You know, I only write these headlines so that many, many people will find me through goggling. Because I so totally know that there is no foolproof method for anything in child-rearing. But then, I am a little tired of hearing all these mothers saying, “But she doesn’t like anything. If I don’t give her [enter food of choice here] exclusively she’ll starve herself to death.”
First of all I very much doubt it. Most children tend to have that much survival instinct that they don’t starve in front of a full plate. As the wise Moxie always says food is one of the few things that children can control. The more it is important for you the more you will have a power struggle. So now I tell you what we did. And our son eats absolutely everything. So when he was about nine months old we started giving him part of the meals that we were eating. When he was older than a year he ate everything we did. We continued cooking the same as ever, only, we found out that eating hot food caused his diaper rush so we cut back on that.
What we do is this: At mealtime we sit down and everybody gets a plate with the meal of the day. With all of it. My son then eats. When he is clearly done, the rest will be thrown away. If he decides to eat nothing, well that’s fine too. But then this is it. No substitute, nothing to eat until the next designated snack time. Period. If he decides that asparagus is not to his liking, well, then he’ll just have to eat potatoes only. The next time we have asparagus there will be asparagus on his plate again. Interestingly he often then decides to eat the exact same food that he left over last time and to shun the potatoes.
It also helps that we eat everything. You know that children learn more through example than through your words, don’t you? And I have to tell you that I was a very picky eater as a child. And to be honest I still don’t like strawberries and raw tomatoes. Though I’m not allergic to them. So, when I’m at home I don’t eat them – mostly. When I am somewhere else and somebody makes strawberry cake I say thank you, smile and eat strawberry cake. I come from a family of picky eaters. My father doesn’t eat: rice, pasta, poultry, fish and innards. My mother doesn’t like mushy foods, peas, lentils and beans, anything with a strong taste (like brie), hot or spicy. My sister’s a vegetarian and doesn’t eat: eggplant, bell peppers, mushrooms, zucchini, and I don’t know what else. In addition to the strawberries and raw tomatoes I used to be a vegetarian too from the age of 18 to 29 and didn’t like celery.
Imagine cooking for that family. You make something like pasta bolognese and end up cooking potatoes too for my father and have your two children eating pasta with ketchup. Or you make something like bean soup and have three people eating bean soup (vegetarian bean soup) and one eating leftovers from the day before. My father doesn’t like vegetarian meals, when my mother wanted fish she had to make something else for the rest of the family, it took all the fun out of cooking. Interestingly even the people who clearly dislike certain foods will eat them when they are prepared differently. The on not eating peppers will like the vegetable quiche with bell peppers, the one not eating poultry will eat Tandoori chicken every day when in India, it’s all a bit mysterious. And every single one of them will at least try everything that my husband has cooked, because he is a formidable cook.
When I moved to Bavaria and started living alone, life became a culinary adventure. New kinds of pasta! Eggplant! Greek cheese! French cheese! Wow! Then we went on vacation in Italy, the whole family together and everything was just so delicious that I gave up being a vegetarian and started eating meat and fish again. Imagine having the whole menu to choose from! When you’re in a traditional German restaurant and you are a vegetarian you have actually about two or three choices: vegetables with a fried egg on top, Kasspatzen (which is a special kind of pasta with cheese), and Semmelknödel with mushrooms (not strictly vegetarian since there is broth in the sauce). In Bavaria especially they even have bits of ham in your vegetables, because obviously there has to be something in it to make it edible. So after ten years of that I started eating everything. I tried things I never ate before, seafood, exotic vegetables (garlic!), cheeses from all over the world, Italian salami, chick peas, Indian food, Greek food, Thai food… Marvelous.
My husband is not only a fabulous cook, he comes from a family where there are no picky eaters. None. Period. So we decided to make our son a non-picky eater. So far we have succeeded quite well, but I found out how this picky eating thing might have gone. When he started eating the same food as we there were often things that he obviously didn’t like. He left onions on his plate, he didn’t eat the outsides of his bell pepper, he didn’t like asparagus. And I found myself panicking, “Oh, he doesn’t like onions!” But I didn’t stop giving him onions to eat. Also we tried to introduce our son to every food we could imagine because I had read that all children get picky at age 3 to 8 or so. And right, for the last year or so he has started announcing that he doesn’t like this or that and wouldn’t eat it. This has become a little more since he started eating lunch at preschool because all they get there is traditional German cuisine. And pasta bolognese. But since we always respond with, “You can stay hungry if you want to.” he just eats. Sometimes he doesn’t eat his potatoes, sometimes he doesn’t eat his meat, sometimes he eats all the meat first and wants seconds, sometimes he eats only potatoes… All in all he gets a very rounded diet. Sometimes he eats only one or two bites, sometimes he eats more than me. His needs obviously are changing.
When we go to a restaurant he gets part of our dishes too. He may choose which one to have, but he can’t choose his food. We don’t have to order something special for him since restaurant portions are too big anyway and he doesn’t eat that much. One thing I found is that people seem to suggest to him that some foods might be unsuitable for a child. Like, “What? You’re eating FISH!” or “And when you’re going to an Indian restaurant, what do YOU eat?” Well, the same as Indian children I’d say. If it’s too hot he gets a little yoghurt stirred into the dish and more rice. My husband and I are a little jealous of him because our childhoods didn’t include olives, foreign cheese or even Chinese food. When we grew up pasta and pizza were considered exotic.
You might think that I’m only lucky and maybe I am, but I didn’t make this into a power struggle and I think this is key. You might also think that I wouldn’t have done this if my child were underweight, but you’re wrong. I recently found out that according to US growth charts my son would be considered seriously underweight. By German standards he is on the light side of the chart with no need to worry. My mother thinks he should gain weight because one can see his ribs sticking out. I think he is like me and like my husband’s brother, a skinny kid. Since he is healthy, growing, smart and active I don’t worry.