Parents who struggle with picky eaters (such as a four-year-old who rarely lets any food pass his lips that is not of the breaded or pureed variety—not that I know such a child or anything…), you have probably consulted any number of internet sites or parenting self-help books for advice with mealtimes. The gist of most advice-givers is that family mealtime is imperative, and your picky eater will eventually come around if you offer new foods enough times. Just have a good attitude and keep trying! And whatever you do, don’t become a short order home cook, catering to your children’s mealtime whims.
Well, you know what, this advice doesn’t always work. While I do believe family mealtime is important, we don’t do it every night—maybe four nights a week if we’re lucky. Some nights, I can psych myself up to prepare a nice family dinner in a timely manner. Other nights, I don’t have the energy to do it, and quite frankly, most days I just don’t enjoy it very much.
The main roadblock to achieving the type of smiling family dinnertime togetherness pictured in public health PSAs and Stouffer’s commercials is my four-year-old world champion picky eater. Even though we grow a garden, prepare meals together, eat together (fairly often), and offer a variety of foods on my son’s plate, he outright refuses to eat most of them.
Admittedly, we have not stood our ground on the “eat it or starve” tactic, forcing him to eat what we eat or go hungry, but I just can’t do it. I don’t make him try a bite of everything on his plate or stay at the table until he has a clean plate. I also don’t like rebuking him by taking away another privilege, like TV time, if he refuses to eat. I try to keep a calm demeanor and hope that hunger will be punishment enough.
A typical dinner time in our house consists of my cooking something that my husband and I would like to eat for dinner with secondary thoughts about whether the kids will eat it. For instance, I decide to make chili. Neither of the kids will eat this, so I make the girl a cheese quesadilla and the boy a piece of cheese toast since he recently started refusing quesadillas. My daughter’s plate will also include a “salad” (lettuce she can dip in honey) and some fruit. My son’s plate will include the cheese toast (which is a crapshoot as to whether he will eat it), applesauce, and his standard cranberry/nut mix.
If my son is given something suspicious on his plate—like a carrot—dinnertime could get interesting. My husband and I have come to the uneasy agreement that our approach will be for us to choose what food goes on his plate and let him decide whether/how much to eat. If he’s in the mood to eat, he will. Otherwise, it really doesn’t matter what we say—he’s not going to do it. Sometimes this ends in, shall we say, an inappropriate expression of anger on the part of a grown-up and a downward spiral of dinnertime. No Stouffer’s commercial here.
Other nights, I just might be in the mood to make a nice dinner for my husband and myself and cook a box of mac n’ cheese for the kids to eat ahead of time—because if I’m making a “nice dinner,” it’s not going to be ready until after kid bedtime. This is honestly a much more pleasant experience all round since everybody gets what they want to eat and can do it at their own pace.
Now, some of you no doubt will read this post and think “Wow. She’s really doing it wrong. How hard is it to make a family-friendly meal and all eat together? Her children sound like a couple of brats.” My answer? We can all be a little bratty sometimes when it comes to our own personal eating habits. Right now, I’m doing the best I can—staying focused on encouraging good table manners and modeling good eating habits myself, hoping that one day my kids will develop a more adventurous palate.
You can read all the picky eating advice columns you want, but sometimes the reality is that you just choose to save your own sanity by knowing when to retreat from battle, order a pizza, and pop open a bottle of wine to help you forget about all your motherly shortcomings—at the dinner table and otherwise.