Before I get started, I just want to let you know that these are totally old photos of food I’ve taken over the past year, so boring, right? I wish I could have made some amazing meal for you, posted the process and the mouth-watering end result sitting on a beautifully decorated table, but I’m in the process of getting my family ready for a trip to Nantucket, so it’s been a lot of Trader Joe’s enchiladas and frozen meatballs the past few days. So here’s an old one for you instead. I must have had a lot of time on my hands that evening. Now that I’m made that disclosure, on to the daily dinner struggle.
When my first son started eating solids, I of course figured I would make all his food because, duh, I love to cook. Big batches of bright rainbow colored purees of butternut squash, zucchini, plums, peas – basically every fruit and vegetable under the sun blended to a pulp until you could suck them through a straw that I froze in cute little ice cube trays. I even thought it would be a great idea to add breast milk to the purees to thin them out because First-Time Mom Syndrome. As if adding water wasn’t good enough. I’m kinda rolling my eyes at my first-time mom self right now. I quickly wised up, realizing I would have to be pumping like a cow on the regular to make that actually happen, and since I had a son who already nursed round the clock I quickly switched to using water. I eventually added things like quinoa to the purees once he started to get the hang of the whole eating thing. My first-time mom self was so proud of the fact that I had a baby who ate everything. EVERYTHING. Didn’t turn his nose up at one of the foods I offered him. As if I was winning some award for having the best eating baby on the planet. Again, eye roll. Because guess what? At around two years old, that best eating baby on the planet suddenly wasn’t.
He continued to eat breakfast and lunch, loving avocado, fruit and yogurt, but dinner became a nightmare because all he wanted were hot dogs. Like, what? You used to love sweet potatoes and asparagus and lentils and beets and carrots and (insert random vegetable here), dude! HOT DOGS??? Oh, how my heart shattered into a million pieces with the thought of my fridge full of Oscar Meyer wieners, my award for having the best eating baby on the planet going up in flames. I continued to make regular meals, trying to bribe him to take a bite. Now, I realize toddlers can develop a thing with new tastes and textures, but the gagging that would happen when I would finally get him to take a bite of something always seemed a little dramatic. So you know what I did? I eventually caved and let him have a hot dog a few nights a week, but of course they had to be organic. Again, First-Time Mom Syndrome. And guess what? The world did not end. (I joke about the organic stuff and being extra diligent in giving your kids the best, but I really do believe it’s important. I’ve just learned over the years that a non-organic-whatever every once in awhile will not scar them for life.)
*Side note: in case you’re a first time mom reading this and thinking of making your own baby food, just know that by the time I got to my second son I was no longer making as many special purees for him, instead simply pureeing modified versions of whatever we had for dinner.
Fast forward to age four and he suddenly was open to trying things again. Not necessarily cleaning his plate, but having even one bite was certainly a step in the right direction. Fast forward even more to age eight and he eats everything, oftentimes asking for more. So yes, there is hope out there for you if you have a child who suddenly stops enjoying all the healthy foods he or she once ate as a baby. My other boys went through the same phase (again, still enjoying breakfast and lunch), only I knew how to better navigate the situation. I didn’t push them to eat because who wants their child on the verge of vomiting all over the floor over a bite of chicken. Instead, I followed their lead, figuring they would let me know when they’re ready to eat dinner again.
So where are we right now? My oldest two sons love to eat dinner. My fourth is hit or miss. My third son, however, will not touch it, often telling me I make the most disgusting dinners in the world. Oh, how I’d like to break out one of those “back in my day” lines when he insults me like this, but I try to (calmly) tell him it’s fine if he doesn’t want to eat, but he still has to sit at the table and there is absolutely no dessert.
So here are a few of my dinner “rules” and tips:
You get what you get and you don’t get upset. This is not a buffet where you can pick and choose what you would like to eat for dinner, so if you don’t want to eat it, don’t eat it. I know this might sound harsh, but if your child is hungry, he or she will eat. Believe me. My husband once said, “well, if you don’t want to eat dinner, you can have cereal”, but I immediately squashed that because that’s more of a treat for them than anything else, and no one would ever eat what I made so they could have cereal.
You can’t say you don’t like something until you try it. Hearing “I hate brussels sprouts!” annoys me to no end because 1. I hate the word “hate” and 2. How can you say that since you haven’t tried them since you were 18 months old? I want them to be adventurous and encourage them to try new things, even just a bite, because food is everything! We went out for dinner the other night and my oldest two worked up the nerve to try the grilled octopus my husband and I were sharing. And guess what they said? “Mmmmm, that’s good! Tastes like chicken.”
No dessert unless you’ve had at least one bite of everything. I use the term “dessert” loosely because it’s usually something simple like a chocolate chip or a slice of chocolate covered banana from Trader Joe’s, but it does help in getting them to try new foods.
Get the kids involved. Whether it’s letting them pick a recipe to try, having them help prep in the kitchen or a build-your-own taco bar for dinner, kids do amazing things when they feel like they’re in control. Trying the dinner they helped prepare may not be as big of a deal as trying the dinner you plopped down in front of them.
Occasionally make meals you know will make them happy. Like I said before, healthy foods are important, but if you know your kids love chicken nuggets, don’t feel guilty serving them for dinner once in awhile because THEY WILL EAT THEM. If they love meatballs, make sure to add them to the menu for the week. I think you can strike a good balance between healthy and maybe not-so-healthy that can make everyone happy. No mom is perfect, so don’t beat yourself up if your child isn’t eating kale for every meal. That would be nice, of course, but sometimes that’s not a reality. Maybe try adding kale to smoothies instead of serving it raw or steamed as a side.
If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Just because your kids don’t like something today doesn’t mean they won’t like it a month from now. Keep putting broccoli on their plate because one day they might actually try it.
Monkey see, monkey do. We all know kids are sponges, so if they see you enjoying healthy food, there’s a good chance they will want to try it too. If they see you enjoying fast food on a regular basis, well, they might request a Number 2 from McDonald’s every night.
Clear your plates. This has nothing to do with eating, but it has everything to do with helping to clean up.
If you have a picky eater or a child who refuses to eat, please don’t lose hope. Stick with encouraging them to eat without being pushy, and you might just be surprised with the results. If all else fails, there’s always hot dogs.