This post originally appeared on the Bellani Maternity blog.
I had such big plans. My children were going to eat nothing but healthy, organic, locally-sourced, homemade food. And exciting food, too: they were going to love exotic noodle dishes, cheeses of all sorts, chiles, olives, and all of the things I love that I never ate as a kid. I was going to spend my evenings and weekends happily cooking, filling our freezer and pantry with meals and snacks, and all of our friends would marvel how well it was all going.
Ha, ha. Ha.
I am led to understand that there are people out there—food people—people with a love of food, and cooking, and eating, who have children, and manage to stay food people, who have adventurous, agreeable children with big, broad appetites, who make every mealtime a pleasurable and laughter-filled experience for the whole family. We do not have these children. If you do have these children, I am beyond happy for you, but I’m afraid I have to ask you to please, if you wouldn’t mind terribly, shut up about it.
There are days they eat almost nothing. Or days that they’ll only eat pasta. Again. Days when the food they’d happily tucked into only days ago is now emphatically and tearfully rejected. Days when I want to throw my hands up and never set foot in the kitchen again.
At our lowest moments (kids screaming, food everywhere, my head in my arms on the table) my wife reminds me of the advice our pediatrician gave us at their first birthday: “At one year, you can reasonably expect one good meal a day. At two, expect one good meal every other day.” These are, to be sure, low expectations, but they’ve become our mantra. If they don’t eat dinner, we remind ourselves that they ate lunch. Or vice versa. Or that they ate all of their oatmeal at breakfast. And that we’ll try again tomorrow.
There are victories, though. There are only a few parenting moments more proud than sitting across from my wife at dinner and watching both children gleefully shovel mujadarra or chana masala into their faces. Or hearing Julian urgently ask for “more more black beans!” Or having to remind Eloise to chew, chew, chew, and swallow before putting more chicken in her mouth.
Now that they can express their preferences, some meals are a little easier. At breakfast, I can ask, “What do you want for breakfast?” and get answers. Usually the same answers, but answers, nonetheless. (Julian: “Bagel!” Eloise: “Oatmeal!”)
With the understanding that eating is still a work in progress, and that we have a success rate far below 100 percent, here are the guidelines we try to stick to. These are inspired by Ellyn Satter’s Child of Mine, which I have not yet managed to read in its entirety. Still, the capsule version that I liked was this: “Parents decide what, when, and where to eat. Kids decide whether, and how much.”
What’s for dinner is what’s for dinner. I’m going to make one meal for the family each night, not two, not three, not four. The twins are going to eat what we eat… mostly.
There’s at least one thing they reliably like on their plates. Their dinner plates will have our dinner on them, but I try to design each meal so that there’s at least one component they recognize and have eaten before. Sometimes that’s as simple as making sure there’s broccoli or green peas or corn on the cob on the side. If dinner is especially adventurous (say, a delicious potato and fontina cake that Rachel and I really enjoy) I might put out some chicken bites or something. But the key to this rule, for me, is not going back into the kitchen for something new. Ever. Almost ever.
No seconds until you’ve tried everything on your place. The danger of having something they like on their plates is that they can tend to focus on that to the exclusion of everything else. It’s great that you like the pasta, Julian, but if you want more (and I’m happy to bring you more) you have to at least try the meatball. This has led to a lot of comical putting one molecule of food in their mouth and spitting it out ostentatiously. That counts. They might not eat the new food this time, but maybe it will be a little less unfamiliar next time.
Eat as much or as little as you want. My childhood is full of stories of being chased around the house by my father trying to get me to eat just one piece of chicken. I can’t believe that was fun for anyone. If our kids don’t want to eat something, that’s their choice. We try to tell them, “I think you’ll be hungry later,” but if they say they’re all done, and want to go and play, as long as they’ve at least made an effort to put something in their mouths, I don’t want to fight with them.
Keep trying. I’ve heard that to get a child to try, and potentially like, a new food, you have to offer it on at least ten separate occasions, even if they’re going to refuse it nine times. This is exhausting and demoralizing, and it’s the part I have the most trouble with. When they refuse to try (or spit out) the food I’ve lovingly, carefully, painstakingly prepared for them, it’s really hard not to take it personally. But my ever-patient wife reminds me that we’ll try again. And again. And again. And we do.
Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. As much as I want to give them healthy homemade food all the time, it really won’t kill them to eat something from the (gasp!) grocery store freezer. Chicken nuggets, or little pouches of applesauce, goldfish crackers, or even the occasional cookie aren’t going to harm them, and don’t make me a bad parent.
A toddler isn’t going to starve himself. Everyone eats, eventually. Trying to keep our own anxiety levels down helps make meals more pleasant for everyone. And maybe, if we keep this up, in six to twelve months, they’ll be happily helping me cook, and trying our pad thai, and asking for more samosas. Right?
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