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From toddler food to family meal

(article, Cindy Burke)

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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. 

[%image "promo-image" float=left width=400 caption="Do you have a picky eater?" credit="Photo: iStockphoto/Karen Squires"] 

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.  

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?

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