EAT! Family Meals with the Picky Child

Child disgusted at lobster

My wife and I consider ourselves quite cosmopolitan. We are explorers in life, and seek out new experience and sensations. It has long been a part of our culinary lives to try new foods and new ways of preparing familiar foods.

Table with Seafood

Weekly my wife conducts us through a parade of cuisines  from Thai to Russian to Indian to Georgian and back again. We also rarely miss a chance to try unusual food when we are out and about. This is often to the horror of our seven-year-old son, who regularly is served meals that he obstinately refuses to eat. For years this has made meal time not only a culinary adventure, but a mighty battle with a determined foe.

Child not eating at meal.

It has been a struggle to learn how to respond to our son’s refusal to eat. First, my wife puts enormous effort into what she cooks for our family. Second, for us having an open mind is a major virtue. Third, it does not help that our son has a strong preference for sugary and carbohydrate laden foods (candy, breads, and sweet drinks).

Child Covering Eyes at Table

In the end, we find ourselves indignant that he won’t eat what has been so laboriously prepared for him, disapproving that he won’t try new things, and concerned that he is choosing foods that we believe are unhealthy for him. As his parents, we want to foster in him the virtues we admire, such as open-mindedness and willingness to explore. We also want him to be healthy. So for years we pushed him to eat, thinking that if he would just try the food he might learn to like it. This made meal time a forum for argument, negotiation, shaming and often tears – sometimes on both sides. It really turned something that we loved into a very stressful experience and robbed it of much of its joy.

Child disgusted at lobster

I found that there were three issues at work, and how we dealt with them required different approaches:

1. Appreciation. The kind of meals that we prepare at home turn the kitchen into a full-blown production area. I know, because I am the one that has to do the clean up, and that means numerous utensils, pots, pans, and preparation surfaces. It is no small task. Therefore, I understand my wife’s dismay when Andrew refuses to even try what she has prepared. I share the feeling, as I have this strong feeling that he “owes” her some appreciate for her work.

However, I think that how one can show this appreciation is not tied only to eating the food. We can teach Andrew to express his appreciation in other ways. It is hardly a way to exact appreciation by force. When we do serve something that he doesn’t want to eat, it makes a perfect teaching moment for how to make a polite refusal. This is something he needs to know how to do, and a good opportunity to learn to communicate his respect, and appreciation without having to do what he has been asked to do. This is valuable life skill.

2. Exploration. Neither of us think very highly of people that will not try new things. It is a virtue for us, and something that we look for in our friends. It cuts close to home when we think that our child may not share the same values as we do. We want to instill what we think of as a positive quality. However, we both recognize that it is a part of a person’s autonomy to develop their own views, and Andrew is going to develop his own views whether we want him to or not. Instead, this is a chance for us to show that we respect his limits, but we still see our mission to continue to expose him to new foods. The door remains open to him to try when he is ready.

3. Nutrition. As a parent this seems to be the hardest area because it is the area that seems to best justify forcing Andrew to eat. It is good for him to eat. He needs proper nutrition. He can’t develop a healthy body by just eating sugar and bread. I am not going to back down on any of these thoughts, because they are correct. It IS good for him to eat healthy food. What my wife and I have to do is to recognize that he IS eating acceptable foods, just not as often as we would like. He’s not overweight, he is not undernourished, and his doctor has made it clear to us that children don’t eat every meal, but will eat enough to get what they need.  Whether a child is getting adequate nutrition is an objective measure. What we have learned is that we lose sight of what that is, especially when we are dealing with our feelings about points 1 and 2.

Child Eating at RestaurantIn the end, we have made the choice not to let Andrew’s pickiness limit our meals. He is included as part of the meal with us. He gets a plate. He has the choice to join us or not. We want to expose him to many foods. What is important is that whether he eats or not, he stays at the table and is part of the family meal.

Evan Taylor is a traveler, lawyer, and returned Peace Corps volunteer. He is a strong believer in that we need a science of morality as comprehensive as our currently understanding of the physical world. Otherwise, he an avid listener of EDM and wants to learn to dance Bachata.