Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Meal Time Showdown

It starts out innocently, but with intention.

I choose something I know she likes (like the lovely stew that she ate with gusto at dinner last night). I don't overload her bowl, so as not to overwhelm her.

place a pretty red cloth on the paint-covered table. I give her a choice of beverages, and she chooses milk.
Then it begins.

The refusals. The whining and protesting. The anti-stew tirade. She just CAN'T feed herself. Would I PLEASE feed her? Can she PLEASE lean on me while I eat?

I place a morsel on her spoon, then leave it in the bowl for her to carry to her mouth. She hits the spoon, hard, so that the piece of beef catapults across the kitchen. I find myself trying not to giggle with astonishment at her spirit, as I listen for the sound of it landing somewhere near the fridge.

Then I'm the meanest mother ever. Margot ate her stew, so SHE'S the winner. "So I'M the LOSER!!", she wails.

I reassure her that the treat we were given at the library (my prize for identifying three poets from their portraits...but I digress) is sitting on the counter, waiting for when she's done.

It's just so unfair!

I reduce the amount I've given her by half. Then all gets quiet as I putter around the kitchen. Margot has had her treat and is almost ready for her nap. I wonder how long she'll last in this showdown that happens all too often.

A nutritionist friend once wisely told me that when it comes to food, it is a parents job to decide WHAT and WHEN. It is the child's job to decide WHETHER and HOW MUCH. I am very aware of all the possible issues that can arise when the dinner table becomes a battleground of stubborn wills, the parents insisting that the child clean her plate, the tears mixed with snot as the hated food is shovelled in against her will. The bribes for treats. The ensuing eating disorders.

I generally don't worry too much about how much she eats, as she has always been "selective". This is the child that would eat pasta with butter and Parmesan cheese, and warm milk for every meal. Or buttered bread. She grows slowly, and is small for her size. She was a hearty breast feeder, but took to solids reluctantly.

Every meal is an exercise in faith and patience, optimism and perkiness. "Eating healthy food will help you grow strong and well!" "You sure liked this stew last night!" "When we're all done eating, we'll go for a walk to see the horses!"

Not that we're perfect. There have also been bribes of treats and threats, in our more worn-down moments.

Food is such a primal issue. We all remember our mothers admonishing us with tales of "the starving children of Biafra". I've managed to avoid that ineffective argument so far; my kids are still confused about the concept of "Canada", so Biafra (or Ethiopia or Somalia) are abstract concepts at best.

We want our children to eat and grow. We want them to be grateful for what we have. We want them to appreciate the work that goes into growing and preparing food. And of course we all want that perfect scene of the family happily joining together to dine at the end of a busy day.

We've started lighting a candle at dinnertime, to symbolise the warmth and joy of joining together, and to signal the beginning of this daily event. We always hold hands and say a blessing. We parents listen to endless made-up jokes that make no sense.

But sometimes it just ain't peaceful.

She contemplates her options. If she eats the three pieces of potato and the three pieces of meat, a segment of chocolate is hers. With me quietly peeking (and sometimes photographing), I see her resolve crumble. She tells me, "I'm going to eat this now", then begins to eat. It takes all of three minutes. She is once again happy and calm, and delighted with her efforts.

I wonder why she makes things so difficult for herself. I wonder if I went too long between meals/snacks (today was library day, so our morning snack was missed) and that made her momentarily crazy. I kick myself for even mentioning the treat (they saw it sitting on the library counter), and wonder if I set her up to have a tantrum, her judgment clouded by the promise of chocolate.

I want her to trust her body, so I only offer healthy food through the day. I often put bowls of food on the table and let her serve herself so that she gets to know what she likes, and feels empowered by choice. With my own tendency to shovel food in whether I'm hungry or not, I trust in the wisdom of letting her decide whether and how much.

I have gradually let go of my need to control this aspect of her life (i.e. the "I-made-this-and-you're-damned-well-going-to-eat-it!" syndrome so common among working mothers!). My brother-in-law, who grew up in a home with six siblings, tells me that in his house, there were always two choices for dinner: take it or leave it. My best friend is a mother of five, and she does not give her children snacks. They eat three hearty meals a day, and they all EAT what is offered, because they're not in the habit of grazing through the day.

In our house, it is hard to make the kids sit at the table through a whole meal. We are gradually teaching Jude that he needs to stay at the table to eat. My girl, in this case, was free to meander about. She was in no way forced to eat. She had to come to the realisation, though, that we cannot eat treats if we don't have healthy food in our bodies first.

I know I'm not alone. Weigh in, mamas...tell me about your food battles, your best-bet meals, your own memories of dinner time as a child. It is so profound and emotion-laden. I'm not sure how to best avoid the whole meal time showdown with this one child of mine to ensure that she grows up with a healthy sense of what her body wants and needs.

In the meantime, I'm thinking I'll cook some pasta for dinner tonight.


  1. Unfortunately, I don't have much by way of advice, but I can certainly relate. For us, it seems to come and go. We'll have night after night of easygoing meals and then a week of stubborn reluctance.

    I do try and make sure I serve food I know my daughters love at least 4 evenings a week and food they really like but sometimes turn down the other nights. I also like to feed them both green veggies when they are not hungry and are engaged in an activity, usually once in the morning and once in the afternoon right after snack while coloring or while on a walk.

    I also don't hesitate to salt their food a tad with sea salt. In fact, I let them salt their food themselves with my help.

    Involving them in making the food usually helps a lot too.

    Good luck. I think (hope) it's just another one of those things they outgrow eventually!

  2. Oh dear Stephanie, have I been there with my second eldest! I found color to be a "semi-solution" to some of her eating problems. She would gravitate to bright vibrant things like sweet potato, and we all know how delicious that is!

  3. We too have this fight. My husband & I handle it differently.

    He tries and tries to serve them what they will eat paying attention to the likes and dislikes (some changing rapidly) of four children. He is driven nuts. He makes them eat so much of each thing and then they can have more of what they want, more corn or meat or whatever it is that night. No one leaves the table until everyone is done. (or we are all bored to death) Dinner takes forever.

    I don't care. I don't mean that as badly as it sounds. I serve whatever I was planing on serving. When they tell me they don't like it I tell them to eat around it or remind them of when they do. Sometimes I get frustrated, angry or bribe them. Sometimes, if I've warned them they get no snack or dessert if they don't eat. Sometimes, I just let it go. I am more likely to include the children in making the food. I don't know if that helps, but I feel like it will eventually.

    My mom never followed this herself but always told me as long as a child ate one or two really good meal not to worry too much. I remember the starving children in Ethiopia line myself. I also remember lecturing her on how the food we ate would be un-suitable for them as they had had so little to eat for so long they would likely vomit it up again anyway.

    I love the picture of her at the table from behind just a stubborn back and a table.

    A friend's daughter was so picky she would only eat a very small selection of food, I once gave her a bowl of soup that had chicken in it. She screamed and screamed for about ten minutes. Her mom was embarrassed, so was I. I always think as long as my kids know not to do that... that they will take something and smile even if they don't eat it. My friend's daughter is older now and eats more things and is very polite when served food. She had choices and helps her mother to cook now, so there are more things she likes in dinners.

  4. My youngest has always been a hearty eater--up until about 2 pm. He is a somewhat reluctant supper eater, wanting instead to eat bowlfuls of cereal. I got rid of the cereal, and due to dairy allergies in the house, no milk either. He drinks almond milk and chooses fruit, vegetables or healthy muffins. I always figured that if the snacks were all healthy and balanced, and manners were used at the table--who cares? Children eat when they are hungry. But we can't have any junk food or pop or that's all that gets eaten by him.

    My other son was the pickiest eater I've ever seen as a small child! He is now a 6'2" 15 year old boy who likes to take curry in his lunch to school. Or sushi. Or Thai. Anything weird that most kids wouldn't eat no matter what, he loves it. And he would only eat cheerios, granola bars and chicken nuggets at one point in his life.

    Hang in there, they grow and seem to come through it in spite of us.

  5. I told my three year old son he could not be excused from the table until he ate ONE piece of broccoli. He put it in his mouth and refused to swallow. He sat there for FORTY THREE MINUTES, crying, protesting...it was a battle of wills at that point. Finally, he swallowed, smiled, and ran off to play. And why, pray tell, could he have not just done that in the first place??

  6. Ah - does this sound familiar! I got so tired of putting effort into meals only to have them met with whining and rejection (and silence, sadly on my husband's part) that I instigated a say-what-we're-thankful-for rule. It helps me to hear something positive as we all sit down instead of the onslaught of negative drivel that comes firing out of their mouths. Now we have a ritual. Each person takes a turn saying what they're thankful for. My 3 year old son loves it! He now makes everyone do it no matter where they/we are for a meal. I've gotten nowhere on getting them to eat (I admit I still spoon feed OFTEN to a 3 and 5 year old).

    For years now I have dreamed that I will one day take myself up on my threats and actually put them to bed hungry. But eating is such an issue for me. I use food emotionally and to go without is abuse in my books - so I 'invite' my children to eat often. Lord help them. We're all in trouble here aren't we? But I do love the simple rule to let them choose whether and how much.

    Now that I'm packing lunches for my kindergartener - the first thing I do when she gets home is open the box to see what she didn't eat. Its awful to have lost control on her day this way - but she sure is expressing her interests without my coaxing! Now I see why it makes sense to put only healthy stuff in there because otherwise she chooses the junky processed stuff and leaves the rest.

    Oh brother - we've got a battle ahead.

    thanks for the post.

  7. Coming from a small family of 3, we had( what I since discovered) is a unique perspective. My Mom only cooked what we liked. As a busy working Mom, she figured she didn't want to waste time cooking food that people didn't like( she is by the way, and AMAZING cook!) so she just... didn't. Dad didn't like pasta, so we only ate it once ever month or so. We ate alot of your basics, meat, veg 1, veg 2 and a salad. As a busy working Mom myself, I find I am doing the same thing! My girls are very picky about things being mixed together( oh crockpot, how I miss thee!) so we BQQ, bake and stir fry and steam. And when in doubt, pasta, butter and cheese will always do the trick. Yes, sometimes we bribe and cajole, beg and plead and STILL don't seem to get anywhere, but I am hopeful that as long as I try, so will they.
    I think it's all you can do, keep trying, keep the peace and keep hoping someone will EAT THAT DARN BROCCOLI AND LIKE IT!

  8. I'm very "go with the flow" when it comes to food. I think it was because I was a SUPER picky eater as a child, and I now eat anything and everything (except olives...I just can't love olives). My Mom used to do battles with me over my eating habits. But look how I turned out! A pretty healthy eater (who probably has too much sugar, but meh.) So if my daughter won't eat what I've cooked for dinner, I usually just pull out some raw cut veggies, hummus and bread. Although I try to cook things I know she'll like (e.g. spaghetti) a few times a week, I'm also a huge fan of new recipes, and I know she won't like them - I still serve them to her though. Grazing works best for my daughter, so I tend to pull out snacks constantly throughout the day - toast and pb, yogurt, fruit, cut up veggies, cheese, and animal crackers as a treat.
    I guess what I'm trying to say is, it's probably not worth the battle, because one day you'll watch her scarf down things you never thought she'd eat. And when it comes to eating disorders (my area of "expertise!"), the best advice out there is to treat all food as food. Labelling things as junk, treats, or "good" food just reinforces our desire to want what we're not supposed to have....although I'm totally guilty of calling some food junk! :o)

  9. I recently made the most amazing (at least I thought) zucchini brownies. The first time I made them, i put a thick layer of icing on them. The second time, i did not and no one was interested in them. I didn't want to eat them all myself, so I slathered some icing on them. I still ended up eating most of it myself! I was frustrated that I baked a 'healthy' treat that no one ate. Tough crowd. My daughter is similar to yours, she did not take to solids until almost a year. She can be choosey and we usually cater to her choices as my husband often cooks spicy foods. We have had some success with the book "Deceptively Delicious" which has recipes for hiding pureed foods in other foods/meals. Sometimes my daughter can pick out the difference though. I can't say why your little one will eat something one day and not the next. I don't really get it either. I do know that making choices in thier food is important and if my daughter is forced to try a food she is not interested in it causes her great anxiety. We occasionally resort to bribery to get her to try new foods we know she will enjoy.

    The main rule we have in our house is that it's important to eat our healthy choices first, as they help our brains and bodies grow. After that they can have their treats, which my still be healthy choices.

    My kids are being raised as vegetarians so we talk about food a lot and are aware of things like alternative protiens. We do set some rules like eating atleast one complete protein a day. In our house it is usually soy milk which I usually buy organic as a chocolate milk. I make exceptions for some things like this knowing that they are important.

    My son, i have learnes is not a supper eater. He will eat things at daycare that I have never been able to get him to touch. He is very hungry on my way home from work so I always make sure to have healthy snacks for him. If I don't have anything he gets very upset. So, i guess i take cues from my kids and try not to fight them too much. I set limits and expectations, and i try to stick to them. I probably would have done the same thing with my daughter that you did with yours....although instead of getting upset my daughter may have tried to negotiate her way out of it...this can be equally frustrating.

    But, as others have said, choosey eaters grow out of it, as did I who ate bologna sandwiches for at least 10 years of my life-every day for lunch!

  10. I know the frustration well. My oldest was a picky eater. People would tell me, well they won't go to bed hungry...wanna bet! He also smells his food, a habit that he still has today (and he's 22!!) I couldn't get milk into him for love nor money, and I tried both and this was before they started adding calcium to everything.
    But in the end he did grow up (hmm, sort of) and he took a culinary arts program and cooks at his house for he and his girlfriend. Now I tell him to ease up on the milk :)
    I think it's our nature to worry about what and how much our children put into their mouths.

  11. I am so thankful that we have minimal food issues. One of the kiddos had sensory issues, but more around the intensified smells and sounds that come with eating (everyone gathered together, scraping cutlery against plates, glasess clinking) than the actual act of eating. However, that has since resolved, and our crew eats with gusto, quite possibly because there is the perception of competition for food, given that there are seven at the table. There's more than enough food to go around, but the kids get worried they might miss out on something so they load up.

  12. I don't battle over food. Most of my kids are a little older - 8+ - and they are responsible for breakfast and usually lunch for themselves. My youngest is my picky eater. He's a cereal for breakfast and PB&J for lunch kind of guy. That works for me. Dinner I cook, every night and that's what we eat. Don't like it, don't eat. Simple. And no one leaves the table until everyone is done eating ... if you're finished then you make polite conversation until everyone else is done. One of my older ones was a super picky eater as a little boy. One day he spent the night at my parents house and had dinner there. Mima told him he had to taste everything on his plate to have dessert (which we don't have at home) and that was the day he chose to start eating!

    The youngest (2) rarely eats dinner. He has, once in the last month, tried something new. And he liked it just fine, but not enough to convince him to make a habit of it. He eats a big breakfast and lunch and a afternoon snack, so I don't sweat it. A day will come, when his tastes mature a bit, when he'll start eating, until then I introduce it and let him decide on his own what he'll do with it.

    I do have battles though ... over schoolwork. And I don't have answers. So I hear your pain, I just experience it in a different arena.

  13. What a great post!
    I had this problem when the kids were very small, but when they learned to talk I just asked them every time what exactly it was that they wanted for breakfast, lunch or dinner. More often than not the plates did not get completely cleared and I remember many times when I would blow my top because they each chose something different absolutely every single time. It's time-consuming enough to cook one healthy meal at a time, much more so when you can never do with just one. But I found that the need to have something different than the brother has was in no way connected to the food preferences and so I found ways to incorporate differences in the same meal. The eldest might want the "big" pancakes with cheese, while the youngest can agree to have "small pancakes" with jam. But it's pancakes anyway, no extra effort. Or buckwheat with milk vs buckwheat with tomato sauce. Or mashed potatoes with butter vs boiled tomatoes with dill. Etc.
    Thanks for the post, it is a much needed discussion.


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