relationship with food. I have become braver as I've aged and do try a few new things now and then, but don't tend to like it.

I think a lot of what happens (picky or not) depends on the child/person. I have four brothers. The older three will pretty much eat anything and are adventurous with new foods. My younger brother is slightly picky but is willing to try new stuff.

My husband is one of six boys and the only picky one. His family was much the same with one exception. He could have a peanut butter sandwich if he didn't like what was offered as long as what was being offered wasn't on the regular menu (such as wild game, organ meat, etc.).

My mum now wishes she had done the same thing (offered one alternative).

All that being said, I think you're doing the right thing. Except, as others have mentioned, don't use dessert as a bribe/reward.

And the advice muddgirl shared is brilliant (the parent is responsible for what, when, where and the child is responsible for how much and whether).
posted by deborah at 3:49 PM on January 20, 2011

> If the "at least a few bites" technique is working for you without major drama, fine. If not, I don't think there's necessarily anything wrong with serving a kid favorites at that age, especially if the alternative is drama.

Parent of two picky kids here, fully agreeing. I was never forced to eat certain foods as a child, and I'm grateful. I didn't eat a potato until I was in college, but so what? I have a healthy attitude to food, have never had weight problems, and am happy to eat all the standard foods. I don't like Ethiopian food and don't like tripe, but again: so what?

People like to talk about how their kids will eat salad or tentacles or habaneros or what have you. It it's important to you that your child will eat along those lines, you might have to pressure them to eat things they're not drawn to. Me, I pick my battles, and I'm not willing to die on Kimchi Hill.
posted by The corpse in the library at 4:14 PM on January 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm not a parent, so I haven't tried this myself, but it appeals to me a lot. I can't remember where I read it. Capitalize on the lure of the forbidden.

Fix the kids food they like. Fix yourself foods you like, and don't offer it to the kids. If they ask for some, tell them, "Oh, you wouldn't like this. This is grown up food," and don't give them any. Wait until they demand to try it, then give them a tiny taste. If they want more, sadly explain that you didn't make enough for everyone. Repeat until they ask you to make enough for everyone.
posted by Bruce H. at 5:15 PM on January 20, 2011

Picky-eating is a first-world problem, isn't it? Growing up in a poor Chinese family in HK can make dinner hairy quite literally. You don't want it? You don't have to eat it. You may go to bed hungry. There was also the choice of some plain rice and margarine, if there was any margarine in the house, and rice was on the menu that night. There was never any "you can try a bite or two and decide you like it or not" I was always hungry enough to eat everything.

I've grown up to be a foodie, and my son (4) will eat pretty much anything as well, including spanish sardines right out of the can. He actually chose to go hungry instead of eating dinner once, got up an hour after he went to bed, took the leftovers out of the fridge, and ate it.

I'm going to 2nd what TomMelee said: Dinner is its own reward.
posted by Sallysings at 6:44 PM on January 20, 2011

Just for the sake of anecdotal evidence: myself and my siblings were raised with the fairly traditional American "you must try everything/no alternative meals" and we all have a few food issues. On the one hand, I am an adventurous eater--much more so, in fact, that my parents are. I love my mother dearly, but her cooking leaves me cold. That said, I still dislike a lot of vegetables, especially raw, and am indifferent to fresh fruit, despite REPEATED exposure and "trying" at an early age, being given fruit for snacks/lunch dessert every day through 10 years of brown bagging, etc. I tolerate vegetables if they are well cooked and strongly seasoned to taste like something other than vegetables. And I always include vegetables as part of the main meal, and can and will eat plain/raw vegetables out of a sense of duty (I am, after all, a "grown-ass adult"). But it's never pleasurable. My brother is the exact opposite--always hated meat, still hates meat, became a vegetarian and then vegan and is now both gluten-free and vegan.

With my own kids, the "offer but don't force" doctrine was VERY strong when they were littles. The "you have to offer it 10-12 times before they'll voluntarily try it" doctrine. Whenever I see that phrase on the screen, I have to stifle the urge to scream "IT'S LIES! ALL LIES!" I think parents grossly overestimate their ability to control outcomes with their kids. I adopted the offer-but-don't-force doctrine with both my kids, and now as teens they are radically different in their eating habits from one another, and from me as well (one is so adventurous that he wants to eat ethnic all the time and can get pissy if I make Hamburger Helper for dinner or suggest he just go eat a damn turkey sandwich for lunch; the other lives off raw fruit and carrots and PBJ sandwiches--the very things I grew to dislike after eating essentially nothing else for brown-bag lunch for 10 years).

To expand on the "correlation is not causation" concept: I wonder how many parents who have had success with the "must try" approach have succeeded because they were blessed with naturally open/non-picky eaters, while parents who wind up not forcing and dealing with picky eaters "as a result" were actually steered down that path due to early
posted by drlith at 6:58 PM on January 20, 2011 [3 favorites]

I grew up a very picky eater and my parents never forced me to eat anything, there was always something on hand when I refused to eat what was made. I'm now 28, in the last three years I have had Sushi, Thai, Indian, Mongolian, Fish (besides salmon), and a HUGE variety of vegetables for the VERY FIRST TIME. Guess what? They were delicious. I will be going the you have to try everything route with my children as much as possible.

One thing they did do that I now appreciate is basically what muddgirl said. If I wasn't hungry anymore I was never told to "eat two more bites" or anything else like that. I think the greatest result from that is that now, as an adult, when I'm not hungry I don't eat. I don't eat when I'm bored, I don't overstuff myself, I don't eat when I'm stressed. This (more than anything), I think is why I maintain a healthy weight because it sure ain't all the exercise I'm not doing, and I wouldn't say I eat particularly healthy things (it isn't like it is McDonald's every night or anything either though).
posted by magnetsphere at 7:55 PM on January 20, 2011

> my son (4) will eat pretty much anything as well, including spanish sardines right out of the can

My son loved sardines at that age, too, also straight from the can. I wonder if it's the salt? Now, a few years later, he'd happily live off sliced apples and toast with nutritional yeast.
posted by The corpse in the library at 9:08 PM on January 20, 2011

My mother fell somewhere in between, I was in general expected to eat the food I was given, but she usually made an effort to make sure that at least some of the food was something that I liked, and if I left something it wasn't usually a huge deal. I think there were only two occasions when I hated something I was served so much that it was an issue - once with tomato flan, which I still can't eat, and once when I was supposed to finish a bowl of split pea soup before I could watch a movie, which ended in tears because I drank so much water to try to help it down that there was no way I was ever going to finish it. I think when the dislike for the food is that strong, it's not really fair on the kid to make them eat it.

My dad made things a bit harder (my parents are seperated). With him, if I didn't like something, he would keep pushing, telling me that normal people looooove (insert food item here), as though the fact that at 7 I didn't particularly like sweet & sour sauce was somehow a personal failing. This meant that most of my dinners with him were painful dramas, and there are an awful lot of foods that I now associate with that.
He was also so irritated by my dislike of broccoli that he started giving me chocolate bars every time I ate it, which was awesome because as I got older I started to like broccoli more, and I rode that gravy train until one day he mentioned it to my mother and she was like "But she loves broccoli!" But yeah, that may be one more reason not to do the dessert-as-reward thing. Kids are sneaky.

I have turned out reasonably adventurous. I don't have kids myself, but from what I've observed with my siblings' and cousins' kids, the picky-eater vs no thing seems to depend way more on individual personality than it does on the parents' approach to dinnertime. I'd guess you're likely not permanently damaging your kids' eating habits with either approach (well, unless the "provide favourites upon prompting" is into the "pandering as Kiddo eats nothing but french fries for six months" end of the spectrum), so I'd just go with what you're most comfortable with.

That said, I think making a variety of foods available is a good thing, even if the kid doesn't try all of them. My partner's mother doesn't exactly like food, and basically just had 2 or 3 meals that she rotated. Now, it seems like just about every food I give him to try is a new food that he's never had before, and he still shows a strong preference towards a very small range of familiar foods.

(Oh, and somebody said names are important with kids. I totally agree - when I was younger, I absolutely refused to try sour cream because of how offputting the name was!)
posted by lwb at 12:52 AM on January 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Oh, and about cooking helping kids feel more connected to the food thus more likely to eat it - if a vegie garden is a possibility, I think the same is true of growing the food. I know I never had any fear of spinach despite its bad rep among my friends, and I think it's mostly because my first encounter with it was growing it myself, and eating it raw by the handful.
posted by lwb at 12:56 AM on January 21, 2011

leotrotsky: I dislike the "eat a certain number of bites" and desert reward approach because it creates a lot of stress around food, which is the opposite of what we should encourage. I viewed friends and family who had power struggles over food, or those who were forced to go hungry, and always find those families to be less than harmonious.

I have a viscerally negative reaction to people being forced to eat, particularly children. It makes me feel ill, upset and anxious (particularly if it's a meal with my daughter as well). Apart from the stress, I grew up with that and it's only now, with a LOT of work and a LOT of help that I'm finally working out what it actually feels like to be hungry, full and satisfied. I spent SO long having to eat beyond what I was comfortable with, or eating something I disliked, or eating faster than I liked, that it did a LOT of damage to my ability to listen to my bodily needs. From early childhood onwards I consistently and constantly ate well beyond satisfaction. And ALWAYS had dessert. I still eat my vegetables first because I save the 'nice' stuff til last. It was shit. I hated it, my body hated it, but I just couldn't work out hungry. Or full.

Eventually I had a baby, spent several months throwing up and had a series of uncool physical reactions. And when I had her, I couldn't fathom forcing her to eat. Or bargaining with her to eat more than she wanted. Dessert is not a reward, food is not a negotiating tool. From 5.5 months she ate what we ate (within reason). It changed how we ate, but for the better. Currently she's 18 months and we haven't had any issues BUT we refused to make things issues. When relatives started in with 'oh she doesn't eat much' we didn't engage. When they started with 'one more bite' and 'just finish it up' we spoke up or removed her from the situation. When they professed concern she wasn't eating enough or 'right', we pretty much ignored them. She will eat what she eats. If she's really not keen on something (i.e. the very precise picking of food off the tongue and placing it on the table and pushing it away) we usually grab something equivalent. When she stopped eating meat for a few months, we just made sure she had something similarly nutrient dense to munch - avocado or cheese or other random leftovers. If we have dessert, she gets some too.

Relatives express a certain amount of bewilderment that I won't feed her baby yoghurt because of the sugar content but have given her chocolate (and ice cream, and a gummi bear). For me it's kinda self-evident because baby yoghurt is a blanded down, sugared up and adulterated version of real yoghurt whereas chocolate is what it is. We don't eat chocolate often, and when we do she gets a nibble, but if I'm going to eat yoghurt most days I do not want to perpetuate a thing where her 'version' of food is a pale imitation of mine.

Also? I KNOW any attempt to force her to eat a damn thing will result in vomit and righteous anger. I've got WAY better things to do.

tl;dr this
posted by geek anachronism at 3:45 AM on January 21, 2011 [10 favorites]

We use the following dinner guideline (which may have come from a really old ask mefi thread on picky eaters).

Everyone gets the same meal. The kids don't have to eat anything they don't want to unless they make a disparaging remark about an item (then they have to try a bite). No more or other meals will be prepared if nothing is eaten.

The upsides of this thus far are: no dramatic opinions about the food on the plate, they learn early what the definition of disparaging is, the more times things are introduced without pressure the more likely it is that they will try them on their own and like them (they rarely like anything they are cajoled into trying).

We try to make sure that they have a healthy lunch that is geared toward their own personal preferences with only a few new things introduced at that meal. This way we know that, even if they eat nothing for dinner (which has only happened once or twice) they won't starve. We also don't use dessert as a reward, and we try not to make a big deal about it when we have it (rarely, sometimes its just whatever fruit is in season).

Good luck, and remember most kids go through some picky phase even if it isn't as dramatic as only eating white foods.
posted by rosebengal at 10:50 AM on January 21, 2011

Also, this:

leotrotsky: A close friend considers the above expectations to be 'forcing' a child to eat, and that it 'makes her sick to her stomach.'...Setting aside the issue of 'our house, our rules' and the potential presumption of the friend, are these reasonable rules to have, or are we setting up our kid for food issues in the future?

in light of this:

leotrotsky: I am the "friend" mentioned by the OP, but I am actually his wife...I am the stay at home parent, and my daughter eats many fruits, some veggies, lots of yogurt and cottage cheese. She is not a beigetarian!

is disingeneous. The stay at home parent usually has a MUCH better handle on the food a child eats. Simple as that. Portraying it as a friend gives the view that they don't actually know a lot about how your child eats since they aren't there that much. The stay at home parent is not in any way equivalent to 'friend' - their knowledge, connection and understanding of your child is absolutely relevant to ANY question you're asking about the child. It is a really unpleasant and deceptive way to try and get feedback on being 'right'.
posted by geek anachronism at 1:44 PM on January 21, 2011 [40 favorites]

Uh, yeah. That's really not cool at all and would probably change many of the answers, given many of them had their hackles raised at the idea of an non-family member interfering. I think it was probably obvious that people would have a really different reaction to a "friend"'s opinion of how a child should be fed, and the opinion of that child's own stay at home mother. The extra "right points" you get from misrepresenting a situation cannot be applied to your real situation.
posted by Ashley801 at 5:51 PM on January 21, 2011 [5 favorites]

Yep, I'm with geek anachronism and Ashley801 here. This question wasn't really asked in good faith, and I feel it was deceptive to AskMe readers and downright rude to leotrotsky's wife—to present her as a nosey-parker neighbor instead of an active caregiving parent of the child in question.
posted by pineapple at 8:29 PM on January 21, 2011 [9 favorites]

I was an incredibly picky eater growing up, but I am now a much more adventurous eater than my parents. It turns out that the subset of foods my father will eat is much smaller than what I will eat, and most meals were catered toward his tastes and/or cooking abilities. What a shame! Growing up eating boiled hot dogs, baked beans, bologna sandwiches, frozen pizza, instant mashed potatoes, canned vegetables, wonder bread, ground beef, and freezer pot pies was awful. There were so many kitchen table battles, tears, related punishments, etc., it's a miracle I didn't develop an eating disorder. I still refuse to eat those foods, and I think I'll do just fine without.

However, I studied abroad a lot during school/college, and there are many things I love now that my parents would never eat (cheese made from goat milk, pho, mole, kale, curry, and pesto, to name a few). Being able to choose and cook my own food has been by far the best part about becoming a grown up. Your daughter may do much better with food than you could ever imagine.
posted by Maarika at 8:38 AM on January 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

Mod note: friendly note: please do not fudge essential details in your question like this again, it's a seriously bad faith use of the site and not at all okay. email me ig you need more explanation on this. other folks, try to stay on topic thanjs
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 12:45 PM on January 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

I agree that the way the question misrepresents the players in your situation is absolutely going to skew the answers. A qualifier like 'setting aside the issue of "our house, our rules" and the potential presumption of the friend' isn't going to make any real impact on how people respond emotionally; it's natural that people here will want to reassure you and defend your parental rights against the criticisms of an interfering third party.

The objections described in your question aren't the abstract parenting theories of a meddling 'friend' who has scant opportunity to observe the feeding methods in action, they are the convictions of a stay at home parent who has more information about the children in question than anyone else on the planet. Mrs leotrotsky is qualified to comment not only on Mr leotrotsky's theory, but also the way he implements it, which may or may not be more authoritarian or controlling than how he presents it in his question. I say this only because using the word 'forcing', and saying it 'makes her sick to her stomach' are strong reactions which shouldn't be dismissed.
posted by hot soup girl at 3:02 PM on January 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

[Sorry, Jessamyn; I missed your comment.]
posted by hot soup girl at 3:03 PM on January 22, 2011

Response by poster: Jesus, this is exactly what I didn't want to happen. I framed it as a 'friend' specifically to avoid getting the green in the middle of a marital disagreement. In addition, ran this question by mrs.Trotsky before posting to make sure she agreed that the language was neutral.
posted by leotrotsky at 7:09 AM on January 23, 2011 [3 favorites]

posted by pineapple at 7:49 AM on January 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

Yeah, encourage the kid to have an open mind, but your kind of hyper-obsessive behavior does them no good. It was said above, but all you're doing is creating stress and mental discomfort around food.

I'm sorry, I truly don't see how anyone could think this was a good idea. It sounds almost intentionally malicious to me, it really does. I believe you that it isn't, of course, but if I WANTED to ensure my kids turned out either obese or anorexic/bulimic, I'd likely start as you have done.
posted by John Kenneth Fisher at 8:36 AM on January 23, 2011

wenestvedt: " We won't wait around that long, but we are willing to put up with a few groans to promote some life lessons about flexibility and acceptance. :7"

I know a 13-year old who hasn't learned this. To avoid conflict now, the parents limit themselves to a handful of pre-approved (based on that day's whims) meals/restaurants/fast-food joints. That still doesn't prevent meltdowns if a place has to make any variation. This is more of a concern to me than whether or not he will grow up with a limited palate.

I'm not saying you would let it get to that point, and I don't fault the kid in this situation. I just thought this was an excellent point that I'd overlooked.
posted by Room 641-A at 9:37 AM on January 23, 2011

I framed it as a 'friend' specifically to avoid getting the green in the middle of a marital disagreement. In addition, ran this question by mrs.Trotsky before posting to make sure she agreed that the language was neutral.

Just saying, while that may have been the intention, it's not at all neutral when you present one "side" as the opinion of the parents and the other as an opinion of a friend. If neutrality was the goal, it would have been more effective to either present both opinions as those of friends, or not get into any back-story at all.
posted by Ashley801 at 10:05 AM on January 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

When I was a kid, my mother customized every meal to my, my brother's, and my dad's tastes. Lasagna always had one end without ricotta, both green beans and peas were served, and I got pbj instead of chili. I do pretty much the same with my (now 15-year-old) daughter--only go to restaurants she likes, make one piece of chicken with no bbq sauce, let her have plain noodles instead of making her eat marinara, all that.

I can state without reservation that I am at least as adventurous an eater as anyone who has commented here. I dine at the most exotic restaurants, enjoying a vast array of foods and cuisines and spiciness levels. There's pretty much nothing I won't eat, and with gusto. My daughter is getting there--she's certainly pickier than I am, but she adores pho and Thai curry and tandoori chicken. She knows how to grin and bear it when she's served something she doesn't like, and she's proud that her tastes are more eclectic than those of her peers.

Most importantly, there is no stress around dinner time. We have happy, tension-free meals.
posted by MrMoonPie at 10:11 AM on January 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

When I was a kid we had the "finish your plate" rule, and as a result I currently have problems with stopping myself from finishing every little bite even if my stomach feels like it's going to explode. It's caused a lot of unfortunate health problems and it's really hard to shake.

However, I have a wide range of tastes and do enjoy fruits, vegetables etc as well as junk food like McDonalds and potato chips. I'm an adventurous eater with almost everything except meat.
posted by biochemist at 1:03 PM on January 23, 2011

Not an exact answer to your question, but my brilliant wife did something really smart with her our daughter.

She put a drawer of sweets and and snacks within reach of the kid and kept it full with a variety of stuff. Watching the kid grow up, she certainly enjoys sweets and candy, but never felt they were something special or a reward or some such, probably because they were always there.

Side note: she's a picky eater, always has been since she was a baby. Since we knew she was a picky eater, we never tried to force stuff on her, but did try to introduce her to different foods and cuisines, while making sure there was something she'd eat on the table.

Side note II: The picky eater HATED sushi when she was young. Then one fine evening as we were out at a Japanese restaurant, the wife and I enjoying sushi, while the kid ate her usual teriyaki chicken and white rice, she decided to try a piece of sushi. Suddenly she LOVED it and has been eating it ever since.

Make of all of this what you will.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 1:32 PM on January 23, 2011

When I was a kid we had the "finish your plate" rule, and as a result I currently have problems with stopping myself from finishing every little bite even if my stomach feels like it's going to explode.

I have had the exact same experience. I'm severely, though stably, overweight, but probably due to a variety of causes beyond my eating habits alone. I do, however, have an extremely wide taste in food and will try almost anything and seek out new culinary and dining experiences and I love a wide variety of ethnic food. (But in general I still don't like vegetables or very many healthy foods, although I've got mad skillz at forcing myself to eat unpleasant things for the sake of nutrition or in social situations, etc.)

For comparison, I was first-born and my parents were probably harder on me experimenting with their parenting style. The rules were much laxer for my younger brothers: one always ate "hamburger, fries, and a coke" throughout childhood and the teenage years and the other was "chicken with rice", but both are much healthier than me now. Mr. "hamburger, fries, and a coke" has been introduced to a very wide variety of cuisines by his wife and now dining at Indian restaurants is his favorite. (Though his wife is as overweight as I am, go figure.)

More anecdata: a friend of mine claims to be a hypertaster and after much rancorous conflict with his parents won the right to eat whatever he wanted as long as he didn't get sick. Now in his thirties, since his teenage years he has literally eaten almost nothing but french fries. Seriously - he owns a home frialator because that's all he cooks. But he's rail-thin, although I don't know whether he's otherwise healthy. (I believe he takes multivitamins regularly to avoid any nutrition problems.)

Also, as Brandon Blatcher says of his wife: She put a drawer of sweets and and snacks within reach of the kid and kept it full with a variety of stuff. I've seen that one work well too - let the kids have as much sweets as they want and maybe they eat themselves sick a couple of times but come out with a much healthier relationship to sweets than I think I've had than myself or others for who sweets were a special, supposedly-occasional thing.

tl;dr - For my part, I don't resent having been raised the "clean your plate" way - it caused childish frustration sometimes but nothing I would call "trauma" - but it seems to me as though, while it's probably good to force kids to try something new once in a while, health-wise it's best to generally let them eat what they want on a regular basis. If I were a parent that's the tack I'd take.
posted by XMLicious at 3:29 PM on January 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

My parents did what you do, I had to eat what was served. After several years (and two siblings) this become I had to eat at least a portion of what was served and then I was allowed to eat fruit or cereal.

Today, I eat pizza, cheese burgers, baked ziti (without ricotta), various fruits, cereal with whole milk, tacos/quesadillas and occasionally salad (which is pretty much lettuce with italian dressing maybe a few croutons and some italian dressing), grilled cheese, some cold cuts, tomato soup and a few other things, but that's about it.

I guess all those years of having to eat broccoli didn't make me like it any more.

posted by Brian Puccio at 3:33 PM on January 23, 2011

let the kids have as much sweets as they want and maybe they eat themselves sick a couple of times but come out with a much healthier relationship to sweets than I think I've had than myself or others for who sweets were a special, supposedly-occasional thing.

I tried that approach with my niece when she was about four. I bought her that 5 lb bag of candy corn she wanted, saying, "Here, you can have this. But I want you to notice if you feel bad an hour after eating a bunch of it."

She paused to think for a beat, looked at me with her big eyes, and said, "An hour is a really long time."

She's in her mid-twenties now, and has spoken several times about how that bag of candy corn was the high point of her young life.
posted by StickyCarpet at 3:46 PM on January 23, 2011 [7 favorites]

All the meta issues aside, we're totally believers in the Satter's Child of Mine philosophy as referenced above. To be clear, she doesn't advocate a hardline "you eat what we eat" approach but ensures that the choices offered are within the realm of possibility and she suggests always having some sort of palatable starch (bread, bland pasta) as a side so that even if the main is something new and weird, there will be something familiar and easy to eat.

Meals do quite easily become power struggles but I've seen time and time again how when we let go and just let our 2.5 yo do her own thing within the choices we offer her, she'll try new things and gain confidence in eating new things. She may not try a new item the first time we offer it to her but maybe by the third time, after she watches us try and enjoy something, she'll give it a go. It's clear though, that she needs to be in control of the eating and the more I fuss over her choices or stubbornness, the worse it gets. We started using Satter's approach when our daughter was about 14 months, after some particularly harrowing and frustrating meals. Literally overnight things changed for us and meals became pleasant and so much easier. It's still sometimes a struggle but every time things start getting difficult, I realize that I've let some of the basic tenants on the approach slip and then I adjust back and things get better again.

So I don't think the way either you or your wife/"friend" are approaching things is the best way. Read Child of Mine and maybe it will change your life the way it changed ours.
posted by otherwordlyglow at 1:47 PM on January 24, 2011 [2 favorites]

katybird: "My parents did what you do. I eat many foods and enjoy exotic and ethnic foods.

My boyfriend's parents did what your friend says to do. He refuses to eat vegetables other than carrots, green beans, and corn. He says it makes him gag. This is an adult. A grown ass man.

I think you're on the right path

I on the other hand was the pickiest eater imaginable as a child, and my mother who never quite got over being forced to eat food as a child (and who is picky about vegetables to this day) indluged me by frequently making me a seperate meal. At about age 16 some switch in my head flipped and now I eat pretty much anything.

So bear in mind that you could be inflicting misery on your child for no good reason.
posted by Proofs and Refutations at 12:35 AM on January 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

Just found a (Geman) article referencing this fairly recent study - Eating for Pleasure or Profit, The Effect of Incentives on Children’s Enjoyment of Vegetables, which comes to the conclusion that external rewards do not necessarily produce negative effects and may be useful in promoting healthful eating.

So of course I thought of this thread. *heh*
posted by ClarissaWAM at 1:08 PM on January 29, 2011

My brother and sister-in-law went through the whole "eat what you're given" (though it was generally food the kids liked), and were made to try new things. At 11 and 8, they're now easy eaters with no particular pickiness. It was stressful at times, and there were tears, but there were stressful tears lots of other times too and the kids are some of the healthiest, most well-rounded kids I know.

My sister and brother-in-law won't fight with their kids at all over food, they just eat what they want. Now their eight year old has spent five years eating pita bread and nutella, and has the complexion of a freshly primed wall ready for a coat of paint.
posted by fatbird at 5:04 PM on June 26, 2011

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