Cindy Burke is the author of To Buy or Not to Buy Organic and recipe writer for The Trans-Fat Solution.

From toddler food to family meal

January 22, 2008

Earlier this month, Culinate ran an article about “baby-led weaning,” or making your baby’s meals similar to the family dinner as soon as they begin to eat solid foods. Years ago, I did exactly that with my daughter, who is now six. After reading mamster’s comment on the article — “But it will not prevent picky eating or promote a diverse palate” — I said to myself, “Tell it, bro. I’ve been there, too.”

If you have one of those children who eat ratatouille, beef stew, and tofu scrambles, please keep it to yourself. Because until recently, I was at the other end of the spectrum. My daughter loathed every vegetable with the exception of carrots — raw only, dipped in ranch dressing. If I tried to covertly brush the barest veneer of salsa on a cheese quesadilla, she’d cast an accusatory glare at me after the first nibble. “What’s in this? I don’t like it.”

She tried all kinds of food when she was a baby (turnip! avocado! pineapple!), but sometime around age three, she stopped eating anything that wasn’t sweet, toasted, or covered in cheese. I offered a wide variety of choices for dinner, almost all of which ended up in the compost. I tried feeding her Chinese food, Thai food, Italian food — no, no, and no. For a few weeks, it seemed like she was living on air.

After months of this, I grew concerned that if Allison didn’t start eating more food, she was going get scurvy or suffer brain damage and not get into a good college. I was desperate to get her to eat meals. So I totally caved and I did that thing I swore I would never do: I started making her special toddler food. Macaroni and cheese, noodles, pancakes, grilled cheese, applesauce. And I let her eat whatever she wanted.

Do you have a picky eater?

Last spring, after Allison turned five, Pat and I felt that it was time for her appetite to grow up too. I let Allison know that it was time for her to start eating a family dinner instead of “toddler food.” My expectation, I said, was that she would taste everything on her plate and take at least five bites of dinner. She nodded and ran off to play horsey. “Okay,” I thought, “we’re on the same page.”

The first night, we sat down to a dinner of chicken, white rice, and applesauce. When she shrieked, “Where’s my dinner?” I knew I was in trouble. When I told her that this was her dinner, she immediately went boneless and slid off her chair onto the floor. Kicking the table leg and writhing on the floor didn’t get much reaction, so she started sobbing and asking over and over, “Why are you always so mean to me?” It took over an hour, in between gasping howls of outrage, to get a couple grains of rice in her mouth.

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Slowly, after weeks of torturous dinners, sobbing, threats, and misery all around, she finally began to eat the required five bites. But only if I fed her and cajoled the entire time. She took teensy nibbles, grimacing and shuddering like a cat choking up a hairball.

When I tried to get her to eat just one bite of (sustainably farmed) pork chop, she gave me the stink-eye and said, “So you want me to eat a pig’s body?” Dinner time was not fun, but progress was being made. Allison was actually starting to eat some of her dinner, most of the time.

Finally, by the end of summer, she was actually eating (a minimal) dinner without too much drama.

And then, I did something really dumb. By the time she started school again in the fall, I thought the problem was solved. So I went back to my old ways. I bought lots of snacks to eat when she came home from school. If she was hungry before Pat came home from work, I’d make her a grilled cheese sandwich or a cheese quesadilla. Within two months, she was back to not eating dinner unless it was toasted or cheesy toddler food.

Finally, Pat sat me down for a talk: “What happened, honey? It seems like you finally got her eating, and then you just gave up.” I couldn’t deny it; I had relapsed.

Pat and I came up with a plan to get Allison to eat family dinners once again, and it worked. Here’s how we did it.

  • The only snack foods in the house are fruits, carrot sticks, and saltine crackers. No Pirate Booty, no goldfish, no granola bars, no cookies.
  • If Allison and her friends are hungry after school, they can have a small high-protein snack, like cheese sticks, cooked chicken cubes, or yogurt and granola, along with pieces of fruit. No snacks are allowed after 4 p.m., so she will be hungry at dinner time.
  • Family dinner consists of a kid-friendly protein, like chicken strips, toasted fish fillets, or grilled salmon, plus at least two vegetables and one fruit. Beverage choices are water or low-fat milk.
  • No bread and butter on the table (if there’s bread, she will fill up on that first).
  • If she tries at least three bites of each vegetable and fruit, and five bites of protein, she can have dessert. I never insist that she eat everything on her plate. She can decide when she’s full.
  • Dessert is something small and sweet — a Lifesaver, a sucker, a muffin, vanilla yogurt.
  • If she simply will not eat her dinner, she cannot have dessert, but she can have plain buttered toast or a piece of cheese and fruit before bedtime.

This plan has been working very well for us. After three months, Allison is eating about half of the food on her plate without kicking up a fuss. I’ve read that many “experts” say you should not use bribery (such as the promise of dessert) to encourage kids to eat vegetables. But experience has shown me that Allison will not even try a sliver of winter squash or kale unless she knows there is the promise of dessert as a reward.

I don’t worry about it. If it encourages her to try new vegetables, I think the promise of dessert is a great thing. I know that I’ve been motivated to work out for a whole hour by promising myself that I can buy a peanut-butter cookie on the way home from the gym. You think maybe it runs in the family?

There are 6 comments on this item
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1. by BrooklynKim on Jan 22, 2008 at 2:14 PM PST

I just had a daughter, and I smugly believe she will eat anything. I can see from you story just what a dreamer I am. I am going to enjoy her early explorations and save your food rules for her toddler years....

2. by Matthew Amster-Burton on Jan 22, 2008 at 8:22 PM PST

Great column, Cindy. If it makes you feel any better, there’s no way I would have touched kale at Allison’s age, and now it’s easily one of my favorite foods. The important thing is fumbling your way to a situation that you can all live with, and it sounds like you’re doing that.

Do you get cravings for less kid-friendly dinners, and if so, how do you deal with them? My daughter Iris is not as picky as Allison, but there are a few things I’d really like to serve for dinner but couldn’t get away with. I tend to go out and eat those things for lunch by myself. (Hello, soup.)

3. by Joanna on Jan 23, 2008 at 1:44 AM PST

My four are teens and beyond, so we are out the other side of this. It’s important to realise that this passes, it’s not forever. If you weaned your child onto real food with lots of different tastes, then eventually - miraculously - they come round to the need for lots of different tastes. Maybe they would even if you weaned your child onto jars of baby paste. Sitting down together and seeing adults enjoy a range of foods - I am sure that plays a part too.

In the meantime, try to avoid making meals a battleground; I know it’s easier said than done, with one of mine, every meal was a fight for about five years, exhausting, but he now rings up from college (he’s at Oxford, so not eating didn’t stop his brain developing) asking for recipes and cookery advice SO THAT HE CAN COOK WHEN HE GOES ROUND TO FRIENDS (he is living in catered halls).

My younger son would only eat one particular really junky pizza (white flour, a smear of tomato paste, a few grains of plasticky orange cheese) for about a year, but he - and I - survived somehow. He is now a fairly adventurous eater, but, at 15, he’s got time to develop his tastes.

Both the boys cook, and always have, because I always saw that as a potential way out of the problem.

It took a while to get to a good position for getting picky eaters to widen their range, so that mealtimes weren’t a battle, but this is what we arrived at, and it works: As far as mealtimes went, we used to give everyone a little of everything, and insist that they try one mouthful every time. No-one’s allowed to say “I don’t like --“: the family mantra is “Your tastebuds change”. If food is not popular, any adults present say something along the lines of, “oh good, all the more for me/us.” And the children fill up on bread (nothing too fancy allowed on it). No snacking between meals. I suppose there must have been a few battles at the beginning of this regime, but we have stuck to it for years and years and years, because it works. These days, it’s very very rare that anyone would have to fill up on bread, although our youngest occasionally has to get a huge glass of water to force down a mouthful of something he’s not keen on.

Oh, and by the way, my mother-in-law used to say that there was a chemical compound in all the cabbage family, especially Brussels sprouts, that children can’t digest, so she would let them off. I still made them eat their one forkful. And I was never really sure if she was joking ...

Enjoy them while they’re young and still with you ... it’s a golden time, even with food fights :)


4. by Kristin on Jan 23, 2008 at 9:15 PM PST

You are a kick-ass writer. Great article, great ideas. We’ve all been there and yet the human race has continued....Let’s hear it for doing the best you can.

5. by Janice on Jan 24, 2008 at 3:58 PM PST

I think the great thing to remember is that your toddler is not actually going to come down with scurvy or other problems (hard to remember under pressure, I know). Fix healthy food, put it on the table, and that’s where your responsibility ends. They eat or don’t eat--it’s up to them. No arguing, coaxing, bribing, threatening. And if they don’t eat? Well, as my mother always said, “you’ll eat a good breakfast in the morning.” This approach totally avoids the power-struggle issues that so often arise with food. And even using it, the years from 5-7 were a bit tough with my son, so I’m not saying that the angels will sing and a golden light will appear over your dinner table. Just don’t get caught up in trying to make your child eat anything. If you’re really worried that they are undernourished, get a good height and weight measurement and talk to your doctor. But honestly, being underweight is not the big problem in America these days.

6. by cooknkate on Feb 4, 2008 at 8:10 AM PST

My son is 13 and when he was young we never encountered issues like this. He ate homemade baby food when he started solids and gradually progressed to eating small amounts of whatever we ate. A new food would be put on his plate in a small amount and he was required to eat that amount only. He wasn’t required to like it, but his preferences had no bearing on whether I made it again or not. He never dictated how our dinners evolved. There was something he would enjoy and something new all the time so he was continually being introduced to new things and not getting the same foods over and over again.

At his age now he is making more of his own choices for foods but still is required to eat a portion of whatever is made, and he does so without question or grumbling because it’s been the rule his whole life and he knows he cannot argue it. He is capable of making his own meal if he wants, but given his normal teenage lethargy, he rarely dislikes something so much that he finds the energy to cook his own food. He eats a wide variety of vegetables, tolerates fish and has tried tofu. He recently devoured an entire cantaloupe and always asks me for fresh pears and oranges. His palate is amazing. His pickiness is his own choosing.

Children are not in charge in any house, especially at mealtimes. Too many people allow this, and then wonder why their kids won’t eat the great food they cook. To me its a no-brainer. You are the parent, you make the rules. They need to understand that without a doubt.

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