Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Picky, Picky, Picky

I’ve been thinking about kids and food a lot lately. All of my kids who are able to eat solid food (which would be 75% of them) are proving themselves to be picky eaters. The four year old is in the stage (which I’ve been assured is normal) of wanting to eat only chicken nuggets, pizza, or hot dogs. The twins are at that point where they look at anything unfamiliar on their plates like you’re trying to get them to eat fried moths or something, and refuse to touch it. And now I’ve read an article that suggests that having strict rules about eating, like saying no eating after dinner is over, can backfire and kids wind up sneaking food, or pigging out, when the opportunity presents itself.

When I think back to my own childhood, I know I was a picky eater. I drove my mom bananas (not that I’d eat them, you understand). For years I couldn’t go to a restaurant if there wasn’t a hamburger on the menu. I’d eat conventional things like spaghetti, hot dogs, pizza, and macaroni and cheese, but I wasn’t adventurous. And I didn’t eat much either. My mother used to tell a story about my going to stay with some friends in London overnight when we were there on vacation. I would have been about seven at the time. An old friend and her family were living there for a year or two, and they offered to have me stay with them while my parents went out to dinner. At the risk of sounding like I’m perpetuating a racial stereotype, my friend’s mom was a typical “Jewish mother”—“Eat, eat, eat!” she’d say. When my parents came to pick me up, my friend’s mother said “Mrs. L, a nice girl your daughter is, but a big eater your daughter is not!” Clearly I drove her bananas too.

I think things started to turn a corner for me when I was in high school. I had several friends who would eat real food, and they somehow convinced me (not intentionally, I’m sure) that weird foods like broccoli and cauliflower wouldn’t kill me. In fact, I can remember going all the way downtown to get cream of broccoli soup from a particular restaurant. And the same friend whose mother said I wasn’t a big eater turned me on to cauliflower (they had moved back to this country by then). It was really more a case of my being polite and not refusing to eat something (although she couldn’t get me to eat at home, my mother did manage to instill in me the idea that it’s very rude to say you don’t like something when you’re company—just eat a bite or two and get over it). But I loved it.

I don’t remember there being any “one bite” rules or anything like that. I think my mom had enough food issues from her own childhood (my grandmother was a “children starving in Armenia” type) that she refused to hassle me about my eating habits. If she’d combined that laid back attitude with having more fresh fruit and serving more different vegetables, I’d probably be OK now. I’d still be stuck with the white bread carbohydrate attachment, because that’s what we ate in 1981. Truly whole grain bread wasn’t available, and if you ate it, you were an Earth Biscuit. But if there had been apples and peaches and grapes hanging around along with the Oreos, I probably would have eaten them and would be more inclined to eat them now. But she did all her grocery shopping from a store that delivered—you called in your order, and they boxed it up and drove it to your house. That made buying fresh produce challenging. I ate canned green beans until I was old enough to refuse to eat them on the grounds that they were foul.

So now I have kids of my own and have to decide what route to go as far as food is concerned. Do I force them to take one bite? Research points to this as being mentally scarring. Kids who were forced to take one bite of meatloaf and stuffed peppers now say that they revenge themselves by picking sushi restaurants when they’re eating out with their parents, because the parents hate sushi and the kids (now adults) love it. Since I despise sushi with an intense passion, I’m thinking this is not a good way to go. Also, it doesn’t seem to do any good to force kids to take a bite of something—if they’re forced to try it, they’re predisposed to hate it.

Or do I just let them eat whatever they want, even if they want chicken nuggets four days in a row? I know that sooner or later their tastes will expand and they’ll try new things, but I really want to be able to sit down to a family meal, and I personally do not want to eat chicken nuggets four days in a row. And of course, with four kids they’re not all going to want the same thing—research suggests that people need a freedom of choice in what they eat. But how do you walk the line between giving your kids that “freedom of choice” and being the proverbial short order cook, making this kid nuggets, that kid pizza, and that other kid a grilled cheese? I have a little time before I have to truly worry about this (my younger children still go to bed early enough that anything that can be microwaved in under a minute is the dinner of choice), but I think it’s going to take me some time to mull this one over and work out a reasonable solution.

And then there’s the sugar issue. My older son evidently inherited both mine and my husband’s sweet tooth, which means he would eat candy, cookies, ice cream, cake, and just plain sugar straight all day long if I’d let him. How do we balance letting him have a few treats now and then, with his seemingly insatiable sugar craving? In truth, he will turn down dessert if he’s too full, so it’s not as though he’s beyond saving. But we don’t want to be so restrictive that it turns into a defiance game—I’m going to eat all these candy bars because I CAN. And you can’t stop me! It’s like the old Jerry Seinfeld joke about how he’d call his mom and tell her he’d eaten a whole pint of ice cream and ruined his appetite, but that he didn’t care, because he had realized that if you ruin one appetite, there’s always another one coming!

So for now we offer the older child different foods (“Would you like to try some of this casserole?”) and he refuses. We put different things on the twins’ high chair trays, and they ignore them. Sooner or later they’ll spend enough time with friends who have eating habits that may be just as limited as their own, but who will at least eat different limited things, and they’ll start to broaden their horizons. I think part of that comes from the realization that the chicken parmigiano that they’re so ludicrously afraid of is nothing more than a breaded chicken breast (like chicken nuggets!) with tomato sauce (like spaghetti!) and mozzarella cheese (like pizza!) on it. It’s learning that the variety of foods that we eat is really very limited, and that most things are just different combinations of familiar foods. Once they figure out what the primary components are, they can know if they’ll like it or not, or if they can eat around the things they don’t like (just pick out the mushrooms, as my mom used to tell me).

I just don’t want to raise four kids with the same food hang-ups that I have or that my mom had. I’d like to break the chain with this generation.

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