You never had an Easy-Bake Oven and definitely never wanted to be barefoot in the kitchen, but lately something’s changed: you’ve discovered the Joy of Cooking. The results aren’t always perfect, but you make more hits than misses and want to embrace the foodie within. Unfortunately not everyone’s on board. After curling up with cookbooks and then chopping, whisking, and sautéing through the carpal tunnel, nothing stings more than your three-year-old’s verbal slap of “Yuck – what is that?” shortly followed by “I’m not hungry.” Ouch.
Eat or eat not. There is no try.
We watch a lot of Star Wars. Or, at least, our six-year-old watches, memorizes, and re-enacts a lot of Star Wars, which we often tune out… mindfulness in moderation. But we pay attention when Yoda speaks; a fictional nine-hundred year-old Jedi grand master has a lot of wisdom to share.
A picky eater can be more frustrating than a toilet training toddler. Laying down the law won’t work: no matter what you serve he’s the one who decides what to actually eat. Saying whatevs won’t work either: what would otherwise be a phase will turn into years of sugar crashes and less than stellar nutrition. So what will work? Encouraging his independence and self-assertion while teaching natural consequences. Props if you smell a dessert bribe coming!
But, as much as one of us disagrees, dessert alone can’t solve any problem. Here’s what else to do:
- Involve him all. the. time. in as many different ways as possible: set him up on a step stool to work alongside you, break out the watering-can and grow a tomato plant or two, let him choose one thing “off the list” at the grocery store, meal plan it out together, and introduce Weelicious chefs Chloe and Kenya to up the fun factor.
- Play with food! When our middle child was three, he wouldn’t touch a hard-boiled egg until we bought a slicer and he got to chop Humpty Dumpty. And his older brother, the Star Wars fan? He’s a fantastic eater now but when we were power-struggling, we practiced our own Jedi mind tricks using asparagus light sabres, quesadilla x-wing fighters, and clementine death stars. The Force was strong.
- Be sneaky honestly. Hide healthy ingredients in food they love, but let them know AFTER they’ve taken a few bites. Subtly, as in “Yum! That avocado sure made the chocolate pudding creamy,” half under-your-breath, and not “Got you – you just ate avocado. Suck it!” while doing a victory dance. Sure, they might push the rest away initially, but after a few more tries they’ll realize maybe they don’t dislike avocado as much as they think they do (at which point you can serve it in its natural form without rejection… sometimes).
- Let them think they’re being sneaky too. When prepping veggies together, explain how fun it is for chefs to eat the ingredients when no one’s looking. Overact the sneak factor and then try not to laugh when you turn your back and they imitate you. Take it further by putting “sneaksters”, aka healthy appetizers, on the table before the rest of the meal.
- Don’t oversnack – they won’t starve. Same goes for over-liquifying, especially if they drink a lot of milk.
- Don’t become a short-order cook but also don’t set yourself up for failure: serve one meal that incorporates one of each family member’s faves.
- Don’t set them up for failure by overloading their plates: give realistic portion sizes and only very small amounts of new (likely to be rejected) foods. The rest of the meal can be placed on the table so they can help themselves to extras (with the caveat: more of what you like after some of what you don’t).
- Set an example. Those little monkeys love to imitate you and pay attention when you always choose the same meal from the same restaurant.
And yes, dessert. We technically have two desserts, so we all succeed even on the fail nights. They know the rules:
1. They can have (the real) dessert WHEN (not if) they finish all their dinner.
2. They can have fruit WHEN they’ve tried one bite of everything and also eaten at least the total number of bites as their age.
They never go to bed hungry and are developing healthy eating habits. Desserts are typically a small scoop of ice cream, but if we’re trying something sure to get “the look”, we plan something yummier. A lot of fails are re-introduced after Halloween and when leftover birthday cupcakes are lying around. And if they really hate that one newbie bite it’s okay to spit it out. Sorry Yoda, but trying is the key. Halfway through dinner the other day our four-year-old said “At first I thought this was yuck but it’s actually yum.” Guess what went into the journal that night?
You’ll never win the food war. In the words of someone wiser: if no mistake have you made, yet losing you are, a different game you should play.
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