We are blending two families, and now I have two picky eaters, help?
August 5, 2014 7:01 AM   Subscribe

7 and 6-year-old combining their efforts to hunger strike against everything I make. How do I make it stop!?

I'll just get all of this out of the way right up front:

I'm a bit of a biohacker, and I'm very involved with eating clean and healthy. I don't subscribe to what many doctors tell you when you're at their offices in terms of nutrition. If you have any intellectual curiosity, you'll find there are large amounts of research available pointing to how things like gluten (definitely not a fad) and vitamin deficiencies affect our bodies over time. My goal over the past few years has been to get healthy, and I'm 50 lbs. lighter and in the best shape of my life.

So, that will give you a bit of a preface to what I'm trying to do. My girlfriend and I are moving in together in the next week. Over the past couple of months, we've been subtly introducing them all to how I tend to eat. I've been trying to eat completely gluten-free (not successful all the time), but the true goal is to eat a full meal with vegetables and some kind of protein, mostly chicken.

We have three children altogether, A 7-year-old boy, 6-year-old girl, and a 2-year-old girl. Our 7 and 6 year old both immediately complain, before even seeing the food, that they won't like it, and as you can imagine -- they both immediately play off each other's fears. Unless I make hot dogs or macaroni and cheese, they don't care and won't eat what I make.

My standard response is yelling and forcing them to eat a large portion of it. This works to an extent, but it's a pain to do it. But I don't want to give in to their demands. The 6-year-old is coming from an environment where her grandmother gave her sweets all night long, whatever she wanted. In fact, she basically got whatever she wanted at all times. This move is a rude awakening for her so far. I think that's a good thing, but I don't want to be an overbearing dictator. I don't want to consistently on a nightly basis see them avoid what I make and then starve all night. I do worry a bit about malnutrition.

What can I do? I know that I could probably mold some of the menu toward things that they know. Chicken fingers can be made healthy, other things like that, but our adult palettes want something a bit more than that. Help me, Mefites!
posted by MMALR to Food & Drink (114 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Can't you make meals that contain a little from Column A and a little from Column B? Make some healthy chicken and some mac and cheese and some veggies, and tell the kids that they need to try everything on the plate at least once?

Also, ketchup works wonders. My nieces and nephews eat every vegetable under the sun, provided they can dip it in ketchup and/or Ranch dressing.
posted by xingcat at 7:07 AM on August 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

Stop yelling and forcing them to eat. Do you think you would learn to like any food that you ate under those circumstances?

Picky eaters aren't necessarily just stubborn or being babies. It can be hard to adjust to a new taste or texture. Have you asked for their input on their diets? Compromising somehow? They have to try at least a bite of everything and then they can eat a PB+J if they want?
posted by chaiminda at 7:09 AM on August 5, 2014 [67 favorites]

I have kids who eat well and I think the best thing you can do is prepare your dinner as planned but be sure to incorporate some items into the dinner that you know your kids will enjoy.

I've never made separate meals for my kids but there is no harm in allowing them to eat what they like and in the amounts that they like. For the love of god please do not yell at them over food. Food isn't worth yelling over or battling over. They aren't going to purposefully starve themselves and they are allowed to like bread.

If you like chicken and vegetables be sure to add some foods that they enjoy along with the chicken and vegetables. For example a meal may look like this: Chicken breast, broccoli, mashed potatoes, French bread with butter. Put everything on the table. For a while they may only eat the potatoes and bread but after a while they will start tasting and eating the chicken and vegetables. It's okay to give your kids some options. It's okay not to have junk food in the house but it's not bad parenting if you give your kids bread.
posted by Fairchild at 7:12 AM on August 5, 2014 [20 favorites]

My standard response is yelling and forcing them to eat a large portion of it.

This is the problem right there, but before I get to that:

I would caution you in a blended family situation to make sure you know what the boundaries are with your girlfriend's children --- how much parenting are you actually responsible for, and how much is more like having tiny roommates? You're moving in together, so it's serious, but keep in mind that it could also be confusing and/or upsetting for the kids.

Which brings me back to the yelling. That's not going to work.

What will work is putting things on their plate and telling them they don't have to eat all of it, but they have to eat some of it. What will work is giving them some say in what they get to eat. Kids have tastes and preferences to, just like adults. You cannot pay me one million dollars to eat an olive. So giving me olives will mean uneaten olives. If the kid is consistently saying they don't like something, they may just really not like something, and they should be taught that that is okay, too.

What will work is letting them help cook with you and see the process of food going from it's original incarnation into it's edible incarnation.

What will work is fun eating like making your own mini-pizzas or stuffing your own peppers with the things you like, or putting together a quesillda, etc.

But what won't work is yelling. And healthy eating habits do not come from, "Eat what's on your plate or don't eat." Kids have so little agency over so many things, but the three things they can control: whether to eat, toileting, and sleep. Give them back some control on eating, and I bet they'll start eating better.
posted by zizzle at 7:14 AM on August 5, 2014 [33 favorites]

Not wanting to eat a plate of veggies and chicken is not being a picky eater. It's not liking the very limited diet you have going on for yourself.

I think it's also a big ask to have 3 kids suddenly switch over to your diet to support your health goals. Your question doesn't say anything about whether these kids are healthy or not. If they're getting plenty of activity, they probably have some leeway in terms of the quality of food they're eating.

Why aren't you talking to them about _their_ interest in health goals? If their activity level supports it, I'd let them eat what they want. 2/6/7 is really early to jump on the health food bandwagon, and honestly, a high level of activity wipes out all that biohacking tinkering. Serious athletes eat tubs of ice cream and pounds of meat to get calories, and the health effects are negligible when you're staying that active.
posted by bfranklin at 7:14 AM on August 5, 2014 [29 favorites]

A rude awakening is good for a six-year-old? Maybe you should try to have some compassion for a little girl whose whole life just got completely turned around and take it slow. Think about her story, "I was living with my grandma and then all of a sudden I moved to a new place and all the food was completely different than what I was used to plus this scary person was yelling at me to eat it."

Like xingcat said, gradually ease them into your way of eating. Maybe them having a 100% nutritious meal plan doesn't have to be the highest priority at this point?
posted by dawkins_7 at 7:15 AM on August 5, 2014 [108 favorites]

Frankly, you sound kind of overly invested in your own opinions about food, and overly controlling where your kids' eating is concerned. Coupled with the existing stresses for the kids of moving households/ reassembling into a blended family, this seems like a recipe for unnecessary tension and heartache, plus possible eating disorders (as a means of regaining control) later on down the line.

I've always liked the laid-back rule where parents decide what's served, kids decide what/ how much to eat out of that. No kid is going to actually starve him/herself unless there are additional serious emotional issues in play (in which case, the solution is professional treatment, not menu tweaking). Could you maybe let go of the ultra gluten free thing a bit (enough to occasionally make some breaded chicken), but otherwise just focus on preparing meals with at least 3 dishes, one of them somewhat bland/kid-friendly? Hard to believe they wouldn't eventually open up to, for instance, sliced grilled chicken breast with some sort of dipping sauce. Or carrots/ celery with peanut butter. Or corn on the cob. I wouldn't force them to eat anything, but you don't necessarily need to give in to making junk food, either.
posted by Bardolph at 7:16 AM on August 5, 2014 [35 favorites]

They're kids. They eat what you prepare for them. Tough fucking shit if they don't like it.

They either eat the meal you made them or they can fix themselves a bowl of cheerios. Those are the options. There are no other options.

If you'd like to reward them in some way for trying new-to-them foods, like with a tv show or special story time, that would be nice. But you really need to hold firm to the "dinner is what is in front of you" line. No dramatics, just that it is what it is and if they don't like that, they get cheerios.
posted by phunniemee at 7:17 AM on August 5, 2014 [3 favorites]

I sympathize with your initiative to break patterns of woe that are instilled by modern eating habits, but the diet that you outline seems narrow to say the least, boring probably being the better term for it. Expand especially the protein experience. These days, chicken is certainly not the healthiest (nor the only) alternative. Where have you got fish?? Lamb? Homemade meatballs? And there's little wrong with cheese (on beans... For example.)

And just don't yell and force them to eat great portions of what they don't want to eat. It doesn't work, no matter how hard you try, and it destroys peace at home. Expand your repertoire by looking up some real recipes and learning to make them. Explain to the kids how it's done. Let them participate in the choice process before the meal. Let them do some of the chopping and stirring. This all worked for me, at least.

Many kids don't like grown-up diets, and it is NOT only a matter of hotdogs versus "real" food. Many kids, for instance, like vegetables best when not boiled of cooked or whatnot. I gave my son crunchy cucumber sticks, carrot sticks, bits of tomato, and all went fine. The only ones to raise eyebrows were the grandparents. Some cooked vegetables are actually not very good for kids, so there is some sense to the madness. Observe and learn.
posted by Namlit at 7:18 AM on August 5, 2014 [4 favorites]

Yelling at them is a surefire way to give them serious food issues well into their adulthood. I understand that you're trying to build healthy bodies, but you're currently doing it at the expense of healthy minds.

I agree with everyone suggesting compromise. Can you mac a box of Kraft dinner and add chicken and green peas, for example? Sure, they'll pick out everything they don't like at first, but don't make it an issue. Eventually they'll come around.

Here's an interesting article on getting kids to eat new foods -- apparently they need to taste something 6 - 9 times before they'll actually eat it. It may be worth just adding whatever you consider "good" food to what is considered "bad" food (and making food choices into moral choices is also, by the way, a great way to fuck up a person's eating habits for life) and waiting. I suspect it will work out fine in the end.
posted by AmandaA at 7:19 AM on August 5, 2014 [6 favorites]

@xingcat: Ranch dressing works for some of the veggies, and I'm okay with doing that to an extent. But I want to cut sugar out completely if I can. If I have to make the sacrifice in order to get them to eat, I suppose that's okay for now.

Pasta is something I avoid completely. I hesitate to include it in everything, but it would be something I could use for the kids.

@chaiminda: I don't want anyone to think that yelling and forcing them to eat is what I want to do. My goal is to simply place the food on the table and provide it as a choice. As most people can relate to, things get out of hand and I lose my head. That's what I was getting at.

I like your suggestion, although we've eliminated breads from the house. If I have to go back to bread just for them, I suppose that's an option.

@bfrankin: My son eats mostly what I eat. The girls coming in eat junk food all the time, so understandably -- I may have to ween them off of that slowly.

The 6-year-old's health goal is... she doesn't have one. She's 6. She doesn't care. She wants sugar, sugar, and sugar. And I think you are taking my 'biohacking' comment too far. I'm not saying I 'biohack' the kids. I simply stated that fact to preface where I'm coming from. I want them to be healthy. I'm not loading them up on supplements or injecting things into the food. This is whole, natural food. That's it. And the health effects are not negligible in the long term with both examples you provided. I understand your point, but that's untrue.
posted by MMALR at 7:19 AM on August 5, 2014

"My standard response is yelling and forcing them to eat a large portion of it."

That is abuse. Stop it.
posted by travelwithcats at 7:21 AM on August 5, 2014 [79 favorites]

You should Google food neophobia. Basically, we all suffer from it after 24 months of age or so, and it means that our *default* reaction to new foods/flavors is to not like them. It takes 10-12 exposures to get over that hump and have an honest opinion.

What this means for kids is that parents often try feeding them new foods, the kids turn up their nose, the parents decide they don't like that food, and soon the kids are just eating a handful of things.

Start dinner off with a small plate of 2-3 bites of each of the foods you'd like them to develop an affinity for. Ask them to power through that and then give them what you know they'll eat after. Eventually, they'll be able to develop honest opinions regarding the food and even start liking some of them.

Also, yelling and screaming? Are you kidding me? I echo everyone else's opinion regarding that.
posted by AaRdVarK at 7:22 AM on August 5, 2014 [9 favorites]

I am not a parent.

I realize it's poor form on AskMe to question the funamental premise of the question. One of yours seems to be that the kids must eat the way you eat, immediately and without exception. However, it's a bad idea to turn food choices into a battle ground and to make kids feel like they lack control over this. That's the road to an eating disorder, not to a love of the healthy foods you want them to eat.

You say you're the healthiest you've ever been since you started eating this way. That's great. It proves (since I assume you didn't eat this way your whole life) that you can cut them a little slack as kids, let them grow into healthier habits over time, and they can still grow into healthy adults.

Also, you seem to have gone out of your way to word the question so it's not clear which or if any of the kids are yours/have had you as a parent since birth or infancy. You say "three children together" but the context seems to suggest that you mean "three in all" not necessarily that you are an original parent to all. I don't think this is an unimportant distinction. If you are coming in as a new-to-them parent, you can't just come in laying down the law and expect anything other than "You're not my real ______." and "You're not the boss of me!" Whatever solution you and your partner decide on it needs to be, at least in the beginning, laid down and primarily enforced by the parent who has been a parent all along.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 7:22 AM on August 5, 2014 [20 favorites]

My standard response is yelling and forcing them to eat a large portion of it. This works to an extent, but it's a pain to do it. But I don't want to give in to their demands.

Jesus, they're not terrorists, they're little kids. You are really out of line here and you're setting them up for an eating disorder if you don't chill the fuck out. They will not die from chicken nuggets or a candy bar once in awhile. What are you afraid of, a heart attack at their age?
posted by desjardins at 7:23 AM on August 5, 2014 [76 favorites]

When I was a kid, one of my friend's parents had a highly restrictive zero-fat diet. She kept her entire family on the diet -- no-fat yoghurt sweetened with Aspartame, white pasta "moistened" with fat-free tomato sauce. She just wanted her family to be healthy, but the end result was that eating at her table was depressing. I hated eating there. (In retrospect, I'm pretty sure she was orthorexic.) Moreover, it was unhealthy for her kids, because kids actually need fat in their diets, for fat-soluble vitamins and brain development.

Your diet is different, but it sounds like the level of restriction you're forcing on the kids is similar.

My standard response is yelling and forcing them to eat a large portion of it.

This... seems like a really good way to get the kids to associate eating healthy with being yelled at. I don't think that's what you want to be going for.

Also: Kids have different nutritional needs from adults. I'm sure gluten-free works well for you, but that doesn't mean it's necessarily what will work for kids. (Also, I can't tell if you're just working towards gluten-free, or entirely carb-free -- "the true goal is to eat a full meal with vegetables and some kind of protein, mostly chicken" -- if you are going for entirely carb-free kids, I would really strongly suggest that you rethink that, because there's some evidence that no-carb diets can do not-good things to thyroid function, etc. At the very least discuss it with the kids' pediatrician first!)

I would suggest the one bite rule: They have to give everything a taste, but if they don't like it, they can eat just the mac and cheese/make themselves a sandwich/whatever.

Also, I like the blog Weighty Matters, which frequently covers kids and nutrition.
posted by pie ninja at 7:23 AM on August 5, 2014 [18 favorites]

Also +1 to what AmandaA's comment regarding food issues. Your post reads like a How-To guide for giving children eating disorders.
posted by AaRdVarK at 7:23 AM on August 5, 2014 [14 favorites]

At the moment you've created a very intense powerful system of control around food - how it is prepared, consumed, appreciated and tolerated. You are in control of this environment. Yelling and forcing them to eat food that you've designated as "healthy"? You're setting them up for years and years of trying to exert some semblance of control over their life through food.

If you could look 20 years in the future and see young people who are differently phobic / addicted to foods, how would you respond now? Because that's what you're doing.

Food is already a powerful thing in our culture.

Let's turn this around. How can you make them feel empowered to make better choices, and feel part of the family food environment? Can you take them grocery shopping, watch some DVDs, learn together about all the components?

Underlying your question is a great deal of stress around combining different families and how they feel about other family members, the future, the past, and their own identity. Creating this system of control and fear around food will not end well.
posted by barnone at 7:23 AM on August 5, 2014 [7 favorites]

I don't want anyone to think that yelling and forcing them to eat is what I want to do. My goal is to simply place the food on the table and provide it as a choice. As most people can relate to, things get out of hand and I lose my head. That's what I was getting at.

Of course I can relate to losing it and yelling at a child. I think most people who have spent time with children have done that at least once. But you know that it's not a healthy way to behave and you keep doing it. You are the adult in this situation and you need to model patience instead of anger.
posted by chaiminda at 7:24 AM on August 5, 2014 [17 favorites]

There's what some doctors call "Yuppie baby syndrome". A new-age couple have a baby, and they feed it soy milk, and a low-fat diet, and such and so -- and the baby doesn't thrive. To be blunt, it's starving. Doctors have in such cases taken to ordering the parents to feed their baby half a stick of butter every day.

The problem is that what is a healthy diet for an adult trying to maintain a stable weight, isn't healthy for a kid who is growing. Babies in particular need a lot of fat; it's necessary for their nervous systems to develop properly. (The general guideline is that a baby should be getting half its calories from fat.)

But that's true for kids of other ages, too. Your diet works for you, but that doesn't mean it works for a six year old. It may even not be healthy for him.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 7:24 AM on August 5, 2014 [10 favorites]

@Bardolph: You can make gluten-free breaded chicken easily. This is something I think I'm going to try to do, although I made a fantastic breaded orange chicken a few nights ago that they didn't seem to like. I was sure they would since it was sweet, but no dice.

Chicken seems to be a problem for some reason, even if we have pretty similar flavors in one meal they loved, but not another. Presentation might be a problem.
posted by MMALR at 7:25 AM on August 5, 2014

Kids have a stronger sense of taste than adults. Is the food you are serving spiced at all, or is it just plain chicken and vegetables? I'm not saying that you should serve the food under a ton of cheese or butter, but a little bit of seasoning can go a long way.

Be compassionate. They are young and their old way of eating is all they have known in their short lives. There is a lot going on in their lives right now, and food is comforting, nourishing, and now it is completely changing. They are kids, not triathletes, and they have their own nutritional requirements, so I would maybe lay off the talk on biohacking. That makes eating (and coupled with the yelling) sound like a battle to be won. You won't win.

Some ideas to help the transition to a healthier diet:
- Try experimenting with homemade sauces like ketchup, ranch, and honey mustard. They can choose the condiments that they want to use for that meal.
- Introduce only one new food a week. Maybe do research on it together and try to find new recipes to cook it as a family.
- Perhaps read some cookbooks about sneaking in vegetables into various dishes like pasta sauce or casseroles.
- Smoothies could also be a good intro to fruit and veg consumption.
posted by topophilia at 7:26 AM on August 5, 2014 [3 favorites]

But I don't want to give in to their demands.

They are kids. Little kids. They're not making "demands". Your goal isn't to "win". You're not negotiating with terrorists. You're playing a very long game here, where the goal is for them to arrive at adulthood not fucked up about food. Yelling, forced eating, preventing them from eating things that are normal for their peers...you may get what you want in the short term, but not in the long, and you are not - believe me - doing your relationship with your kids any favors.

What does your partner say? Where is she in this?

Is the six-year-old your partner's biological child but not yours? Did she just come to live with you? If she's just gone through a lot of changes that are traumatic for a little kid, and totally changing her food plus yelling is actually not that great a thing to do.

If I were you, I'd try to work through why you're so anxious about this. Why can't the kids eat a little differently from you? What's going to be so terrible if they don't "eat clean" from childhood on? (Are you hung up on their weight, too? I get that sense.) Does controlling what they eat prove something about you? There's a big difference between "we make an adult meal for us and pizza for the kids every night" and "we make a meal and supplement it with a little whole wheat bread and carrot sticks so that the kids can mix and match their foods, plus Friday nights are ice cream nights for everyone but me".

Remember that your children's peers are eating bread and chocolate and "normal" food - I didn't get "normal" food when I was little (because we were really, really broke and also because I have an odd family) and I was eating Twinkies as an adult for years because that kind of stuff was forbidden fruit when I was a kid.

Also, you seem really, really down on "the six year old" in your comments. She's a kid, for pete's sake. A kid who has undergone a lot of turmoil.
posted by Frowner at 7:26 AM on August 5, 2014 [57 favorites]

Also, +1 to Chocolate Pickle. The diet you are describing is healthy for an adult trying to maintain weight. It is not optimal for a young child who needs to double or triple in size.
posted by AaRdVarK at 7:27 AM on August 5, 2014 [8 favorites]

Your desire is to eat vegetables with chicken. Their desire is to eat hot dogs or macaroni and cheese. You both have an extremely limited ideal menu. It would be wise of you to show some compromise. For example, chicken hot dogs, macaroni and cheese with cauliflower, broccoli or peas mixed in? The comments above about what's healthy for you might not even be healthy for a six-year old? They are right on. Kids need fat for brain development. They also need to take baby steps sometimes -- the nuclear "my way or the way highway" diet change just won't work for them.
posted by kate blank at 7:27 AM on August 5, 2014 [8 favorites]

You should also check out Ellyn Satter. She has a whole bunch of very helpful proactive methods for how to approach feeding children.
How to Feed Children - Ellyn Satter Institute

Divisions of Responsibility

The division of responsibility for toddlers through adolescents:

The parent is responsible for what, when, where
The child is responsible for how much and whether
Fundamental to parents’ jobs is trusting children to decide how much and whether to eat. If parents do their jobs with feeding, children do their jobs with eating.

Parents' feeding jobs:
Choose and prepare the food
Provide regular meals and snacks
Make eating times pleasant
Show children what they have to learn about food and mealtime behavior
Be considerate of children’s food inexperience without catering to likes and dislikes
Not let children have food or beverages (except for water) between meal and snack times
Let children grow up to get bodies that are right for them

Children's eating jobs:
Children will eat
They will eat the amount they need
They will learn to eat the food their parents eat
They will grow predictably
They will learn to behave well at mealtime
posted by barnone at 7:30 AM on August 5, 2014 [27 favorites]

I was the worst eater as a child. Naturally picky, with a dislike of any strong tastes whatsoever. Plus I was brought up in Scotland, so until my late teens I lived off a diet of chips, sandwiches, macaroni cheese, chicken, rice, pizza, cheese and lots o' sugar. The only vegetables I tolerated were carrots and cucumber (my mum supplemented my meals with vitamin pills). I didn't drink water straight until I went to uni. I didn't eat fish until my teens. I still rarely add salt to my food because I'm still not in the habit!

Now, I eat like you. I was full on pure paleo for the best part of a year, and still subsist on mostly lean protein, vegetables and healthy fat. Aside from the occasional alcohol, I only drink water, tea and coffee. I LOVE the way I eat, and no cries of 'gluten free is just a fad' will stop me from eating food that I love and is good for me.

Just saying, a kid who eats a bland diet is not necessarily doomed to a future of bad health, digestive distress or obesity.

Just keep eating what you eat, and feed the kids as many veggies as possible alongside the food they prefer. Let them witness your love of good food, and as they grow older they may want to emulate your diet and healthfulness.
posted by dumdidumdum at 7:30 AM on August 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

Why should they HAVE to eat the diet you've decided to follow? They will have their own taste, there own likes and dislikes. Perhaps there are actual reasons for them disliking foods such as a sensitive gag reflex or being super tasters. Try putting yourself in their shoes for a start. Imagine someone turning your life upside down by moving you in with a group of people you didn't chose, then demanding you eat the same food as them and then shouting and screaming at you when you say you don't like it. Would you be happy? Would you be encouraged to try new foods or would you dig your heels in to try to maintain what tiny little control you have over your own life?

After reading your follow up you sound to me very self obsessed. If you want to biohack then you are free to do so. What you don't have is a right to force it onto someone else who isn't used to it and doesn't want it. Saying this about sugar " If I have to make the sacrifice in order to get them to eat, I suppose that's okay for now" is rediculous. You are not making a sacrifice, you will still be eating how you want. You'll just be showing empathy and respect for a very confused, upset, stressed, and anxious little girl who doesn't like your food.

I've been a fussy eater in the past due to having a sensitive gag reflex and very sensitive taste buds. My father made it was by shouting at me and trying to force me to try new foods. My mother thankfully showed me RESPECT, by understanding that I didn't have the same taste as others. If my dad had left well enough alone I'd have started trying new things much earlier in life. As it was that only happened after we left him.

Also it may be worth you doing research into what foods contain certain nutrients. My mother had a working knowledge of food nutrition so knew ways of making my diet healthy while allowing me what I liked.
posted by Ranting Prophet of DOOM! at 7:33 AM on August 5, 2014 [3 favorites]

Also, I'm going to say that my five year old and two year old have been known to, on occasion, have a dinner consisting of only ice cream.

And you know what? Little tiny kids shouldn't be losing weight. Little tiny kids should be gaining weight fairly steadily for awhile because they, uhh, grow. And are supposed to grow. So the kids are definitely going to need a far more varied diet than you for optimal kid health. And that's going to include fats. Lots of fats. Healthy fats.

But also, little kid metabolisms are different. One ice cream supper/month is not going to hurt them. Seriously ease up. Kids need different foods and combinations of foods to be healthy. I honestly wonder if your family might not benefit from meeting with a dietitian (not a nutritionist!) to learn more about the differences between a healthy kid diet and a healthy adult diet.

Remember that while YOUR goal is to lose and eventually maintain weight, a child's goal is to GAIN WEIGHT and GROW HEIGHT. These are so very different, and I again would suggest you open your kitchen to more options for the goal of growth. Your needs are not the needs of the kids.
posted by zizzle at 7:34 AM on August 5, 2014 [6 favorites]

I think people who have suddenly jumped on the gluten free bandwagon are kidding themselves, pretending that the gluten free pasta and breads are just as delicious as the regular stuff. The truth is, that gluten free stuff is mostly awful. I realize some people might benefit from it (how many people actually do benefit from it is a matter of debate) but unless your kids have an actual gluten sensitivity there's really no reason to force it on them.

We're a pretty healthy family, we eat a lot of fresh vegetables and organic stuff, very little in the way of soda and junk food, but my son still lives off a steady diet of hot dogs and salami. Because, you know, he's a kid and he'll work it off and he'll be fine.

Please don't force your diet on those kids, especially the ones that aren't yours. It's unfair and it's unnecessary. Sure, it's a good goal to eat healthy, and you should gradually adjust things that way, but to suddenly inflict upon them a gluten free, super healthy diet is a sure-fire way of getting them to sneak as much junk food into their mouths as they can.
posted by bondcliff at 7:34 AM on August 5, 2014 [5 favorites]

@AmandaA: I like those suggestions. I think I'll try mixing the two, hopefully they won't pick so much around the chicken and veggies.

@travelwithcats: I'm not forcing it down their throats. I'm stating they need to eat a large portion of it before they leave the table. The yelling is based on frustration. I was being honest about what goes on. I know I'm not supposed to be doing it.

@pie ninja: My diet is completely different. We need fat, especially if you want to absorb fat-soluble vitamins that we need. That's one of those myths that everyone seems to buy into. Fat really isn't bad. In any case, thanks for the suggestions.

@Chocolate Pickle: A low-fat diet is bad. Most research suggests this. I'm not doing that. I'm seeing that most people answering are considering 'diet' as what you might expect -- some sort of fad thing. Not the case.
posted by MMALR at 7:36 AM on August 5, 2014

Let them eat gluten if they want. If that means that they only want spaghetti with tomato sauce, feed them that.

It's not going to kill them, and they can decide whether it not they want to follow your no gluten lead when they're older and more in control of their food choices. You can make sure that they get high quality ingredients, like organic bread instead of Wonderbread, but if it's something that they'll eat willingly that isn't junk food? Holy crap give it to them.
posted by spinifex23 at 7:39 AM on August 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

How about talking to grandma (whichever one of you is biologically related to her) and asking her to cut back on the sweets she gives the kid(s) so they become less acclimated to getting sugary treats whenever they ask? I think you will have an easier time saying "no/fewer candy bars" than "you must eat this gruel" (it is gruel as far as they're concerned).

Also - where is your girlfriend in all this? You say nothing about how she approaches this. Are you on the same page? Conflicting messages is going to add another layer of difficulty.
posted by desjardins at 7:40 AM on August 5, 2014 [4 favorites]

I'm not forcing it down their throats. I'm stating they need to eat a large portion of it before they leave the table.

Distinction without a difference, for kids.
posted by jeather at 7:41 AM on August 5, 2014 [35 favorites]

Yeah, I didn't mean that to derail people onto fat! Fat was the bogeyman of the 1980s, which is why my friend's mom was so obsessed with it.

But your diet is based around restricting gluten/sugars/carbs, which is the current bogeyman. Your diet sounds like it's every bit as restrictive as my friend's mom's diet was back then -- you're just choosing a different macronutrient to restrict. (And no, carbs aren't pure evil, any more than fat is. Carbs have some major benefits for kids, including keeping your thyroid running smoothly. Obviously some carbs are better than others, but that's true of fats, too.)
posted by pie ninja at 7:41 AM on August 5, 2014 [17 favorites]

I am the parent of three children now all 18+. Two of the three are healthy eaters. The other is still stuck in the white phase of pasta, rice, bread, etc. However, when his only choice is healthy, he eats it.

When the three were young uns, we offered them a healthy meal. If they wanted to eat it, great. If not, ok too. There will be another meal in a few hours or in the morning. Sure, we sometimes gave them mac and cheese, chicken fingers or even took them to McDonalds, but that was a rare event and usually when traveling.

I think if you offer them a healthy meal, whether that is gluten free or vegetarian or paleo or whatever, that is the path. No screaming, no yelling, just calmly explain this is what is offered, you are not a restaurant, and if they don't want to eat it, don't. I would also put a time limit of say 20-30 minutes. If they say they are hungry sometime after the meal, offer them a banana or something healthy. Carrot sticks. Yogurt.

I can also tell you that when grandma had the kids, because it was special grandma time, breakfast often was milkshake. Dessert came first at dinner and the putt putt golf course could only be completed with some sort of lollipop.
posted by 724A at 7:42 AM on August 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

it is completely nuts and counterproductive to make them eat a large portion of food they are already resisting as a punishment. food should never, ever be punishment. your are setting up the children under your care for eating disorders, anxiety, bowel disorders, and control issues. please stop.
posted by nadawi at 7:42 AM on August 5, 2014 [42 favorites]

Honestly? Make a little something for everyone. You don't have to eat their pasta, they don't have to eat your #whole30 whatever. Give the kids multivitamins, and call it a day. The worst case scenario is that they'll be picky eaters for the rest of their lives.

The worst case scenario if you allow food to become a power struggle is worse.

Source of authority: Parent of extremely picky 7-year-old, who has consulted endlessly with pediatrician and decided to let go. I'm also someone who eats a high-protein, s/low-carb diet; but that doesn't mean my kids do. It's more important to me that they see their dad and me modeling healthy habits, including the occasional splurge, than it is to make sure they eat like tiny adults.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 7:45 AM on August 5, 2014 [9 favorites]

Kids should be able to make demands successfully sometimes (if they do what is necessary to achieve them) -- otherwise they learn never to expect to get what they want, and they'll stop trying. In everything. Little kids don't have the resources to negotiate like a Harvard MBA, but maybe there's _something_ easy a kid can do to get what he wants, so he can learn that he can affect the world around him :)
posted by amtho at 7:46 AM on August 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

Have you tried talking to the kids about what they like/don't like and why? You might be able to come up with some ideas when you realise that they like chicken nuggets because of the way the crumb tastes and the fact that they're shaped like dinosaurs, and they don't like your Cordon Bleu chicken goujons with truffle sauce because they're unfamiliar and smell funny.

Maybe I'm reading too much into this because of my own upbringing, but I wonder if some of your upset over this is the fact that you're working really hard and putting a lot of effort in to create something good and healthy for the kids, and they're completely and utterly rejecting it in favour of something you wouldn't feed to your dog. It's great that you want the kids to grow up healthy and eat healthy food. That's a completely laudable goal. However, you need to look at the situation from the perspective of the 6 year old - someone is shouting at them (!) to try to make them eat something that they don't want to eat. Little kids can't control much, but they can control what they eat.

Try cooking them the food they like, in the way they like, but maybe in a healthier manner. If they want mac and cheese from a box, ask them what they like about it. Then try to replicate that as much as possible when cooking mac and cheese for them. Don't be adding Stilton and Gruyère. Use cheapo cheese and cheapo white pasta, then maybe move on to half fat cheese and wholemeal pasta. Give them a chance to adapt to the changes. Maybe some kind of reward system where they get a reward for trying something new, then another reward for continuing to eat it. Don't include more than one new ingredient per meal.

Also, get them involved in the cooking. Have them weigh the ingredients or stir the sauce in, or whatever. At the moment, food is just appearing in front of them on the table - they have no idea what's gone into it so it's no wonder they're scared and apprehensive. Something is being put in front of them and they're being hollered at if they don't like it. I wouldn't eat food if someone treated me like that, and I'm smart enough to be able to figure out that it's both tasty and healthy.

You really need to stop the shouting if you want this to work. You need to start behaving like an adult and showing them, by example, how enjoyable food can be. Do you want these kids to be scared of you? Do you want them to associate the delicious things you put on the table with terror and loathing? That's what's going to happen if you keep treating them like this. Show them that the stuff you're cooking can be enjoyable and tasty. Throwing a tantrum because they won't eat it will have the opposite effect to what you want.

It sounds like you're halfway there. Give the kids a chance to see that food can be fun. I always ate something that I had a hand in making, when I was a kid. I didn't always eat a lot of it, but by being involved in the stirring and whatnot, I took ownership of the dish in a very similar way to the fashion you seem to have done.
posted by Solomon at 7:46 AM on August 5, 2014 [7 favorites]

Ellyn Satter is a dietician and family therapist who specializes in disordered eating dynamics and "Table Wars" like the one you're describing. She talks about how families need a "Division of Responsibility" - the parents are responsible for deciding what and when to serve to their children, but children need to have the responsibility of deciding whether they eat and and how much. She has a book on raising "competent eaters" that I think might help you a lot. You'll probably disagree with her thoughts on nutrition but you can take what she says about how children eat and use that.

I don't agree that gluten is toxic or anything like that, but I also don't think there's any harm in having a gluten-free household (if all adults agree) and only serving your children gluten-free meals. But there's also nothing wrong with your older children deciding they don't want to eat something. Think about if you can provide them a variety of options (not necessarily separate meals, but several dishes) that you consider to be healthy so that they can refuse one item but eat other things. Remember that you are smarter than them, older than them, and have more self control by virtue of being an adult. Meal times don't need to be a war.
posted by muddgirl at 7:47 AM on August 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

@topophilia: The spice thing is possibly an issue. I've read that they have more taste buds at an earlier age, and this is a legitimate thing. Thanks for the advice.

@kate blank: Chicken and veggies is one meal. I'm not limiting the menu to just chicken and veggies.

@barnone: Fantastic. I will read up on this, lot of good stuff there. Thank you.

@dumdidumdum: I needed that. Thanks for the background. Helps give some perspective.

@zizzle: This isn't a 'diet'. It doesn't make them lose weight. I'm not exactly sure where people are getting this idea. I still serve them carbs, and they get beef and potatoes at other times as well. They won't eat that either. I'm simply asking what I can do to get them to eat those things. Gluten-free doesn't mean 'diet'.

@bondcliff: Research suggests otherwise, and I truly believe most of society will move toward no gluten in the next decade. That's my opinion. In any case, I'm not restricting them to gluten-free. I'd love to do it, but as others have suggested -- It's more likely that I need to give them options that aren't necessarily what I eat.
posted by MMALR at 7:48 AM on August 5, 2014

I'm not forcing it down their throats. I'm stating they need to eat a large portion of it before they leave the table. The yelling is based on frustration.

Based on what you've written, you ARE forcing it down their throats. Stop mincing words. The phrasing of your question is incredibly hostile toward these kids; 7 and 6-year-old combining their efforts to hunger strike against everything I make.

Kids don't combine efforts for hunger strikes.

Kids are hungry. Kids generally want to please the adults in their lives.

You are feeding them things they don't want to eat. Then you tell them they NEED to eat a LARGE portion.

Stop doing that. Stop doing all of what you're doing because it's not working.

What can you do? I would suggest that you cook with them, let them make choices about dinner, and take them grocery shopping.

But I think right now you're probably associated with SO MANY BAD FEELINGS about food that it would be better if your partner took over food preparation for now and you need to stay out of it. Take a break from your cooking and imposing your clean eating on to these kids. Just back way off for now.

You are in a food battle with these poor kids, you need to be the adult and step back from the situation. Maybe in a few weeks or months, when the dining situation involves no yelling and no forcing, you can cook something you want and put it on the table and if the kids don't want it, they can have some macaroni and cheese.

But until they're happily eating, I would completely step out of this because the chances of fucking up their relationship to food is pretty big.
posted by kinetic at 7:50 AM on August 5, 2014 [36 favorites]

You realise that the two picky eaters here are 1) the kids and 2) you.

Right? It's not only the kids who are picky.

People like what they like. Could you imagine someone making you eat differently? So your tastes are steeped in Science. So what? Imagine being forced to eat mac and cheese for a week. You'd be miserable.

So you could work on the respect portion of your relationship with them. At least in this day and age, kids are not considered spirits to be broken but people to negotiate with and work together. Involve them in a solution. Teach them about nutrition. "I understand you don't like spinach, but I do need you to eat veggies. How about carrots instead?" Or try smoothies. Who wouldn't love banana, soy milk & peanut butter in a blender?

What you can do is make it fun. My mother instilled a life-long love of broccoli by pretending it was a secret between me & her, and that my sister couldn't have any. She'd call me before dinner and secretly give me some sticks of broccoli. "Don't tell your sister."

Or you can do a gross-out contest. Who can last the longest?

Things like that.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 7:50 AM on August 5, 2014 [40 favorites]

It sounds like you have one picky eater and it's you. Serve them the odd thing that you wouldn't be willing to choke down. I promise it won't harm them and you won't have two kids that have weird-ass hangups about food because someone screamed at them when they wouldn't eat their gluten-free whatever.
posted by Sternmeyer at 7:50 AM on August 5, 2014 [7 favorites]

You need to run this by their pediatrician at the very least. Low carb paleo/Atkins-type diets can do kidney damage to children whose systems are not fully mature. Low-carb may also present problems for children (who are not overweight) in terms of normal growth and normal brain development.

That's great that you've found a diet that works for you, but the fact is that children have different nutritional needs than adults do, and because they are so much smaller and their systems are more delicate and still developing, a fad diet that an adult does fine on and takes years to damage themselves with can cause damage in developing children much more quickly.

You may not "subscribe" to what doctors tell you about nutrition, but children can end up seriously malnourished on adult fad diets, especially those that attempt to remove entire food categories (such as "carbs"), and children have been removed from parental care because of restrictive diets that were endangering the children's health. There is no way you should be continuing with this without careful consultation with a pediatrician. And if the pediatrician tells you, "No, children need carbs and should not be eating low-carb diets," then you need to respect that because the children's needs for healthy development outweighs your desire to convert people to your nutritional regime.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:51 AM on August 5, 2014 [21 favorites]

My standard response is yelling and forcing...

FYI, this is very, very bad parenting. You should really only be yelling at kids if they're in immediate danger (about to walk into traffic, or running by the pool, or something). Forcing them to do things that aren't truly necessary is cruel and breeds resentment. It doesn't matter one iota that you aren't physically cramming the food down their throats. Stop doing this right away before you permanently damage your relationship with them.

I was a little picky as a kid. Here's how my parents handled it:

- I always had to try/taste everything on my plate, even if I swore up and down that I hated it. Incidentally, this is how I realized that I actually love lima beans, asparagus, and brussels sprouts.

- If my parents said "we're having X veggie today" and I hated the idea, they would ask what green veggie I'd like instead. If I could name a healthy alternative, we often had it instead, because getting the vegetables in the kid's diet is the most important thing. If I couldn't name a good alternative, we stuck with X veggie.

- My parents were receptive to my complaints about texture. I really despise boiled/steamed veggies, so they stuck to roasting (which they agree is more tasty anyway). Likewise, I didn't enjoy casserole dishes back then, so they would always make a healthy alternative dish that I would actually like.

- They did set down some guidelines, but were never nasty or forceful about it. Big ones were: (1) no sugary cereal (I didn't try cocoa puffs until I was 17, but most of my peers were raised on them - my childhood breakfasts featured oatmeal and grape nuts), (2) at least one colorful veggie at dinner, (3) no more than one starchy vegetable in one sitting (I always tried to get mashed potatoes and sweet potatoes at restaurants), and (4) dessert at special occasions only.

- They never forced me to perfectly adhere to their diets. For example, my dad went through a huge low-carb period, but I was still welcome to enjoy my healthy carbs (brown rice, whole grain pastas and breads, etc.).

I have pretty good eating habits now (though they might appall you), so I think my parents' method worked. I eat lots of whole fruits and vegetables, some lean proteins, healthy fats. Very little packaged food. I do "splurge" from time to time, mostly because if I don't I lose the motivation to eat healthy.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 7:52 AM on August 5, 2014 [9 favorites]

The rules are: This is what is for dinner. I am not making you anything else. To be excused from the table, you have to taste everything on your plate and finish one thing completely. If you really, really, really hate everything on your plate, then finishing your drink (milk, where I grew up) can occasionally be negotiated to count.

As age appropriate, add in: If you want something else for dinner, you can make it yourselves and you still have to finish a serving of veggies.
posted by juliplease at 7:53 AM on August 5, 2014

Yeah, I'm gluten free because of intolerance, but my partner isn't gluten free and before we started eating together, his diet consisted of mostly carbs. A lot of what I eat (fresh vegetables, quinoa, beans, anything spiced, etc.) is stuff he didn't like...until I made it for him.

But I also make bread for him (with gluten) and have other gluten-filled foods around so that if he needs to eat something and doesn't like what I have, he has options. He's in his 30's, and this has been an adjustment. I only went gluten free in my late 20's and I still struggle with keeping to it sometimes, even with the awful health ramifications I get along with any gluten I eat.

With a 6 and 7 year old? Yeah. No.

There's great advice here about how to encourage them to join the process of food preparation and then make their own decisions about what goes in their mouth. But PLEASE lower the stress around meal time.

I would also respectfully submit that you check your heart and attitude towards these kids. If they are living with you, you take on the responsibility of not just feeding them and keeping them alive, but loving and nurturing them too. They need you to care about them as more than calorie consumers, and it would help all of you for you to start actively building relationships with them individually, and to relax some of the rules around them and let them get comfortable. Life is changing BIG TIME for them. Let them feel what they need to feel, and don't make it about you.

Good luck. This is tough, but I think it can definitely improve if you are moving towards loving these kids instead of dictating food choices.
posted by guster4lovers at 7:54 AM on August 5, 2014 [5 favorites]

My standard response is yelling and forcing them to eat a large portion of it. This works to an extent, but it's a pain to do it.

If you wish to give these children eating disorders, you are on the right track. I can assure you that they are the ones experiencing the pain here, not you. This is abuse. (FWIW, we consider it abusive to raise one's voice to a child unless it is required to immediately protect their physical safety)

I am the father of two school-age children. We are blessed in that they eat what we eat - we never introduced the concept of "kids food" so they will happily ask for second helpings of Brussels sprouts and once fight to the point of tears over green beans. We generally eat healthfully. But, we certainly enjoy ice cream and barbecue and other so-called "bad" food in moderation. (I even own a hamburger restaurant!)

Anecdote: my son has two friends with a mother very much like you. Whenever they come over to play or attend a birthday party, they have to bring their own "healthy" food. Guess what they do when Mom is gone? They gorge on forbidden treats like potato chips and pizza. My heart hurts for those boys. My heart is hurting for the three children in your question.

I have no idea what "biohacker" means, but based on your question, it sounds like a synonym for "orthorexic". Food is not medicine and it is also not poison. It is a source of energy and nutrients. Sugar is not a deadly poison. Bread is not a deadly poison. Googling in your spare time does not replace actual medical advice.

I think it is also worth pointing out that you are already putting these kids through the turmoil of overhauling their living arrangements. Abusive yelling and obsessions over the most fundamental need of food is unnecessarily making things worse.

You don't get to raise your own child in an abusive manner, and you certainly don't get to do it with someone else's children. Your girlfriend's children already will not respect you as an authority figure, and this sort of behavior by you will actively make them resent you. I would love to know your girlfriend's take on all of these shenanigans.
posted by Tanizaki at 7:55 AM on August 5, 2014 [29 favorites]

Just wanted to add that reading this thread has put a knot in my stomach and makes me want to cry, from just a few memories of my parents forcing me to eat food I'd tried and knew I simply didn't like. Or yelling at me about it, and making me feel very small and powerless.

That probably only happened a few times, but those feelings are still vivid. I'm 38.

I love broccoli now, but I didn't try it until I was 20, because it was so wrapped up in power struggles and screaming.

Please rethink the way you're handling this.
posted by jessicapierce at 7:55 AM on August 5, 2014 [37 favorites]

It's not fair to subject your kids to your very restrictive diet. It is fair to present reasonably healthy foods and let them choose to eat or not.

Cook a healthy dinner. If they don't want it, don't scream, don't "make" them eat it (talk about traumatic!) but you don't have to cook them another dinner either. No kid will starve from missing one meal. There can also be a standard set of snacks that are boring as hell they can choose if they don't want dinner. I'm talking about, like carrots, not a bowl of cereal or something that is more sugary.

This is not the most popular view, but it's what I did and it's worked well for me and my kid.

Some of this is temperament - some kids have a more sensitive sense of taste and will be pickier - but I think in general just remember they won't starve, don't get into power struggles, but don't cater to the hot dogs for every meal either if you don't want to.
posted by latkes at 7:55 AM on August 5, 2014

you'll find there are large amounts of research available pointing to how things like gluten (definitely not a fad) and vitamin deficiencies affect our bodies over time.

Except that every single person's body is completely different. If going gluten-free makes you feel better, that's great. Life is difficult enough, everyone should choose the foods that make them feel better.

My sister is a vegetarian and hypoglycemic and battles anxiety, and she is extremely careful about what she puts into her body. Growing up, she kept telling me what a bad person I was for eating murdered cows, but fortunately she later learned that other people have different needs and is completely supportive of her young son's different dietary preferences (including the fact that he's a growing boy, and she's a woman). When he was younger, he would sometimes ask her why she was eating different foods for dinner, and she would reply, "because mom's body needs it."

I couldn't eat the food she makes for more than a day; there was a good comment on Askme once that quoted a doctor who said, "some people make good vegetarians, and some don't." Eating healthy is fine, but there are many, many ways of doing that without making them eat what's good for you and you alone.
posted by sockerpup at 7:56 AM on August 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

"Diet" refers to what you eat. And what you eat is not necessarily what kids should eat. All the time.

Honestly, I, as a grown woman, probably wouldn't really want to eat at your house, either.

And again, I really question your role in some of this since you are clearly not the parent to at least one of these kids (possibly all of them). I think it important that that the PARENT to these children agrees with this diet for the kids. And I mean, 100% full agrees and not just capitulating to someone who has, what sounds to me, like a very difficult standard of eating. The parent should then manage the table and the eating. Not you.

But most importantly- DO NOT EVER YELL AT CHILDREN WHO ARE NOT YOURS. It is not appropriate relationship-wise. And you need to stop it in all but emergency contexts. You are not the parent, even if you are blending families, you are not the parent.
posted by zizzle at 7:56 AM on August 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

@desjardins: Grandma doesn't care. Just last night, she snuck them candy right before bed. We've talked with her, and she just says 'We got candy all the time when I was a kid'. Just doesn't work. My girlfriend agrees that we need to eat healthier. She approaches this the same way.

@jeather: I get your point. I'm not really giving them an out per se, or options. I'll have to work on that.

@pie ninja: I guess I should have been more upfront with this. I'm not restricting any of their carb intake at all. I know that is something I don't need to do to these little kids. After all, they need energy! I'm mostly trying to get them off the constant cycle of hot dogs, mac and cheese, and cheese pizza. I'm okay with it once or twice a week, but begging for it all the time is something I'd like to replace with other foods.

@724A: Solid advice, thanks for it.

@Eyebrows McGee: This isn't a low-carb diet. It isn't even a diet.
posted by MMALR at 7:58 AM on August 5, 2014

[Hey there, MMALR, this isn't the place for back-and-forth conversation. You've clarified the situation, now please just let people answer as they will. ]
posted by restless_nomad (staff) at 8:00 AM on August 5, 2014 [16 favorites]

I think it's a little harsh to expect them to follow a strict food regimen, unless they have health problems. If I eliminated bread from my kid's diets I would be eliminating one of their joys of life. You also have to remember that fifty percent of the carbohydrates a child eats goes to fueling his/her brain. Maybe pair carbs with fiber and protein? A grilled cheese sandwich with apples, grapes, and sweet potato fries? You don't have to eat the carb-y parts, but the kids can have that as an option.

I also fix the foods that my kids like in bulk, so I can grab them out of the fridge when necessary. They like hardboiled organic eggs. I'll boil a dozen eggs Sunday night and have them ready in the fridge. Don't want the protein offered for dinner? Try one bite, and then you can have an egg. This just feels sad for the kids, knowing that they're going to have a battle every night. There will be plenty of time for battles when they are older.
posted by Ostara at 8:01 AM on August 5, 2014 [5 favorites]

Nthing Ellyn Satter, first of all.

But also, consider this: what if your chosen diet isn't as good for them as it is for you? What if they don't feel as good eating it as they do eating other foods? I have a similar eating plan as you; lots of protein, lots of vegetables. I had my kids on it too, because I'm not cooking four different meals for dinner. And every mealtime was a screaming battle, exactly like what you describe. My daughter simply wouldn't eat! At all! I wasn't trying to get her to choke down liver and kale, just some freaking broccoli or some apple slices!

Then a year ago she was diagnosed with fructose malabsorption disorder. Turns out all those "healthy" fruits and vegetables were making her incredibly sick and causing her miserable pain. We had to put her on a diet almost completely devoid of plant-based foods for close to six months; she could tolerate bleached white flour bread, white flour pasta, peanut butter, peeled potatoes, and white rice, and that was it for plant foods. She lived off of chicken nuggets, hot dogs, eggs, peanut butter sandwiches, macaroni and cheese, oatmeal, and sliced deli meat, almost to exclusion. And she thrived for the first time in her life.

Now, that's probably not what's going on here; FM is pretty rare. I tell the story to illustrate that you can be so caught up in what's good for you that you completely overlook what's good for your kids. Let them have bread. Let them have some of what they want, probably more than not right now to break the back of the psychological trap you've put yourself into. And consider that they might simply have different nutritional needs than yours.
posted by KathrynT at 8:02 AM on August 5, 2014 [12 favorites]

My standard response is yelling and forcing them to eat a large portion of it. This works to an extent, but it's a pain to do it.

My stepfather did this to me over health foods when I was young. Bran muffins seemed to be his his thing, was insistent that I eat them, "for my own good". They were arguments. I threw up a lot, the smell of of those things became so hated.

It wasn't until my late 20s that I could even smell bran without wanting to throw up. Still hate the stuff, but can mentally tolerate being around it.

Him? I fucking hate him with passion that as I write this scares me.

Mind you, I know logically that bran is very healthy and beneficial to the body. I don't give a shit (ha). Why? Because some asshole adult felt the need to force me to do something I wasn't ready to do.

You've gotten good advice on accommodating the kids, while still getting them use to the idea of eating a bit healthier, which is a great goal. But frankly, the idea of forcing them to eat stuff makes me want to call Child Protective Services on your antics. Because you're creating issues that will effect this developing personality for the rest of their lives and people who do this should be purged from this planet.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:03 AM on August 5, 2014 [32 favorites]

You seem to be fixated on the word diet and telling people this is not a diet. "Diet" refers to what one habitually eats. What you are describing as desirable is a diet. The kids' preferred habit of constant mac and cheese, pizza, and hot dogs is also a diet.

However, that's not what I was re-posting to say. I was posting again to say that in laying it all out there in your original post, you sounded I think "worse" (sorry for the imprecise and thus unkind word choice) than your later comments and best-answering suggest you are. Your comments suggest that you know it's not ok to yell at the kids and that you're open to have them eat some things that you don't want them to eat. I think some answerers, including myself, were a little hard on you.

That said, it is still wrong that you yelled at them, wrong to try to force them to eat (as in you can't leave the table until) and unkind/unempathetic to turn their world upside down and not let them have some familiarity/very slow transitioning/control over something as fundamental as what they eat. I think you agree with at least some of that, so I wanted to suggest something that no one has brought up yet:

You've done damage to your relationship with these kids. You need to not only fix your approach to their diet and eating (yes, it's a way of eating which is called a diet), but to fix the damage to your your relationship. Please, once you've decided on what new approach you will take, sit them down and apologize. Use the formula for a sincere apology: I'm sorry I did X. It was wrong because Y. From now on I"m going to [do new plan]. Please forgive me.

It's a powerful thing for an adult to apologize sincerely to a child and it will go a long way to restoring peace in your family, which I do think is ultimately one of your goals.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 8:07 AM on August 5, 2014 [24 favorites]

I had a babysitter once who forced me to eat rice pudding as a kid (I hate rice pudding)...this was 30 something years ago and I still remember it vividly, and even the thought of rice pudding makes me gag now. It's so slimy and rice-y, and I despised her for making me eat it. This is not territory you need to be in right now, you need to be focusing on the happy joining of your families. Mealtime strife does not accomplish that goal, right?

We do the "five bites" at our house...If they don't care for something that is on their plate, they only have to try five bites of it before we let it go. They are usually pretty proud to show us they CAN and DID eat five bites of something, especially something they consider totally wretched. We also comment about how they might like it when they grow up, because adults like a lot more things than kids do (occasionally they will re-try something later to see if they've "grown up" enough to like it, then we congratulate them on expanding their palate. They are both eager to be more grown up, of course.)
posted by Grlnxtdr at 8:15 AM on August 5, 2014 [11 favorites]

My SO is in her 40's. Her stepparent used the "force her" approach to make her eat seafood at 8 years old. To this day she has anger about it and won't under any condition eat seafood. Now, that clearly doesn't happen all the time, and I wouldn't allow them to eat just junk, but I'd urge compromise. Mac and cheese as a side dish, maybe. Bring them along gradually. It's just not worth it.
posted by tyllwin at 8:16 AM on August 5, 2014 [4 favorites]

You should take a look at the Nom Nom Paleo website and cookbook. Michelle Tam writes frequently about encouraging her children to eat healthy food. She advocates patience and deliciousness.
posted by The corpse in the library at 8:20 AM on August 5, 2014 [3 favorites]

I don't think you can get even some of the goals you're after, without removing anger from this equation.

Even if not every meal involves yelling, your dining table has become the scene of potential yelling for your kids. I have to imagine that they approach every meal feeling somewhat tense, if not actively upset.

Imagine yourself in a tense social situation where your stomach is in knots. Now imagine that's when you're expected to eat something you don't like. Someone in charge of your choices is screaming. HERE, NOW YOU HAVE TO EAT THIS AWFUL SHIT. No. You wouldn't even want to try it, because why give the screamer the satisfaction? This is how your kids feel.

When I'm upset, all I can manage at a meal is tiny bites of foods I know and find comforting. It's not a time to get adventurous. Whether the food is good for me is not even a factor. This is true for me as an adult, and you already know your kids are not thinking long-picture about their nutrition - they want what they like. This is especially true in moments when they're upset or nervous.

Removing the tension around meals is seriously the only way you have a chance of introducing new foods to kids. Why not look at this as a "hackable" challenge of how to make them want to try new foods*, rather than how to MAKE them east it.

*get rid of your anger, relax the rules, get the kids involved in grocery shopping and food prep, find out their preferences through low-key encouragement to taste new things, don't totally ban the foods they love that you find unacceptable, and allow them to hate what they hate.
posted by jessicapierce at 8:26 AM on August 5, 2014 [7 favorites]

Why don't you have fun seeing if you can make healthier versions of what they like in a way that they'll enjoy?

Scone based pizza made with wholemeal flour for fibre, an egg added to the mix for protien, a homemade pizza sauce using passata, carrots, and onions cooked down then pureed for vitamin c, etc, and low fat cheddar. Top it with things they choose, make it fun and allow them to experiment. This is a healthy meal especially if served with baked beans.

Mac and cheese, use wholemeal pasta. Also they're kids, they NEED lots of calcium. Mac and cheese if made by you can contain semi skimmed milk and plenty of cheddar. Brilliant for really good strong bones. Isn't this the sort of thing you want for them?

You could make a bulk batch of pasta sauce with passata, onions, garlic, carrots, butternut squash, and red pepper then puree it. Add seasoning and a touch of butter to deepen the flavour. Then serve it with wholemeal pasta and some sausages they like, then grate some cheese on top. This will have plenty of fibre, protien, vitamin D, vitamin C, calcium etc.

Baked beans on toast with cheese is also a decent meal.

If you don't want to be cooking different meals all the time then get a big freezer, bulk cook meals they enjoy that freeze well. Then just pull a different meal out each night you don't want to cook a seperate meal and defrost it.

You may not think that their choices are healthy. However you'd be suprised at where good nutrition can come from. In my mother's book called food facts it had photos showing sources of the most important nutrients. The only vitamin that you needed veg to get was vitamin C, yet even that is available in potatoes. I was getting plenty of vitamin C from the potatoes and carrots I was eating and my Mum supplemented it with a vitamin C tablet just to make sure. Everything else I needed came from the other foods I was willing to eat.
So perhaps look to see what nutrients are in their prefered meals before dismissing them as unhealthy. As even when I was picky, I was never suffered colds, I didn't catch vomiting bugs that did the rounds and when I broke my arm I had the cast off in just four weeks as my bones were so healthy due to eating lots of cheese.

Also my Mum believed that I craved what my body needed. I would have fads of beans on toast or scone based pizza. My Mum allowed me this and I was very healthy. My Dad on the other hand, I HATED him for the times he'd stand screaming at me to try something new. I wanted to eat healthily but couldn't as it was impossible for me. And ignore people who say that kids won't starve themselves. As when I was made to eat something that made me retch I immediately lost all appetite. If all I'd ever been given was food I couldn't eat I would have starved because I'd have stopped feeling hungry.
posted by Ranting Prophet of DOOM! at 8:28 AM on August 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

Just a personal anecdote for what it's worth. My parents were hyper-healthy when it came to the foods in our house when I was a kid. I know it was out of love and caring, but it seriously backfired. I compensated by binging at my friends' homes and at school on the forbidden foods I was not allowed at home. I was a thin kid who developed a food hoarding/compulsive eating problem and ballooned to a very obese adult (much improved of late with therapy for my food issues). Please let your kids have "fun" foods in moderation. You don't want to create a lifelong problem.
posted by cecic at 8:37 AM on August 5, 2014 [24 favorites]

Even if not every meal involves yelling, your dining table has become the scene of potential yelling for your kids. I have to imagine that they approach every meal feeling somewhat tense, if not actively upset.

I was thinking this. Your problem now is less the actual food, but the damage that has already been done. I agree with the suggestion above that you sincerely apologize to them and promise that going forward, you will not yell or force them to eat. You can lay some ground rules (must try 3 bites, no candy bars before bed) in that same conversation, so they know what to expect from now on.
posted by desjardins at 8:39 AM on August 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

I agree pretty much with everything here. I wanted to add that if you're truly approaching this from an altruistic point of view (wanting what's best for the kids) and willing to put in some effort, then it might be worth looking at this as playing the long game.

What does that mean? Eventually, ideally, you would like them to be able to enjoy many different kinds of food, mostly vegetables. Currently they don't for a few reasons: individual tastes, the fact that kids are most sensitive to various chemical properties of foods, their power struggle with you, and possibly the question of who are you that they need to struggle with you anyway.

So like everyone says above, there should be no or very little pressure on them to eat specific things. However, you could keep track to yourself of what they seem to like and dislike with respect to new foods. For example, they might hate steamed broccoli and boiled broccoli but enjoy it roasted. Or stir-fried with a lot of tasty sauce. They might be able to eat a vegetable mixed into a larger whole (like spaghetti sauce) but not on its own. They might turn out to consistently like foods with garlic or sweet sauce or potatoes. They might hate chicken breasts but like it in stirfries or meatballs or roasted with crispy, salty skin. Keep track of these things and introduce new variations very very slowly. Try going out to different ethnic restaurants and seeing if there's anything they like (asian restaurants are possibly the best for this because it's easy to eat family style and introduce lots of different tastes).

Eventually, very gradually, a liking for broccoli dripped in sugary sauce can translate to a liking of, or willingness to try, the plain steamed stuff.

Keep in mind that for a (long) while they might dislike things - even unconsciously - just because of the power struggle that's been set up. Take it easy with them. If your rule is that everyone has to at least taste everything, and they get around that by eating the tiniest possible amount, let them.

Finally, find out if they like sushi. For whatever reason almost every kid I know thinks its amazing. You'd think they'd be all "raw fish?!" but somehow it's super popular. If you want to be really strategic, find out from parents if any of your kids' friends like it (or any other interesting foods) and invite them for a meal.
posted by egg drop at 8:39 AM on August 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

This book: Child of Mine. Read it and make it your Bible. It is a great way to get kids to eat well and eat healthy without making mealtimes a source of tension.

What I like best about that book is that it divides eating into individual responsibility. You (the parent) are responsible for offering your children healthy choices and healthy foods. The child is responsible for what to eat, and how much. Last night I made dinner and both my kids ate two bites of a meal that they usually like (spaghetti and meatballs). Literally, two bites, and just 10 minutes before dinner they had both been bitching about how hungry they were. And yes, they both went to bed on the hungry side. But they will live, seriously.

You can't force a child to eat, poop or sleep and trying to wield control over any of those is only going to result in power struggles. I can't imagine how tense meal times must be at your house - it sounds so unpleasant. Meal times should be about coming together as a family to eat, talk and laugh.
posted by sutel at 8:42 AM on August 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

"I'm a bit of a biohacker, and I'm very involved with eating clean and healthy. I don't subscribe to what many doctors tell you when you're at their offices in terms of nutrition. If you have any intellectual curiosity, you'll find there are large amounts of research available pointing to how things like gluten (definitely not a fad) and vitamin deficiencies affect our bodies over time. My goal over the past few years has been to get healthy, and I'm 50 lbs. lighter and in the best shape of my life."
I am not a dietician, I am not your dietician, but I can point you towards what their consensus is and you are pretty dramatically removed from it here. Being committed to a diet has significant health benefits in adults that correlate with the commitment, but not so much the contents of the diet so long as it is not specifically unhealthy. This is not true for children.

You have your own idiosyncratic models for what keeps you healthy, and that is not just fine its great! However, they will only do damage to the children in your care and you are well advised to chill out a bit around them.
posted by Blasdelb at 8:44 AM on August 5, 2014 [12 favorites]

I think you may like the 100 Days of Real Food blog. There are lots of healthier recipes, although not gluten free, and the author has a really sane approach to encouraging her kids to eat whole foods.

Also, and this is a totally out of left field suggestion, there was recently an episode of Wife Swap where one of the parents had similar food ideas and was having a lot of trouble with their child being picky. I'm not vouching for the quality of Wife Swap, but it might be helpful to see what your family looks like from someone else's perspective.
posted by JuliaKM at 8:45 AM on August 5, 2014

I don't doubt that you feel better when you eat according to your current plan. I've done some similar reading and concluded about how I want to eat, and regretted the years I spent thinking that low-fat and low-calorie were the best way to eat. But, crucially, during those years, I wasn't arbitrarily picking low-fat/low-cal--I was basing how I ate on what I understood to be healthy. This has been, probably for both you and me, a lifelong process of figuring out how to combine what we know with how we live, what we like, and how we feel.

These days, I feel best when I eat relatively low carb, mostly no bread, and don't avoid fat. And yet, when my spouse eats similarly he feels desperately hungry and spacey. Gluten and dairy don't impact how I feel, but I know people for whom cutting one or both has made a huge improvement. I know some people who can eat whatever they please and feel great. I know people who eat Paleo and forego peanut products, something I'd never want to do. Humans are complicated, and everyone is different. I'm not saying the research you're relying on is fraudulent or wrong, or that your feelings of better health are all in your head, but I would caution against treating ongoing research as a static thing, or assuming that you can use it to make rules for how everyone should eat. I'd recommend that you let the research you read inform, not dictate, the choices you make for yourself and your family. Likewise, let the kids' preferences and appetites be another source of--valid, important--information.

I will also say: I strongly, strongly recommend that you allow for some eating experiences that are just for pleasure. Maybe you only do this outside the home (an occasional weekend visit to a really good bakery or ice cream shop), or maybe you only do this on special occasions (birthday cake, homemade pie when a particular fruit is in season). But in any case, don't demonize eating for pleasure.
posted by Meg_Murry at 8:46 AM on August 5, 2014 [6 favorites]

Just to offer the flip side of the coin... My mom worked a lot when we were kids, so my dad was responsible for getting my brother & I fed and ready for school. He's a man who can't do much beyond microwave a hot dog, so breakfast every day was either a bowl of sugary cereal or, more often, ice cream cones. Chocolate ice cream cones for breakfast for years -- my mom bought it in the big gallon tubs, and I think we went through one or two of those a week. We both came home from school and gorged on soda, Cheetos, cookies, whatever kinds of snacks were in the house, and my parents never said a word about any of this. By the time we were both in our early-to-mid-twenties or so, we'd outgrown most of the crap eating and both now really like (and eat) tons of vegetables, and I know my brother eats a lot of lean meat (I'm mostly vegetarian). We're both at healthy weights and my brother's teeth are just phenomenal from all the calcium he ate as a kid. We're also both much taller than our parent of the same gender. So to agree with everyone else -- they're kids. They'll only want to live on hot dogs and Cheetos forever if you make those forbidden foods now.
posted by jabes at 8:46 AM on August 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

Also nthing Ellen Satter, especially the Child of Mine book. As you can see from the responses above, food issues are very real, and as a parent, my goal is to promote a healthy attitude toward eating. I want them to enjoy eating, to listen to their bodies, and understand that some choices are healthier than others. Anything else is just gravy.

For what it's worth, my picky eater will consistently eat roasted veggies (especially broccoli or kale chips; she wants them crispy) and frozen peas (yes, still frozen. It's like candy.) Protein wise, roasted chicken is preferred over other forms, and we also do well with tofu (even plain and uncooked). We have the most luck with pork chops and steak, though.

A popular meal for us would be roasted broccoli, grilled pork chops, and rice. We often tell our kid that her body needs a whole rainbow of foods to be healthy (she's 3, so this probably won't work for your kids). We ask her what colors she wants to eat today, and keep a chart of which colors haven't been eaten yet.

We also encourage trying in steps. First, we say that you can taste it with your tongue but you don't have to put it in your mouth. Then in your mouth but you don't have to chew. Then chew but don't swallow. As with most things that are annoying but not dangerous, we try to be calm and matter-of-fact, so as to minimize chances of it turning into a power struggle.

Good luck. I know it's frustrating, especially if food is a big part of your culture. Just remember that they won't be like this forever.
posted by snickerdoodle at 8:51 AM on August 5, 2014 [4 favorites]

You need to figure out how you want to handle grandma's not respecting your parenting. You cannot yell at your kids because they love what grandma feeds them. This is a problem that you and your girlfriend have to solve with her directly rather than put your kids in the middle of it. It sounds like they spend a lot of time with her, so this isn't like a special grandma treat; it's their routine. If she can't make a change to accommodate reasonable junk food limits when they spend that much time with her, then you need to figure out how to get your parenting needs met.

I'm sure your eating habits must be confusing to her, so maybe cook dinners for her and have discussions about how you and your girlfriend need to have these wishes respected. I think you'll have a better time of that once the kids don't see healthy mealtime as a stressful yelling hell; their grandma is misguided, but she just wants to make them happy. If the healthy food makes them happy, then grandma will be easier to win over.

I hate to pile on about the yelling, but you need to understand that it is violence, even if you only do it out of frustration, and that using violence or the threat of violence to get compliance here will only ruin your children's relationship with food and with you.
posted by hollyholly at 8:57 AM on August 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

You've gotten a ton of good advice above, so I will not add too much to the chorus, but will comment that a peanut butter and banana (or no sugar added jam) sandwich on whole wheat bread is really something that kids should be able to eat, as is something like cheerios for breakfast. Going gluten and sweet free for kids is a bit extreme.

My husband (who is in his 50's) was a sweet lover as a kid. His mother, in a (in retrospect) misguided method to control this, pretty much cut them out entirely. He then went to boarding school, where sweets were also hard to get. The result of all this was that when he had access to sweets, he binged on them till they were gone, and hoarded as well if he could get quantities. This has created a lifelong habit of binging on sweets and a really unhealthy relationship with sweets. Even as an adult, he will binge on sweets as a comfort food thing, and has issues with weight.

My parents in contrast emphasized healthy eating and good nutrition, but my mother also baked brownies and allowed us sweets in a limited amount. (She also made her own healthier mac and cheese from scratch.) They controlled our access to sweets, but not to the level that we ever felt deprived or craved it or hoarded it. (This worked to such an extent that at Easter I actually voluntarily asked for just one Easter egg and a book each year, rather than for a bunch of candy.) As a result of this method, I have a much healthier attitude toward sweets than my husband does.

Please don't cut sweets out entirely from the kids lives, and turn them into a guilty forbidden pleasure. You may unwittingly create this kind of craving/binging thing with the kids that my husband has if you are not careful. Also, you are setting yourself up as the bad guy and allowing the grandmother to be the indulgent one and she will keep undercutting you if you continue to be so rigid about what they eat.
posted by gudrun at 9:02 AM on August 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

Chicken and veggies is all well and good, but some of us enjoy some pasta and rice and variety in our meals.

Our rule at our house was you didn't have to eat it, but you did have to try it. If you were hungry there was peanut butter in the pantry.

I'm partial to the brown rice pastas. They taste good and kids like them.

Change it up a bit. How about ground chicken or grassfed beef meat balls, a fresh made marinara sauce over brown rice pasta? I don't know too many kids who don't like spaghetti and meatballs.

How about making chicken nuggets out of fresh chicken and gluten-free bread crumbs? Oven roasted sweet potato fries on the side?

Mac and Cheese can be made with brown rice elbow macaroni (I know, it's my lunch today!)

How would you like it if the tables were reversed and they wanted you to eat only what they liked? You'd kick and scream too. Meet them half way. Have options they like that don't offend you. Introduce only one new element per meal. It's overwhelming to never get what you like, and only have a few things you might like to eat.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:05 AM on August 5, 2014 [3 favorites]

Just as a point of information, I am a grownup who was picky as a child. I was forced to sit at the table for hours, forced to taste things to the point where I would vomit. Eventually I developed food phobias and I'm now a 55-year-old adult who will not eat (or even touch in some instances) vegetables or fruit and exist on starches and meats, and very few of those.

It makes me want to cry to think of your children sitting at the table being yelled at until they eat a "large" portion of the food they find distasteful. Surely you can see how this isnt an effective way to teach them to like healthy food?

Please stop 1) yelling at the children, 2) forcing them to eat a food or a quantity they find distasteful, and 3) making meal time a battleground. You will not accomplish your goal of having healthy eaters this way.
posted by SweetTeaAndABiscuit at 9:05 AM on August 5, 2014 [9 favorites]

I recommend you pick up the book French Kids Eat Everything. It's more of a memoir than a manual, but her "food rules" are really helpful for cultivating a calm, fun atmosphere at the dinner table that is conducive to reducing food neophobia in kids and these kinds of epic food battles in general.
posted by melissasaurus at 9:05 AM on August 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

Also, talk to your SO and make a plan for feeding the family; one that involves no forcing and no yelling.

Then sit down with the kids and APOLOGIZE. Apologize for being a meanie about food and about meals. Do not backpedal with, "I just wanted you to be healthy," or any variation that indicates your previous efforts were based on care for their health. No buts.

posted by kinetic at 9:06 AM on August 5, 2014 [20 favorites]

I am a step parent to a child. I also am on a gluten-free, ketogenic diet. My husband and stepson are not. I could do what you're doing, hollering and yelling and getting angry when/if he didn't eat what I serve, but you know what would happen? My step son would grow up to hate me and hate healthy food. Not good.

What we do in my family is
- try to make meals that everyone likes and will eat. Small modifications can be done to accomodate specific tastes. For example, if we have tacos I will eat mine with lettuce wraps, the boys eat them with tortillas.
- make the foods he likes, but make them healthier. My son LOVES cheese pizza too and would happily eat it every day. I have mastered cauliflower crust pizza and serve that to him (and my husband) and he has no idea. He just wolfs it down, calling it "Yummy yum yums".
- find new recipes that look and taste like something my kid would eat, but make it with non-carby things. For example, I use whipped cauliflower instead of potato. I have made a taco casserole (whipped cauliflower with cream cheese and cheddar cheese, taco beef (with my home made seasoning that doesn't have all the fillers), etc. It just looks like cheesy taco beefy potatoes. My son went bezerk for it, even made his friend that came over to visit the next day look at the left overs of the "yummy casserole". I kid you not. And he has no idea it isn't terrible for him. In fact, he thinks the casserole IS terrible for him.
- about once a week my husband and son have "boys night" which usually involves a classic James Bond movie, farting, and some "normal" carby food like take out pizza. By not denying them it altogether and still giving them a chance to have those carby foods they love occasionally they both don't grump during the week when they eat not carby things.
- I give lots of positive praise when he tries a new food without fussing. If he gives it a proper taste and tries it (without fussing) and genuinely doesn't like it, then we can talk. Almost always he likes it once he tries it. He is pretty invested in being different/special from his friends, so I am sure to repeat "You know, most kids your age would have never even tried that! It is so awesome you try things, and think of all the foods that you love that most kids would never eat!". He loves this fact and brags about it. I have heard him say to a friend "Do you like bearnaise sauce? You should try it. I'm a great trier and I tried it and it is yummy!".
- when I am trying to introduce a new food I don't make it the primary food of the meal. I make sure there are other things on his plate that I know he likes (or at least will eat) so if he truly doesn't like the food then he can still eat the rest.

Extremely important point: I sure as hell never yell at my step son for so SO many reasons, especially about food of all things. Jesus. First of all, I'd be setting myself up for a lifetime of my step son resenting me and hating me. It is important to me that he and I have a good relationship, and yelling is NOT how that is done. I'm sorry, but frustrated or not, you are doing the step parent thing wrong if you are yelling at them and forcing them to eat something in an angry hostile way. Secondly, I am fully aware that my food choices and way of eating (keto) is not what most people (kids and adults alike) are used to. I believe it is a healthier way to eat but I am not shoving my dogma down his throat. I do what I can to find ways to improve his diet, cutting out a lot of carbs and sugar where ever I can, but he's a fucking kid. A slice of pizza or an occasional popsicle isn't going to kill him. And I would never get him in to healthier eating if it was a horrible yelling filled anger event. What you are doing is in dead opposition to what your goal apparently is (unless your goal is to make damned sure your step child never eats healthy foods without bad feelings).

This is what happens when my step son won't eat what we serve:
If he is adamant that he won't eat something and I know full well that he likes it or has eaten it before without complaint, then fine. He can choose not to eat. He once refused to eat a pizza he ate and loved in the past. He was just in a bad mood but I wasn't willing to get in to that kind of dynamic with him, where he demands different foods. I don't force him to eat his supper, but I make sure that he understands that if he chooses not to eat his dinner then he is choosing to go hungry. I then excuse him from the table, and I go on about the evening totally normally. He and I will still play Minecraft together and joke around, I will not mention supper or ask if he is hungry, nor will I behave as though I am upset with him or angry with him. I behave NORMALLY and kindly. If he complains later that he is hungry I will reheat the supper he chose not to eat. If he says no I just happily say, "Okay. Your choice!" and put the food back in the fridge. I only had to do the "Okay, you don't have to eat supper" thing twice. He has never outright refused meals again since going to bed hungry those two times. And because the whole time I kept reinforcing with him that HE was CHOOSING not to eat, that this was a CHOICE HE was making. I got no ill will from this.

Maybe try something like what I do. It works. And it doesn't make for bad feelings between me and my kid. And it doesn't make him even more scared to try new things. And it isn't terrifying and abusive.

Moving forward, if you aren't able to keep your anger in check around the children then leave the room. Let the child's bio-parent handle the discipline.

And you should apologize to the children for your behaviour in the past. Apologize for yelling and getting angry, explain to them that you should never have done that and that you're very sorry, that people who love each other don't yell and that you won't do it ever again. That will go a long way in repairing the damage you have done.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 9:07 AM on August 5, 2014 [16 favorites]

Hey, little kids are hackers too.

At their ages, maybe you could get them actively involved. Lower your expectations a little, solicit their input, and maybe you guys can work together to come up with cool new foods.

You can use the same cheese sauce from mac and cheese to make cheesy rice. To this, you can add some vegetables they like--peas, broccoli, frozen mixed vegetables, whatever they want.

Cut up some chicken breasts into medallions and try them with different marinades, herb blends, or dipping sauces.

Collaborate on soup recipes. You pick a broth, maybe, and let them choose the vegetables and meat if you want it. Get them a big fresh baked loaf of bread to go with it.

Frittatas are another really adaptable, easy option that they can collaborate on. You could even portion them out and have them put their own 'toppings' on their section like you'd do with a pizza.

One thing that worked when I was watching a friend's super-fussy eater is that we made little muffin tin ground turkey meatloaves. My friend was shocked when she came in and he was eating a meatloaf, but he made it. Mostly, I'd pulled a Tom Sawyer and gotten him to hand-mix the ingredients for me, so he was feeling the ownership, I guess. I suspect that kids are a lot more likely to try things they actually had a hand in making.

Things aren't going to be gluten free, of course. Not because you're wrong or anything, but because it's just not realistic or fair to kids who don't know or care about gluten and whose lives have been turned upside down. Remember, these are little kids. They don't have the background and experience you do. So things you think are minor can be a really really big deal for them. They just haven't been through as much yet.

Also, some of the things they come up with aren't going to be very good. You probably won't like it, and you might not even approve sometimes, but you need to be brave and try a little to show them how it's done. Let them experiment, let them make decisions and feel involved, and maybe you can turn this into a fun bonding thing.

Also, kids are usually smarter and more rational than we give them credit for. You may want to address the previous arguments with them directly. Just tell them it's hard trying to sort all this stuff out with your new family, apologize for the yelling, and solicit their help in solving the "What this family eats for dinner" question.
posted by ernielundquist at 9:09 AM on August 5, 2014 [4 favorites]

You're focusing on how to be a better cook. Focus on how to be a better parent. Once you get that down, you'd be surprised at how much easier the meals are.
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 9:09 AM on August 5, 2014 [3 favorites]

I grew up in a home where there was a huge emphasis on healthy food - simply by virtue of junk food and processed food not appearing on the table, or even existing in the fridge or the pantry. The emphasis was similar to yours - fresh cooked protein, lots of fruit and veg, and healthy carbs. Also - lots of cheese sauces (this was Australia in the early 80s after all) for building healthy young bodies. I didn't like all of what i ate, but i ate it, because that's what there was, and the situation was one i was born into, so I ate what was on my plate.

HOWEVER, even with two young kids born to this nutritional regimen, there were things my parents did do to keep the nutritional machine running smoothly. Given that you are introducing this system into a blended family, you might want to seriously consider the psychology of their approach.

First and foremost - we were never EVER forced. No yelling, no pressure, not nothing, never. Instead, there were options. I hated milk. I didn't have to drink milk. Not once. I got my calcium from green leafy veggies instead. I hated cheese sauce. I ate what i could, and then there was a plate of fruit i did like. (when i later turned out to be lactose intolerant, my parents fell over themselves apologizing for pushing me even that far.) My sister went through a 'no soy sauce' phase and was indulged as long as she ate the other options she was given until she got bored and came back to her beloved fried rice. Because there was no pressure, she could come back. As she "stretched her wings and flexed her boundaries", she never had to take a stand or feel she was ceding any sort of control.

If we were given junk food by other people, we got to eat it. Not all at once, but it was never frowned at - it was a gift and must be regarded with gratitude toward the giver. On the other hand, you had to share. No hoarding.
(I agree that this is NOT what is going on with your 6 year old's grandma, but perhaps she can keep the candy and share it between her siblings at a certain time every afternoon till its gone? This might be a project/battle for a later down the track, as she comes to feel that the other kids ARE her family and she can appreciate saving the candy to share with them? Which might be a huge stretch of will for a 6 year old, but everyone can dream, right?)

We were also active in the kitchen from the time we could hold a stirring spoon. We were part of the preparation - so we took pleasure in the eating.

My parents also understood the necessity of BALANCE:

Birthdays and major festivals (Christmas and Easter in our case) were celebrated with a days-long orgy of baking all the things we didn't eat at other times of the year. Our birthdays, in particular, were EPIC - enormous birthday cakes, fudge bars, chocolate crackles, cookies - you name it, we cooked it, and during the prep, my sister and i were sitting on the kitchen floor licking up the rather generous portion mum left in the mixing bowls.

Easter and Halloween involved MUCH planning - you'd have no idea how much thought a kid could put into exactly what she wanted from the Easter bunny. And the bunny was generous.

Once in a while, dinner would be magically accompanied by dessert - usually, Mum made a condensed milk-and-jello dessert called a flummery. A few years ago i tried to make one for nostalgia value and the sheer sweet knocked me flat on my back. I could see how a child's taste buds might like it, but yeeuuurggghh. I asked mum how she'd stood eating it and she said "Oh, your dad and i didn't. It was for you kids. Lots of milk and lots of sugar. You needed a treat now and then!"

Most importantly - and i think that this might be extremely relevant to the food-control-struggles in your new household - every Saturday, we went to the supermarket and my sister and i could each pick out a candy bar. It was our "Saturday Sweet." We got it once a week, it had to last all week, and it was inviolable - no-one EVER touched anyone else's Saturday sweet. I could make a mars bar last all week with bits of flaky chocolate still left over by the next Saturday, and my sister never ever nicked a bit of it. Because it was MINE.

The result was two kids who understood that life is a process of balance, that sweet and unhealthy things are wonderful things, but that they're special occasion things, and because special occasions were always respected and never restricted (the sanctity of the Big Event!), we learned to appreciate the joy of planning and anticipation as much as the celebrating and indulging.

Today, both my sister and I love to cook. It's a large part of what we do for fun. We don't always hew any particular nutritional line (I particularly LOVE to bake) and we're both major chocaholics, but we've always eaten balanced, we prefer our fruits and vegetables, and we know how to maximize our proteins and our carbs for the personal and individual health requirements of our families. And we love what we eat.

I don't think my parents could have given us a better foundation.
posted by tabubilgirl at 9:11 AM on August 5, 2014 [21 favorites]

I agree with other people about the psychosocial aspects of your question, but it really sounds like you are hearing it. We all have our buttons, but learning to give kids space is a valuable skill. Congrats on coming and asking your question.

I have some practical advice for making food fun and interesting for your kids, not on how to get them to follow a specific diet. Here's what's had the most bang for the buck for us:

1. A vegetable delivery/CSA/fun market approach. The arrival of vegetables weekly from a delivery service has, seriously, been so much fun as we look at things we aren't as familiar with (garlic scapes!) plus yummy stuff (strawberries!).

2. Make eating new things fun from time to time. We have nights that are international so we'll have a Hungarian night and play the Hungarian national anthem and eat goulash. It doesn't have to be rainbows and ponies all the time, but we are trying to give the kids the idea that trying new things is something we like to do. Sometimes they turn their noses up.

3. We do offer alternatives (although we also try to have one 'sure hit' on the table a la Ellyn Satter) but they are _boring_. If you don't want dinner you can have leftovers or toast with peanut butter (I make my own bread using flours I choose selectively, like rye, and I don't consider gluten the devil...just giving you some ideas.)

4. Making meal times a time and place kids want to be. We are all more apt to expand our boundaries when we are feeling loved and supportive.

5. Getting the kids involved with food prep, and counting what they eat as food. When my kids come home at the end of the day, they tend to be hungry and so will nibble on raw veggies while we cook together, etc.

6. Introduce the new foods earlier in the day. Try lunch, or make breakfast your power meal. By the time kids come home for dinner, especially if they are coping with new routines or school days or changes in routine, they are tired out. Days are really long when you are a kid! For us the best time to introduce "perfect meals we want our kids to eat" are Sunday brunch, after a lot of playtime outside.
posted by warriorqueen at 9:14 AM on August 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

It sounds like you are especially picking on the six year old girl that is your girlfriend's daughter.

I don't think this is about gluten.
posted by jbenben at 9:18 AM on August 5, 2014 [29 favorites]

Oh, I do have a tip about getting kids to eat more fruits and veggies. We don't do this any more since my kid's diagnosis, but I used to do it all the time for playdates and it was incredibly successful.

Chop up a bunch of fruits and vegetables with the skins still on. Cut bananas into chunks, cut oranges into eighths, chunk up cucumbers, apple slices (core these because the seeds aren't good for you), baby carrots, grapes, big chunks of bell peppers . . . you get the idea. Toss all this chunked up fruit and veg together on a plate. Then set it down and say "Hey kids! Monkey food!" This always resulted in a great whirlwind and a devouring. It looks just like the big tubs of assorted produce they put out for the apes at the zoo, and for some reason that makes kids want to eat it more.
posted by KathrynT at 9:19 AM on August 5, 2014 [4 favorites]

Getting kids to eat healthy food is often fraught, even without dietary restrictions. I know, it's not a diet, as in a lose-weight diet, but it seems very restrictive.

I once dated someone with similar dietary restrictions, none of which were based on anything but severe food aversions. And, I had a picky child. As in, looking at the ingredients on the pasta sauce jar and declaring it "gross" because it had dehydrated onions in it.

So... for the food aversion person, I made a vegetarian pizza, for the picky child, 1/3 of that pizza was plain tomato sauce and cheese. So they both ate, were happy, and there was no arguing.

One surprising food that my kids liked was mild white fish, sauteed in butter, with a sprinkling of lemon pepper. They also would eat chicken breasts this way (fried in a pan then finished cooking with a bit of water).

But, sometimes they had fish sticks, once in a while hot dogs and mac 'n' cheese. As far as I recall, the only things they liked mixed together was chicken and rice casserole with gravy (chicken, rice, gravy, layered, with bread crumbs on top). No onions must touch any part of their food (probably not garlic, either). Broccoli was okay but only the crowns, not the stems. One didn't like pears... etc.

The fall back to someone not liking a meal was usually PB&J or cereal. Trying to force kids to eat is not fun for anyone, and sometimes will involve them puking. Also, kids cannot eat adult-sized portions, so keep that in mind. They go through growth spurts, and it can seem like they are not eating a lot for weeks, then all of a sudden, they eat everything in sight.

I think it would be super helpful if you could look at those websites that replace junk food with healthy food, so, for instance, Barilla high protein pasta for the kids, with butter and parmesan cheese, yum, most kids will eat that. I do think asking kids and a whole family to eat gluten free is very restrictive, so I would offer both choices and let them eat what they want, no questions asked.

If you stop making it a battle ground and just shrug and say, "whatever," it will be a lot less frustrating for all involved, and yes, try to get the kids involved in cooking and/or meal planning in some ways. My kid could stand on a stool and crack an egg when he was a little guy, teach them to make an omelet with cheese. What about tuna salad, will they eat that? Tuna salad stuffed into a tomato or on bread, which would you like, kids? If they say, "yuck, tuna!" then say, "okay, how about some PB &J?"

It's okay to limit junk food (for instance, I stopped buying soda and bought cranberry juice instead, and orange juice, and soda was for treats). You could really be a hero if you started a tradition of "Friday night is junk food and movie night, what do you want?" And they can have anything, no questions asked. It's probably not cool for Grandma to sneak them candy at bed time, but we frequently had dessert when I was growing up. A little bowl of ice cream with hot fudge sauce, some pudding, not huge amounts, but hey, that's dairy! And eggs! In a bowl of goodness!

I actually have known blended families where the guy was totally into making the kids listen and sit at the table and finish every last bit or go to bed early. So there has to be some compromise. "Take 3 more bites and then we have ice cream and watch your favorite show!" Or snuggle up and read a story, play Chutes and Ladders, etc. Sometimes the 3 more bites thing works and sometimes it doesn't. Oh well, them's the breaks. "Okay, Joey's not hungry, who wants to help with dishes?"

Those are things that I have found work, some of the time. Now my son is a great cook, he can make cheesecake, grill meats perfectly, and yes, scramble eggs. He still eats some junk (then again, so do I), but he really enjoys a good meal and he even eats sushi!
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 9:21 AM on August 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

One more thing, my step son knows that his tongue is like the rest of his body, and that it is growing and changing too as he gets older. He currently doesn't like pickles, but you know what? Every so often I say "Do you want to try pickles again?". Sometimes he says no, and that is fine. Sometimes he'll say yes and he'll try one, not like it and he will say "I guess I don't like them yet!". And then there are the times when he has tried something again and DOES like it and happily announces that his tongue is growing up, and boasts how he is so smart for always trying different things. I remember when he tried mustard on his hamburger and actually liked it for the first time. He was so freeking proud.

Never have I ever forced that child to eat anything, and because of that he feels comfortable trying everything. If that is what you want to instill in the children then you need to give them more space to actually choose to try different things.

and seriously, apologize to those kids. Have them learn that even grown ups aren't perfect and that they have to say "I'm sorry" sometimes too.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 9:21 AM on August 5, 2014 [21 favorites]

Also - with our grandma, our parents put down their feet. You want us to visit? You keep the house junk-food free.
Again, the situation is not the same, but I don't think a compromise is impossible. What grandmas want to do is SPOIL their grandkids. They'll find a way. My parents meant what they said about the moratorium on junk food, so she fed us up on other foods that made us happy. I loved cocktail onions, and I lived on them when we visited her place. She stocked the fridge with bottles and bottles of the stuff before every visit.
As the years went on, she began to bake cookies - with oatmeal in them. Oatmeal is healthy, right? (Grandma bats innocent eyes.) and in a spirit of balance my parents shrugged and said sure, because they'd won the war and they understood the Rights of the Grandma.
Again, I suspect that this is not a battle you need to necessarily fight right this minute. But when you fight it, don't let the child have any idea. I sure never did, and i'd have been distraught if i'd known.
posted by tabubilgirl at 9:25 AM on August 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

Whatever benefits you think these kids gain from eating your specific diet will all be negated when they develop disordered eating. This situation is a breeding ground for EDs and I would caution you to back off their eating habits.
posted by fireandthud at 9:25 AM on August 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

My parents did the "you have to eat 3 bites before you can leave the table" thing, which resulted in a lot of gagging, crying and sitting at the table for hours. I still resent it. I'm in my 30s. I'm also an emetophobe, which really sucks and might have something to do with that. Please try to adopt Ellyn Satter's method whole-heartedly.

One of my absolute favorite things about being an adult is that you can decide what you want to eat. It had never occurred to me until now that some kids are given that agency in their own homes. What a gift that would have been.

I now eat a diet much like yours, but it was a looong road and I had to get there on my own. On my own is the key part. Give them good options and if a bunch of ranch is what it takes for them to enjoy broccoli, well then at least they're eating broccoli. Besides which there's fats and a smattering of calcium in that dressing. Kids' bodies are resilient. What matters is the big picture, not the minutiae of every meal.
posted by purple_bird at 9:26 AM on August 5, 2014 [4 favorites]

Love and security are more important than a perfect diet.
posted by amtho at 9:40 AM on August 5, 2014 [8 favorites]

One more thing, once you and your girlfriend decide TOGETHER how you are going to handle meals, tell the kids. Tell them exactly what is going to happen from now on so it is crystal clear. And then do exactly what you told them. Hell, maybe you can have a family meeting and discuss with them what THEY think should happen. Have it be a family decision and then write it out on a big piece of paper and stick it to the wall by the table. That way at supper time everyone knows what is happening, how things will play out, and it should hopefully keep things from descending into yelling.

Maybe have the kids give scores for foods too. Play food critic. Make them think a little harder about what they are tasting, have them describe what aspects of the food they do or don't like (taste, how it feels in their mouth, how it looks, how it smells, how it makes their tummy feel). Add in a weird thing to score as well, like whether the food made them think about elephants. When my son doesn't like a food we get him to tell us what about the food he doesn't like.

Also, you've done some damage with the yelling and you're probably going to be fighting a tougher battle than it would have been otherwise. You may need some sort of incentive for trying new foods. Like, maybe if they try a new food without complaining or whining then they can stay up 10 minutes past their bedtime. And maybe if they outright refuse to try it then they have to go to bed 10 minutes earlier. You can maybe ask them what they think would be a good reward for trying and what a good consequence should be for not trying. Involve them in the discussion. Help them to feel like they have some agency in this. (Just make sure the reward for trying isn't food.)
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 9:43 AM on August 5, 2014 [4 favorites]

I'm a parent. Of the many issues my son & I had, food was never an issue. My sone loves vegetables, salad, brussel sprouts, etc. Make a variety of healthy foods available. Raw veggies & ranch dressing as a dip, whole wheat toast with cinnamon sugar, salad with poached chicken, almonds, tasty dressing, shepherd's pie, oven-fried chicken, roasted vegetables, marinated grilled steak/ chicken/ pork, risotto, oatmeal, apples, pears, bananas, almonds, dried apricots, peanut butter sandwiches, stirfried veg w/ some soy sauce over pasta, etc. Maybe fig newtons. Just make healthy food easily available, and let them choose. Make your own enjoyment of healthy food evident. My now-ex-husband continued to eat pretty healthy, my son attended a day care with healthy food. Sugar, ice cream, cookies, chips, deep-fried foods, cake, candy were pretty limited, though his Dad usually made dessert part of lunch & dinner.

I made the rule that new foods had to be tasted - usually 3 bites, but in your case, I would wait to implement that. The kids are old enough to make their own whole wheat toast if they don't care for dinner. New step-parents are really stressful for kids, so I'd really reduce the fighting over food, while not providing real junk food. Work on developing meals they'll eat - chicken, maybe coleslaw, baked potatoes, meatballs, pasta, veggies & dip, and introduce new additions over time. Ask them to help grocery shop and prepare meals. Reward them for trying new foods, and ignore the rest. In this situation, punishment and yelling is a disaster for everyone.

Review your feelings. Kids can have all sorts of behaviors that have been allowed/ taught by their grownups. Kids respond to praise, love, affection much better than punishment. They may resent you but also want your approval. Take it easy, introduce more fun into your lives.
posted by theora55 at 9:55 AM on August 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

I like the idea of involving the kids in cooking dinner, starting with things that they like, and gradually adding in more vegetables etc. Even better, if you have room for gardening indoor or outdoors, grow some vegetables with them and then cook them up together. It's a good way for kids to develop an affinity for things that they might not have wanted to try before.
posted by three_red_balloons at 10:03 AM on August 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

Oh, and if you pitch a new meal as being unhealthy (whether or not it is) that usually majorly ups the kid appeal. Tell them that you're going to try a new meal, but it is super unhealthy so if they like it it would only be a "treat". This is why my son loves the "super unhealthy" home made cream of mushroom soup I make and he asks for it every week. Plus, you know, it tastes awesome, but his believing he is eating junky unhealthy food makes him want to eat it all the more.

Kids want to eat unhealthy things. Capitalize on that. Just make sure the "super unhealthy" food is also very tasty and easily perceived as unhealthy. Think creamy.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 10:14 AM on August 5, 2014

When I was little my mom decided to stop bringing soda in the house. This was back when only the hippies did this so it was unusual at the time. I may have thrown a few tantrums, I don't recall. But when the family went out to eat, or were away from home, ordering a soda was no big deal, nor was it forbidden for me to do it while I was with friends. The result of simply not growing up with it as an everyday thing means that I'm one of the few adults I know who does not drink soda of any kind*. It's probably the one food I don't have issues with because it wasn't something we ever fought over and it wasn't around to be used as a reward or punishment.

I'm concerned about the effect you are having on these two young girls in particular. You should search MeFi and Ask for food-related posts and questions because I don't think you understand how fucked up women's relationship with food is and how much you are contributing to that. Also, what does your girlfriend think about this diet and about the yelling? I think it's very peculiar that you didn't mention her at all in either context.

*I simply never acquired a taste for it. The exception is when I have pizza I have to have a Coke, but it's usually just a few sips. It must have been an early taste imprint. I probably drink the equivalent of two cans of Coke a year.
posted by Room 641-A at 10:15 AM on August 5, 2014 [4 favorites]

Okay, here's my perspective.

I was in your kid's shoes once. My dad was very into healthy eating, he got into atkins before it was cool, he would lecture me if I ate too much fruit because fructose, having a soda at a party was oh my god going to give me diabetes or make me fat. I am now in my mid-late 20s. I eat relatively healthily compared to your average American. My thoughts on this subject now, a decade after leaving home? I love my dad, but he was weird about food. He's still weird about food. He's obsessive past the point of being 'healthy'.

I'm glad that overall my diet as a kid included a lot of veggies and fewer sugars, but if, when I was six years old, he'd been as extreme as he was by the time I went to college, and if my mom hadn't been there as a moderating force, it would have been a real problem and would have messed up my relationship to food. As it was, when I was young, we ate a wide variety of fairly healthy but not crazy healthy foods (whole wheat pasta with veggie sauce, indian curries, stir fries with beef, quiche, sausage with veggies) but us kids were not forced into atkins, and I had to try everything that was served, at least a little piece. So that was okay, I don't personally think there's anything wrong with the 'just try a bite' school.

Also, my dad had a weird thing about weight. I think you should examine that in yourself and MAKE SURE you're not passing that on to your kids. I have never been overweight (I was the smallest in my class until graduating high school, actually), and he still makes comments about my weight sometimes and did when I was a kid, too. Small comments. He probably doesn't even realize he's making them (well, he does now, because now I tell him to knock it off). Anyway, now I recognize that they're coming from his own weird issues and don't take them personally, but I didn't when I was younger, and if I'd actually had any kind of weight problem it probably would have had more serious consequences. So watch that, especially around a little kid.

Anyway, I geuss my point is to keep things in perspective about what is actually about their overall health and what is about your personal lifestyle choices. It is not a disaster if the kids eat an unhealthy meal. It is not a disaster if they have a treat sometimes. Don't turn it into this thing where you're neurotic over the odd cookie. It's weird and unnecessary.

Oh, and I totally agree with backing off for a while for sure. These kids are adjusting to enough at the moment.
posted by geegollygosh at 10:27 AM on August 5, 2014 [3 favorites]

Sometimes, you just have to hide the healthiness. When I had stepkids, I had to get really good at doing this.

Meatloaf, burgers, and spaghetti sauce can hide all KINDS of veggies inside.

You can make healthyish oatmeal bars (or *gasp* COOKIES!) with fruit and minimal added sugar. You can sub oatmeal flour for white flour, 1 to 1, by putting dry oats in your food processor until it hits flour consistency.

Getting kids involved in food acquisition and preparation can be the biggest trick of all. With the stepkids, they got to trade off picking one new food a week at the grocery store for all of us to try. Then we'd search for recipes for how to make that thing. They'd help cook their chosen food, and we'd all try it. Sometimes it was great (cantaloupe soup - who knew?), sometimes not so much (NONE of us liked eggplant or lox).

Gluten free doesn't have to mean cardboard. There is a gluten free bakery and cafe near me that makes the most decadent, delicious desserts I have ever tasted. And I love their white sandwich bread. (They also have buckwheat, quinoa, vegan, and paleo breads. The buckwheat is tasty, haven't tried the rest.)

Homemade pizza can be pretty darned healthful. Puree some extra veggies into the sauce, and you've got your grains, your veggies, your dairy, and your protein all in one shot. (I'm down 20+ pounds on a steady diet of the commercial stuff!)

When my son was little, he LOVED cantaloupe.....until he found out his Daddy didn't like it. After that, he HATED cantaloupe. However, he LOVED orange melon. Couldn't get enough orange melon. Until I made the mistake of telling him that his beloved orange melon and his despised cantaloupe were one and the same. Now he won't eat it out of spite.

The most important thing to remember: kids are people. Tiny, often irrational people. They have their own likes and dislikes, preferences and moods. If somebody 2-3 times my size came along and told me I wasn't leaving the table until I ate all the eggplant and raw tomatoes and tripe and liver and lox on my plate, I'd have myself one helluva temper tantrum, and I'm 30-some-odd and have learned self-control and negotiation and self-agency. Your tiny humans haven't learned those things yet. Keep in mind that in their world, you are The Almighty Daddy God (or the Almighty Daddy-like-authority-figure God), and as such, you can have a HUGE impact on the rest of their lives - for good or for ill. With great power comes great responsibility. Use it wisely.
posted by The Almighty Mommy Goddess at 10:31 AM on August 5, 2014 [3 favorites]

Also: compromises. When trans-fats became villified, my parents started buying butter instead of margerine. Me and my brother didn't like it, it was too hard to spread on bread, but we made a deal with my parents that if we switched to butter, then my family would buy 2% milk instead of 1% milk because we liked 2% milk better. (Now I realize that was probably playing right into my dad's 'atkins studying' hands, but oh well, hah.)

So letting the kids have some input into grocery shopping and cooking is good, too. There was always a rule in my house growing up that I could eat sweets (in moderation) if I made them myself from scratch, so now I'm a pretty good baker!
posted by geegollygosh at 10:34 AM on August 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

Wow, a hot button issue I see. Lots of comments.

I am very gluten intolerant, so for me, it's like a poison. I get brain fog, joint aches, stomach problems, low grade fever...basic inflammation. I have similar effects with unfermented dairy and corn products. So I hear you OP. I did a whole 30, and now am doing the no gluten and no corn thing, and it works great for me. However, half of my household (one kid, one adult) does GREAT on gluten, milk, corn. They have none of the side effects I do and are thriving.

The other kid eats more like I do, and understands what's causing her stomachaches when she cannot resist a sandwich. Fingers crossed that her reactions are not going to be as bad as mine as she ages. But I am also not going to police her relentlessly. If she wants a wheat cookie, she will find a way. It's still worthwhile to her, but not me!

I remember being a kid and being yelled at about food, and being part of the Clean Plate Club. Dinner was gluten heavy and a large glass of milk every night and I pushed away from the table with a stomachache and horrendous gas nightly. This was on the heels of the stomachache caused by my SAD hot lunch at school. Dinner was fraught with tension. OP if you are old enough to have children, you might have been raised in similar circumstances, dietwise.

I know it's easy to get really kind of religious about the food thing. It's kind of like seeing poison everywhere, especially when it's going into little bodies. But try to cast your mind back to eating a diet that didn't work for you, and how it made you feel. They may not be in love with the best food right now, but they like it and look forward to mealtime (for now).

Work slowly to add new things and go from there. Lots of good advice in this thread about trying new things over and over. It's worked with veg for my kids. Once kids find a button they dig their heels in hard! They eat ANYTHING (steak tartare, sushi, oysters, brussels sprouts, etc), because my attitude is very calm. "Why would you not try this? It's perfectly normal to eat octopus and it's delicious. How strange not to try something new. Yay food!" There are truly some things they don't like after many years and it's okay. They tried.
posted by Lardmitten at 11:30 AM on August 5, 2014 [3 favorites]

I just thought I'd point out that a lot of us, when we're feeling stressed in our lives, get more conservative in our food choices for a while. We eat more of what we personally consider to be comfort food, things our own parents made when we were kids, and so on.

These kids are in the middle of an upheaval here, adjusting to this new household thing, and _so are you_.

Is it possible that both you AND the kids are being more picky about food than you normally would be, because you're going through a stressy time? It's just unfortunate that what you each consider comfort food is so different and only one of you is in charge of making dinner. It could be that the exact same thing that causes the kids to throw fits at dinner is causing you to throw fits at dinner.

Thus, I suggest cutting yourself some slack in the "perfect dinner making" department as well as cutting the kids some slack in the "perfect dinner eating" department, while you're all making this stressful transition.
posted by emilyw at 11:44 AM on August 5, 2014 [11 favorites]

My parents cooked whatever they wanted to eat, and then we had to taste a bit of everything (like, "You must eat two bites of peas.") but otherwise could eat the portion sizes we wanted.

The result: Sometimes we had garlic bread for dinner with two bites of fish and two bites of broccoli. Sometimes we sat at the dinner table alone with just mom or dad until 8:30pm fighting over whether or not we would eat the second bite of cold broccoli. YMMV.

If the choices hadn't included gluten, we just would never have eaten gluten (but probably a lot of rice/mashed potatoes). At restaurants we could order whatever we wanted (within reason based on price!).

My parents were adventurous eaters who cooked with lots of different vegetables and flavors, and ate at a lot of ethnic restaurants. They modeled healthy diverse eating by example rather than mandate.

The result: Me and and all of my siblings are all adventurous eaters who eat everything. Some of us are paleo and gluten-free by choice as adults.
posted by amaire at 12:21 PM on August 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

I don't know how to get kids to eat vegetables. But I wanted to mention that I think you need to take a bigger picture of this and perhaps the goal shouldn't be to get them to eat healthy or eat what your particular version of healthy is; rather, it's instead to create a daily family table ritual. Food is part of that but so is everyone helping to make the meal, set the table, and talk about things OTHER THAN the food.

You get your kids to want to come to dinner - to want to be with you and to build this new version of your family. You'll have to give up some control over what your kids will eat but I also don't think that means you have to eat what they do; or even that you need to completely make separate meals. There are lots of suggestions here for managing the food aspect. Just working together to put the meal on the table and be there together will go a long way in bringing your kids around just seeing you model the food choices you want by you preparing and making the food you think is healthy. "Why aren't you eating mac n cheese?" can just simply get answered with "I don't really like it anymore. I'm super into broccoli. Maybe you'll like it one day." and move on "How was soccer practice? Did you get to play goalie like you wanted?". Curiosity, or competitiveness (one sibling goes; others will follow) will get them to try it. They might like it, or not, but they're now more curious eaters which will go a long way to making them more healthy, well-balanced eaters.

You'll lose a tremendous opportunity to build a level of trust and open communication if you make the table an unpleasant place. I have been lucky to have had the most incredibly loving, trusting, supportive parents and they will absolutely tell you that a major part of that was because of what we experienced around the table. And very little of it around what was on it.
posted by marylynn at 1:58 PM on August 5, 2014 [5 favorites]

Looks like others have covered the social aspects, so I'll add some cooking aspects.

But I really think American ways of cooking vegetables suck and I don't blame kids here for not liking vegetables. It seems like default vegetables are steamed (Red Robin side-of-broccoli), boiled (my subsidized government free lunch veggie sides), braised in butter (college cafeteria veggie sides), or worse, raw (every salad bar ever)?

You develop no novel textures or flavors; hard bits of vegetables stay hard (carrots / broccoli); leaves are watery / grassy / slightly bitter...

Seriously, I think American kids' introduction to vegetables is like American women's introduction to sex: bad, due to societal non-understanding that food (including vegetables) is for joy and pleasure.

I wrote this for a college farmshare recipe book a while back containing my same disbelief at how badly treated American vegetables are.

Carroty Ambrosia

I often think that children say that they don't like vegetables because they've only been served badly cooked vegetables. The boiled pre-frozen industrial carrot pennies I was served at lunch would certainly have turned me into a meat-and-starcher, so I'm really glad my parents found the time to make this at home.

This recipe makes farm fresh carrots really sing with sweetness, and adds brightness to the winter table. It'll also help you practice your knife skills, since you'll be slicing a lot of carrots. It's also not a fussy recipe, and can be good training wheels for those trying to learn to cook without measuring.

Needless to say, I really like this stuff; I think of it as ambrosia because the oil takes on a bright goldenrod color. I would seriously consider this for my last meal. But food of the rich it is not: this is definitely classic northern Chinese peasant food (or maybe my parents made it up).

You will need:
Good chef's knife / Chinese cleaver (sharp! a dull knife is a dangerous knife)
Some kind of pan / pot with a lid
Two wooden tossing spatulas / spoons. Plastic melts.

Neutral cooking oil (corn, vegetable, safflower, peanut, ....)
A few cloves of garlic (say 4, if you really can't decide, though it depends on how much you like garlic and how much carrot you can handle)
One scallion

Carrots (as much as your pot / pan can handle)

Shredded meat / stock / meat-flavored bullion / soy sauce

You will do:

A. Prep
1. Peel, wash, and slice carrots into 1/8" slices. Slice on the diagonal so you have bigger slices. You can do it. It'll take a little time. Perfection is not required, but even slices mean even cooking. Keep these in a colander and agitate so the carrots are mostly dry.
2. Brush off the mushrooms, and slice them into 1/4" slices. This should be a piece of cake. Put these in another bowl.
3. Slice garlic -- 1/8" is fine: not too thin. Cut scallion into similar rings. A trick is to cut the scallion in half, then those two in half, and stack the 4 parts on top of each other -- you've cut your cuts in fourths. You can keep these on the cutting board.

B. Cook
4. Pour oil into dry pan, and turn on stove. Use the largest burner smaller than the pan; electric stoves go all the way up; gas probably needs only 1/2 strength. When cold, the oil should cover 3/4 of the pan. Let the oil warm -- it'll seem thinner and develop a sheen when it's "warm."
5. Add your sliced garlic and scallions. This infuses the oil with their flavor. Wait until the garlic barely changes color -- make sure nothing burns, or everything will taste like burnt garlic. If it looks like the edges are browning before the centers of slices are even approaching soft / warm, your oil is too hot. Kill the flame, take the oil off to cool a little, and continue, with a lower setting.
6. Add carrots. If you left on too much water, it'll snap crackle and pop; use the pot lid to defend yourself. When calm, use spatulas to toss the carrots. You're kind of making a hot salad here, and the oil is the dressing.
7. A step for the brave: stop tossing so the bottom layer can caramelize (burn) a little. Caramelization is proof that god loves us (and I'm an atheist). Scrape them up when there's been a bit of browning -- it's in this scraping step that plastic spatulas tend to melt, so use your wooden ones!
8. Add a small amount of liquid, maybe 1/8 of an inch on the pan. If you have stock, put it in here. If you're going to use bullion, dissolve it in water, and add it now. Put the lid on -- the liquid was to allow some steam to form, and you need to keep it in the pot so it can cook your carrots. Think back to CHEM33, heat of fusion, etc.: steam > water. Reduce flame to 'mellow' (medium, on electric). You can probably wash your knife and cutting board in this time.
9. Check back in 5 minutes or so. Take out a representative slice and give it a taste. Yeah? It's only going to get better, because you're going to add salt to taste. Salt amplifies flavor. This means adding salt, stirring, etc. until satisfied -- you want this to land on the saltier edge of your taste because you're going to dilute the mixture with your mushrooms. Add shredded meat if you're into meat.
10. Turn up the stove a bit. Add mushroom slices, and mix well with carrots. Lid goes back on for a minute or two.
11. Check. Taste a mushroom. Not cooked? Put the lid back on and let it cook; check back. Is it flavorful? Taste the carrots. Good? Move on No? Add salt to taste (see step 9). If the carrot and the mushroom mismatch in flavor, you need to stir more.

And you're done!

Serve with starch of choice. The oil is a nice color, as all the fat-soluble beta carotene from the carrots has moved into it, so you might consider a lighter whole-grain bread (toasted, of course; cf. step 7). I personally like brown rice.

A note on 'shredded meat': I don't mean pulled pork or that barbecue business. Just like, some part of animal, preferably pork or beef, that has been cooked with a soy profile, more or less. It's just a vehicle for "savory" flavor, namely, hydrolyzed protein. You've heard of MSG -- that's the factory-artificial-copout version of what you're adding here.

Add mu'er (wood ears) before sticking the lid on the first time. You'll need to soak those, as mu'er is usually sold dried (and sometimes vastly condensed -- try your best to decipher the package instructions).
posted by batter_my_heart at 2:20 PM on August 5, 2014 [5 favorites]

Sounds like this is about power and control, and being a better cook won't fix it. Is grandma participating in the power struggle?

Something that my three year old and I find fun that could help remove some of the power aspect of this:

Occasionally I let him be in charge of the menu. I put healthy stuff in the fridge, freezer, and pantry. He rummages around in there and starts pulling some stuff out. He usually pulls out fruit first. Then I remind him that he needs to choose some vegetables, protein, etc. Then we brainstorm about out how to put it together, and we execute it together. He likes this a lot. I really enjoy seeing what he will come up with!

Also, my kid will generally eat anything that he discovers on a plant. Would your kids be interested in gardening together?

Good luck!
posted by pizzazz at 2:40 PM on August 5, 2014 [3 favorites]

Give the kids a multivitamin, and let them get their calories from whatever they like.

They don't like your food. Get over it. I probably wouldn't like it either.

Having said those things, try to add variety. It will work best to start with things somewhat like the things they already eat. Fish sticks are more like chicken tenders than edamame.
posted by SemiSalt at 4:52 PM on August 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

you'll find there are large amounts of research available pointing to how things like gluten (definitely not a fad) and vitamin deficiencies affect our bodies over time.

You'll also find a large amount of research that screaming at children over food "affects our bodies over time". Specifically, by causing eating disorders.
posted by Metafilter Username at 5:02 PM on August 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

Here's the foolproof method I used to get my son potty trained, and it also worked to get him sleeping in his own bed...

I made *thing* available, but didn't push it.

Serve lots of different dishes on the table every night. Eventually, they'll try some. Offer, don't badger or control.
posted by jbenben at 5:12 PM on August 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

Can you talk to some of the kid's friends' parents and see if any of them are better eaters? I usually ate way better at my friends' houses because I was too embarassed to be picky and offend them. Your stepdaughter might try a veggie if she sees her friend and her family enjoying it. I learned to eat a couple new things this way.
posted by gatorae at 5:32 PM on August 5, 2014

I strongly recommend the book "The Explosive Child" by Ross Greene. Even though I don't think you're dealing with explosive kiddos, I do think you've got this framed in absolute terms right now, and the Greene book is all about how to collaborate with children to solve the problems you are having with one another. You already know what you shouldn't do; that's clear from your comments. If you start with a sincere apology and let the kids help you figure out what *to* do, I think you have a good chance of coming to a compromise the kids and you can live with.

One rule that helped my mom live with picky-eater me as a kid was the cereal-and-peanut-butter rule: if I didn't like what was served for dinner, I was allowed to have a bowl of cereal or make myself a peanut butter sandwich. No extra work for my parents, no extra dishes created, little chance of mess. This might help with your stress level if you find that part of what's causing you to yell is the frustration of preparing a second meal.
posted by epj at 7:05 PM on August 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

Thanks for all of your comments. The thread got a bit out of hand, mainly because of my poor choice of words in the explanation. Understandably, my use of the word 'yelling' sparked some heated answers from some of you. I never actually scream at the kids as some of you implied I was doing. I was merely sternly telling them that they needed to eat what was on the plate.

In any case, this doesn't justify my approach. Many of you pointed out that this approach of all of nothing isn't a good idea. I've taken that to heart, and I intend to give them options. I do like the approach of always having something that they like at the table, or at the very least an option if they don't like what is put in front of them. I fully intend to make it a no pressure situation.

It was a good discussion, and many of the suggestions made were constructive and exactly what I hoped to get out of the question. Thanks for your help, Mefites!
posted by MMALR at 9:10 PM on August 5, 2014 [10 favorites]

I'm not a parent, so feel free to ignore my anecdotes, but in families I know whose kids don't fight or whine much about dinner, there are some similarities.

One is that everyone is allowed to have favourite meals, and disliked meals.

For each the kids who you are the step-parent of, do you know what their absolute favourite dinner is? And I don't mean at the level of "hotdogs and chips and nuggets and kid food" but "hotdogs made with those pink sausages from X supermarket, and in soft buns with ketchup but no mustard, and they should have fried onions on the side because that's how grandma make it, and you always have fries with hotdogs, duh, and the best dessert after hotdogs is vanilla icecream, but not that one with the specks in it."

Do they know what your ideal meal is?

For a newly blended family, I bet it would be really reassuring and awesome to have each person get to choose their favourite dinner once a week. And then they aren't eating orange chicken and raw veges or whatever because "that's healthy" but because it's stepmom's favourite, and so we eat that on Thursdays, and it's 6-year-old's favourite on Fridays. And it's polite to not say that someone else's favourite meal is disgusting.

And then it's also nice to respect that there are some foods that someone in the family just doesn't like, and as long as the list isn't enormous, it's not too much effort to not serve that. In my family, Dad didn't like curry, so we never had it. And I hated sausages, so we rarely had those, but occasionally my brother really wanted them, and so we'd cook something else for me. Mum hated cabbage, so we didn't eat that either. But no one got to say that they didn't like a whole category of foods like "stuff with sugar in it", unless that person was also prepared to prepare their own meals. I went through a vegetarian stage as a teenager, and you can bet I was cooking my own dinners separate from the rest of the family.

6 and 7 is too young to cook their own meals, obviously, but there's nothing to stop them being able to make a peanut butter sandwich or a bowl of cereal, so if I were you, if you are cooking them their favourites sometimes, and letting them opt out of a couple of minor foods they don't like, and then they still make a fuss at dinner time, I'd be showing them the cereal cupboard, and then enjoying the fact that I get to eat all the delicious dinner leftovers for lunch the next day.
posted by lollusc at 9:49 PM on August 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

« Older rubber troubles   |   Filtering frack-edly polluted water Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.