Feeding Kids

Right now I am an expert in feeding children.  I have no formal training but I'm pretty sure I've logged nearly the 10,000 hours necessary to qualify me as an expert. Or thereabout.

Food and kids became a focus for me when Mimi was a baby and I went out to eat with a friend of mine and her four year old.  She ordered two full size meals, one for her and one for her boy who demanded a fancy adult size hamburger with sides.  The kid ate one bite. I was aghast!  Why would you pay money for food your kid won't eat? Also, I was buying and it made me mad -- she packed up the other meal and took it home.  You're welcome for the two meals.  Another time I had some kids and their parent over for dinner and the parent brought out an entire meal she'd prepared at home for the kids.  When I asked, "Oh, do they have allergies?" She responded, "No, they just won't eat anything but XYZ."  The parent had been preparing separate meals for those little turd kids just because they were picky.  I vowed I wasn't going to let my kids be the boss of food.  Mama doesn't play that.

I don't know much about nutrition and we aren't a granola household, but I do know how to get kids to eat vegetables, foreign food, new food, and food other kids simply refuse. I feel really proud of this accomplishment and, while I grant that children are unique and have specific demanding tastes, I believe it is my doing and my hard work that has resulted such good eaters.  It is from this admittedly boastful position that I'm going to share my strategies.  This post is punctuated by pictures of my kids eating because I have a lot of pictures of my kids eating. They say you photograph what's important to you.  But by the end I ran out so its just adorable pictures of my people.
Anyway, onward. Here are my methods:

1. Start early. Like in utero early.  
I eat a very diverse diet that only expands when I'm pregnant. My favorite foods are Japanese, Thai, Ethiopian, Vietnamese, Indian, Mexican and hamburgers.  When I'm expecting a baby I change only my mercury intake and other raw foods by avoiding big fish (tuna, yellow tail), oysters and carpaccio. Of course these are the exact foods I crave which is annoying.  I believe that whatever I eat familiarizes my fetus with what it will encounter as a child.  It turns out science agrees: What We Learn Before We're Born

2. Familiarize children with food.
Whatever you want them to eat keep it in your routine.  If they've smelled Mexican food their whole lives it won't be such a jump to eat it.

3. Feed them young
As soon as my kids can eat table food they are given food that has a lot of flavor.  Anything I eat I share with them in small bits. Mimi loved miso soup as a tiny baby, Silas snacks on seaweed, Jude inhaled udon noodles in Tokyo. Baby Lou eats teriyaki salmon and edamame.  

4. Take advantage of their greediness.
If kids see you eating they want some.  The more you keep it away the more they want it.  This week Lou was grabbing at my Wheaties so I spooned her some.  Jude watched me make and eat sugarless unappealing for kids oatmeal from trader joe's and begged for a bite.  Now he likes oatmeal.

5. Be trustworthy about food.
My kids trust me that I will not give them food that is disgusting for them.  I don't let them take big bites of wasabi and I don't give them food I wouldn't eat myself.  Only once have I served a dinner that was legitly horrible -- a frozen butternut squash lasagne -- and it was so bad that we had to throw it away. The kids remember that night from three years ago because it only happened once.  When I want them to try something new I ask them "Have I ever given you something that you didn't like?" Other than that lasagne the answer is no.

6. Starve them.
Don't let them eat an hour before meals. Snacking can happen after dinner but not at all before. Kids who aren't very hungry don't care about eating. 

7. It's what's for dinner.
There are no options for dinner beyond exactly what I put on their plates.  There will be no separated noodles and sauce, no special meal for the kid who doesn't like what we're having, which, by the way, has never happened. It wouldn't occur to my kids to ask for something else. Never introduce that option.  They are welcome to pick through things, but if they draw attention to that behavior I will disallow it.

8. "The world doesn't care what you don't like."
I find children who vocalize their dislikes offensive so my children have learned to self regulate with that phrase, "the world doesn't care what you don't like." Feeding children is also about teaching them about service: I or somebody else made this food and impoliteness will not be tolerated.  If you don't like it, keep it to yourself and figure out a way to get full anyway because there aren't any other options and you may not be rude.

9. Make vegetables delicious.
If your kids won't eat vegetables, make better vegetables. Anything is good if you douse it with olive oil and sea salt and roast it in the oven at like 425 for 15 minutes. Add butter and cheese. Give them ranch dip. All children like dipping.  

10. Lie (within reason).
I grew up not liking Brussels sprouts because my siblings didn't like them.  When my kids were really little we took Brussels sprouts and fed them to the ponies down the street.  From thence forth they weren't called Brussels sprouts, they were called "pony food" and the kids thought it was hilarious that they  got to eat the same thing they gave to  the horses.  I introduced them with those bags of frozen Brussels sprouts swimming in butter, now they'll eat them roasted in olive oil and sea salt.  When they hear bad things about Brussels sprouts they don't associate it with pony food.  Same with onions.  "Are there onions in this?" "Nope."  I only trick them when it's to their benefit to not know.

11. Names are important.
Salmon is called Nemo at our house.  Any meat is called chicken because Jude is sure he loves chicken.  He will eat anything.

12. Use reverse psychology.
Whatever I'm eating I often abandon it for a few minutes with the express instructions, "Do NOT eat this."  No child can resist that. Then they want to share when I come back because they've tasted it and discovered it's good.

13. I'm not above bribery.
No eat, no treat.

14. Employ them.
The more my kids help in the kitchen the more they enjoy the food we make.  The mess is worth it.  It's super scary letting them chop things with sharp knives but it's so exciting for them to be allowed to use knives that they become very invested.  Working next to the stove is a risk but they love the responsibility and it's a good lesson in cause and effect.  Some day I'll let them take things out of the oven but not yet.

15. Put them in charge.
Once in a while I'll have the kids plan and make the whole dinner while I sit and watch. When Mimi was five she could make teriyaki salmon, edamame, and rice. Silas makes corndogs, Jude makes quesadillas.

16. Beans and Rice!
Teach them the magic of beans and rice. Nearly every foreign food has beans and rice in some form of another.  Wherever we go out to dinner they know they can at least eat that and be happy about it.  Once they're in the restaurant they become comfortable with the different spices used on the beans and rice which serves as an introduction to the rest of the food. Also, ordering beans and rice means that I don't have to waste money ordering them an enchilada they won't eat.  They can have bites of my enchilada/tika masala/sushi/pad thai and fill up on rice and beans. 

Trust that your children do not have stronger wills than you do: if you stick to your guns and aren't afraid to let them be hungry they will eventually eat some of whatever you offer.  If you have a picky eater I believe you've created a picky eater.  I've seen the biggest wimp eater crunch up a street scorpion in China because he was forceably exposed to weird food that he would be rude to not eat.

Figuring out what to feed kids and keeping all these tummies full three or four times a day is a lot of work, that's why I take no crap.  Thankfully, I learned a lot from my mother about firm meal times and from my dad about the wonderful world of foreign food.  I instituted the eating program at my house very early but even if you haven't there is little but will power and enforcement keeping your kids from being decent eaters and meal times being less of a pain.  I hope that when my kids are fed at other homes their fear of rudeness overrides the new things phobia that most kids have when eating away from home.  I also have to give a lot of credit to school lunches because they are exposed to things there that I don't eat so I don't make (peanut butter and jelly makes me barf but peanut butter and Nutella is magical).  

Lastly, I recommend Blue Apron.  Google it.  My husband bought Blue Apron for my birthday and it's the best gift I've ever received.  Blue Apron sends fresh ingredients for two dinners to my house every other week.  This eliminates figuring out what to make, meal planning, buying ingredients, going to the store, and wasting food because I promise I'm not a thrifty housewife who can use all the sour cream before it goes bad.  The recipes are things I wouldn't think to make, restaurant quality, and easy to follow.  My kids are my sous chefs and we love making these meals together.  I was bored with cooking and stuck in a rut, Blue Apron has made me feel like a culinary wizard and now I love cooking again.  If you want a free meal sent to your house let me know -- they give me free meals to share with friends so they can test drive the service.
Ok, now I'm hungry. To the kitchen!


Sheryl said...

Great suggestions/rules. Totally agree. My kids are for the most part pretty good eaters. We have some additional rules too. I will make them whatever they want (with in reason, and they always have a few options at least) only for breakfast, lunches, and snacks but for dinner-I get to choose. At dinner, they have to have three bites of everything no matter what. I have only made two meals in the last five years that were just too awful to even finish-they were experimental vegan recipes and they really were awful. If they get up from the table before at least trying their food they have to go to their room. Usually once they try something they always like it and eat more. If they don't, they go to bed hungry. I also don't let them drink milk with their dinner or juice or anything until after said three bites. We have plenty of treats but no treats until after a healthy snack or meal. We're strict but our kids will eat Indian food, Chinese, Thai, Italian, Mexican, and love it. So I may be strict, but I don't feel bad about it and they'll thank me for the easy going taste buds when they're older.

Circe said...

I love all the tips! My kids are similar to yours...mostly because we are too poor to have gobs of snacks lying around, and too lazy to cater to whims. If there is food, you are lucky. You should eat if before someone else does!

Anonymous said...

We were on vacation years ago with a bunch of our kids and cousins. Spaghetti with marinara sauce for dinner. My six year old nephew looked at the plate put before him and asked, "Is this the kind of spaghetti sauce that has tomatoes in it?" "Yup, it is," came the answer. He pushed the plate away stating, "I don't eat tomatoes". As I moved to pick up his plate, I thought that if he couldn't tell by looking at the sauce that it had tomatoes in it, he really didn't know what he was talking about. I took his plate of spaghetti back into the kitchen, waited about twenty seconds, and walked out with the exact same plate announcing that "this sauce doesn't have tomatoes in it". He ate it all and had seconds! I support you entirely in doing what's required to make your kids into good eaters.

Elizabeth said...

You sound like a complete legend in the feeding the kids stakes :-) Well done. I wish we has Blue Apron Here.
Have a great day.

Sarah said...


Caroline Bingham said...

I have a BIG OLE SIGN in my kitchen that says: Todays Menu: Eat it or Starve.

Also, because I'm a big, fat, meanie, if someone tells me they don't like something, they're not allowed to have anything that has that ingredient in it. Don't like tomatoes? No salsa, no spaghetti, no pizza, no ketchup, etc. And I will ON PURPOSE include whatever you don't like in everything I make until you're so hungry you are forced to eat the horrible (insert offensive food here).

Nicole said...

Wow, love your blog, thanks! Lots of good advice, and I wish I looked that good with orange hair!! Very fun. I have heard of Blue Apron, if you want to send me a sample meal we'd love to give it a try. Thanks!!