Feeding picky eaters

21 04 2007

What, you thought this blog would be all rant, no substance? Pshaw. So one of your kids is a picky eater, huh? There’s been a lot of attention given recently to ‘sneaky cooking‘, and sure, it sounds tempting. Spinach hidden in brownies? Diabolical genius!

But here’s the thing – do you really want something as joyful and essential as food to be some kind of bizarre adversarial game you play with your kids? How about approaching this issue from a different angle?

I was lucky in that neither of my kids fit the traditional ‘picky eater’ model. I sort of have the opposite problem, really – I’ve got two grazers, who don’t really like sitting down and eating a full meal. Snacking is a constant in our house, especially with my son. The boyspawn is literally eating every few minutes, all day long. (Yes, I’m eaten up with envy that he does that, and is incredibly healthy and strong and muscular…hey! Maybe he’s onto something!) So snacks are the big thing. The provisioning is a bit of a chore.

My rules are simple – the food you eat has to be actual food. If you can’t pronounce the majority of the words on the label, then you cannot put it in your body. That means that juice packs are full of juice, and the potato chips are identifiable as part of a potato. Fruit is fruit, and if you want fruit ‘snacks’ then they are dessert items to be eaten sparingly. Does it have ‘high fructose corn syrup’? Then you’re outta luck, bub, it’s dessert and not a snack item.

The next thing is – try your best to radically reduce the amount of food that comes out of packages, and do this as early as humanly possible in your kids’ lives. A lot of kids get to be 11 or 12 and have no idea what ‘real’ food tastes like, and so every-damn-thing is ‘yucky’. This is one I’ve seen over and over. Do you know any kids who think ‘soup’ equals ‘chicken noodle out of a red and white can’ and who wouldn’t eat homemade chicken soup if you paid them?

It’s hard, when you’re a working single mom, to manage all this, let me tell you. Some months, money is just TOO tight, and I knowingly sacrifice quality for quantity because it’s the only way to get the job done. Nobody’s perfect, and that’s a fact. Do your best, and keep throwing real food at them till they’re hungry enough to eat it. They won’t starve themselves, I promise.

Here’s a few common pitfalls to avoid:

  • Cooking two dinners, one for you and one for them. Don’t do it. You don’t need that hassle at the end of a workday, and they don’t need to feel that you’re willing to go to those lengths to coddle their delicate taste buds.
  • Forcing your kids to eat foods that just do not taste good to them. I’m a huge proponent of ‘you have to try it’, but if they honestly try it and it isn’t to their taste, do not force it on them. Do not plan whole future meals around it. Your kids are human beings, and we all have tastes and preferences, and within reason those should be respected.
  • Allowing them to order the hamburger kids’ meal at the ethnic restaurant. This is a HUGE one. In fact, I try to avoid the kids’ menus altogether in a lot of places (though fortunately here in Austin you can usually find GOOD ones), and wherever possible I find an adult dish both kids like and split it between them. Or, I bite the bullet and let them both order off the proper menu. Taking kids to restaurants with a variety of ethnic cuisines can be as close to travel as many single moms will ever be able to give their kids. Enjoy it. Frame it as an adventure. My kids will eat Ethiopian and sushi, fer crissakes, and that’s because I never left them behind or let them think there was anything ‘weird’ about the food they were eating. It’s just food. Folks in Ethiopia eat with injera every day. The world is getting smaller every single moment, folks. If you want your kids to be successful in the global arena of the future, they can’t go ‘ewwwwwwww’ at a piece of raw fish. Seriously.

Food is life. It sustains us body and soul. And that brings me to my final tip: take your kids to the farmer’s market. Every Saturday (barring t-ball games) we go to the farmer’s market, and explore. We poke around veggies that even I am not sure what to do with (kohlrabi, anyone?), and we taste all manner of things, and for less than grocery store shopping we come home with bagfuls of food, including foods they picked out themselves.

To get you started, how about a weeknight recipe, kid-tested: Black Bean Soup.

Variant A – Are you semi functional in the AM, or looking to save some money? Start here.
Take a small bag of black beans. Dump them into a colander, and swish them around under the faucet for a sec to make sure there’s no little stones in there (it happens!), then pour them into a crock pot. Add a half cup of chopped onion (doesn’t have to be chopped finely), a teaspoon of cumin, and a couple of teaspoons of salt. Fill the crockpot with water so that the beans are covered in about three inches of liquid. Set on low and go about your day.

Variant B – Just let me open some cans, dammit.
Heat a soup pot on medium-low heat while you:

  1. Chop one small onion (coarsely is fine)
  2. Smash and dice a couple of small garlic cloves

Add those two ingredients to the soup pot with about a teaspoon of olive oil and set to sauteeing, then open:

  1. Three cans of black beans (here’s where you use the crockpot beans if you went that way)
  2. One can of chopped tomatoes (or Mexican stewed tomatoes, or the mild Rotel, all good here)
  3. One can of corn

I usually add the tomatoes first to deglaze the pot a bit, then the rest. Once you’ve got everything in the pot:

  1. Add a tablespoon of cumin
  2. A teaspoon of mild chili powder
  3. Leave to simmer on low, uncovered, stirring occasionally
  4. If you have it, chop up some green onions and cilantro and add them in toward the end of the process
  5. Go back and adjust for taste, adding salt and pepper (or tabasco, but carefully) till you’re happy with the levels
  6. Serve with shredded cheese, and/or a dollop of sour cream

Quesadillas are fabulous to round out this meal, but then you can also make some cornbread or just warm some flour or corn tortillas. The whole meal can be on the table in 20 minutes, no joke, and this is my daughter’s favorite meal of all time. As in, she asks me to make for her birthday dinner.

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5 responses

21 04 2007
Warped Kevin

I think you should add to this, that your kids will normally eat several times throughout the day, but they are also fiends for fluids!

29 04 2007
Sara

I grew up in a house that was very big on unpackaged foods, though it was more an issue of economics than one of nutrition or food philosophy. I’m glad that I grew up with a taste for whole grains and a sense for what I’m actually buying when I buy packaged foods, but I also have a lingering fetish for the junkiest of junk foods. Radioactively orange cheese powder, McDonald’s everything, sugar cereals – I am positive that a lot of these yearnings are the direct result of commercialism and wishing that my parents would just buy me the hostess cupcakes like the cool kids have. I think a little more integration of that kind of stuff into my life as a kid would have shortened my fast food-filled first years out of the house.

29 04 2007
moshpitmom

Re: Sara

Oh, I agree. That’s why once in a while the boychild gets McDonald’s, or fruit snacks in his lunch, or something along those lines. My daughter has a fetish for the really awful mac ‘n cheese. The trick, I think, is to make sure they know those are indulgences, and not real food. The real food is stuff that has, you know, food in it 😉 Food’s such a huge part of socializing that you do have to keep an eye toward what you send in that lunch bag.

For what it’s worth, though, when my son takes his little bento kit to school with the clip-together fork and spoon all tied up in his blue dragon cloth, the kids think it’s the coolest thing EVAR, and don’t much care what he’s got inside except that it’s in wee little containers. *g* Kids are funny.

5 05 2007
Lorelei

Cooking two dinners, one for you and one for them. Don’t do it. You don’t need that hassle at the end of a workday, and they don’t need to feel that you’re willing to go to those lengths to coddle their delicate taste buds.
Forcing your kids to eat foods that just do not taste good to them. I’m a huge proponent of ‘you have to try it’, but if they honestly try it and it isn’t to their taste, do not force it on them. Do not plan whole future meals around it. Your kids are human beings, and we all have tastes and preferences, and within reason those should be respected.

How are these suggestions compatible? If they absolutely cannot stand something that you cooked, and you shouldn’t force it on them, and you shouldn’t cook something separate for them, then what?

26 05 2007
moshpitmom

To Lorelei – it would seem that way, right? *g* But take for instance, spinach. My son loves it sauteed, barely wilted, with some lemon juice and not much else. My daughter likes it only raw. So she gets her spinach raw with her favorite dressing, and my son and I eat it the way we like it. If my daughter didn’t like it at all, then I would fix something else in the same ‘family’ that we all like, like broccoli. It’s a logistical thing, I guess.

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