How we’re eating these days

7226797670_d27ce576d0_m-1There is a common narrative out there about vegetable gardening and kids. In earnest personal essays, parents talk of their picky eaters shunning vegetables. Then they decide to grow a vegetable garden — an activity that the larger world may not value, but our essayists do! The child is fascinated by the earth’s fecundity. The child tries the vegetables. The child loves the vegetables. The parent celebrates what an awesome parent he/she is.

Or something like that.

Personally, I am not sold.

Here’s the thing. I love food. I’ll take food in any form it comes — as evidenced by my raw egg eating adventure in Japan. I love vegetables. Eating fresh produce is one of my favorite parts of summer.

One of my children seems to have inherited some of this view of food. He downs tomatoes and willingly plugged away at his broccoli. He’s asked me to cook him green beans and the other day he said “Mommy, are peppers good for kids?” and when I affirmed that they were, proceeded to eat a bowl of sliced yellow peppers. He sometimes turns up his nose at chicken nuggets and Bagel Bites (those little frozen tiny pizzas), which I can totally understand.

Another of my children does not feel this way about food. He is unhappy if two foods he likes touch each other on his plate, as if he were keeping some sort of religious dietary rules that no one understands but him. He was fascinated by the tomatoes we grew in our garden. He’d water them. He’d pick them…but pretty much refused to eat them without a huge battle. He is wary of chicken not covered with breading. He will eat egg whites but not the yolks in a boiled egg. He likes tortillas and likes cheese, but will fight over a cheese quesadilla.

These children have the same parents. I did not raise them with different parenting philosophies, if I could even identify what my parenting philosophy is. Indeed, the child who is less adventurous with food is perhaps more adventurous in social situations. I think they just taste things differently, and experience food in different ways. I keep offering new foods to the pickier eater, but try not to push too much, less dinner become an unpleasant battle. Meanwhile, I try not to automatically serve the foodie child kid food, because he might like whatever I cook for myself. 

So it is with this family situation in mind that I’ve been trying to ignore the essays about vegetables, gardening, cooking and parenting. If you like to garden, or order stuff from a CSA, great. If your kids eat it, wonderful. But whether they do or they don’t, children are their own people, not extensions of our parenting philosophies. Whether we do a great job or a so-so job, on vegetables or many other things, there’s a reasonable chance they’ll turn out pretty similar in the end. 

A sample dinner for me and the kids the other night:

Me: Roast duck, green beans, sweet potatoes with truffle butter. Yum!

Kids: Annie’s white cheddar mac n cheese (organic! As if it matters when it’s mac and cheese). Bananas. Everyone got a little piece of duck, green beans and sweet potatoes. One kid (19-month-old) refused to eat anything, I think because she was getting sick. One kid (3-year-old) ate all his green beans and popped the sweet potato in his mouth. He did not, however, eat the duck. One kid deigned only to lick the sweet potato, and took a tiny, tiny bite of the duck under duress, and complained the whole time.

In other news: A quote on time management from Eleanor Roosevelt, from her self-help book You Learn by Living: “Each of us has…all the time there is. Those years, weeks, hours, are the sands in the glass running swiftly away. To let them drift through our fingers is tragic waste. To use them to the hilt, making them count for something, is the beginning of wisdom.” (Thanks to Alyssa for pointing me to this book)

Nicole and Maggie have a post on silly things people say about gifted children.

Modern Mrs. Darcy’s Ultimate Beach Reading guide is out (free if you sign up for her once a month newsletter).

And All the Money in the World will be out in paperback next week Tuesday (May 28). If you haven’t read it yet, I’d appreciate your picking up a copy, particularly in the first few days it’s out. I would also appreciate if you request your local library order it. Thanks so much! 

Photo courtesy flickr user poppet with a camera

36 thoughts on “How we’re eating these days

  1. YES! I especially love this part ” I think they just taste things differently, and experience food in different ways”. I hate the narrative that picky eating is a moral failing (on the part of the parent, no less) and that if you just did “the right things” your kids would eat everything (everything organic and “healthy” that is). One of my kids eats his broccoli and carrots—but only when I pack them in his lunch for pre-school, he’ll shun them at home. The other won’t let a vegetable pass his lips (the 19 month old). They love to “help” plant seeds, water them, and “check on” the plants but would never EAT the peppers or tomatoes. But they are only 3 and 1, and who knows what the next years will bring. We keep offering, and we’ll see how it plays out.

    1. @Ana- yep, see how it plays out. One of my brothers was a picky eater growing up and now eats anything. I think there’s a whole science of some people being stronger tasters than others, or more repulsed by bitter foods. It changes by age, too. It would make evolutionary sense that a toddler — who could wander off from the tribe — shouldn’t want to stick everything in her mouth. It might be poisonous, particularly bitter things…

  2. I adore You Learn By Living. (It’s in the reading guide, actually.)

    This essay is catching me at an interesting time. We just put in a small vegetable garden last weekend, even though I swore we’d never do it again. I hate it–it takes too much time and I just don’t enjoy it–but I LOVE going to the town square of the neighborhood farmers’ market and buying produce there. Win/win.

    But my daughter begged us and said she’d take care of it (yes, I know how that usually turns out….) so we relented and let her put in 8 plants. She’ll eat everything she grows, I’m sure–but she was born that way. She sounds just like your bagel bites-shunning kid. (Our other kids have drifted in and out of picky eating stages.)

    Children are their own people, just like you say….but just like the grown-ups, they’re undoubtably better off eating fresh foods than doritos. And when it comes to kids’ food choices, those little people are at their parents’ mercy. They have to eat what’s around. Parents don’t have to garden or CSA or farmers’ market to raise good eaters, but serving up something than hot dogs (most of the time, at least) is probably a good bet.

    “Whether we do a great job or a so-so job, on vegetables or many other things, there’s a reasonable chance they’ll turn out pretty similar in the end.”

    Are you saying that kids in the same families turn out pretty similar in the end? Because I can’t reconcile this with the public health crisis we have on our hands, which is wrapped up with what we eat as a nation, and the scary health statistics definitely run in families.

    (Also: I have never tried truffle oil or butter or anything. I need to get on that.)

    1. @Anne-
      I mean that kids will turn out how they’d turn out anyway, if raised within reasonable norms. Obviously, locking your kid in a closet for 18 years will probably affect how she turns out, but this isn’t within a “normal” range of parenting styles. I was fascinated by economist Bryan Caplan’s book, which came out two years ago and is pretty much a drumbeat of evidence from twin studies, including studies of those raised apart, and looking at fraternal vs. identical twins. Even something like how many cavities a kid gets — which you could see as being very related to parenting, if a parent monitors tooth brushing, makes dental appointments, limits sweets — is far more affected by genetics than nurture.
      Curiously, the one thing parents seem to affect is whether the kids feel they grew up in a happy home. So letting a kid try the challenge of gardening if she wants is probably a good idea — giving her memories of being outside in summer and trying a project.

  3. At the age of 48, I am STILL that kid that doesn’t let their food touch. Nut uh, can’t do it. And I think I turned out ok (well, I am a productive member of society at least, lol).

    I have three teen age sons (17, 14, 14). The oldest lived on pb sammies for about two years. No lie. I got sick of fighting the battle and the pediatrician said he was getting protein so don’t sweat it.

    One of my twins was a VERY picky eater. He’s my most adventurous eater now. And my most voracious. He’s 6’2″ at 14 yo.

    Keep on doing what you are doing.

    1. @Connie – oh we will keep soldiering on! And I’m learning to make a mean box of mac and cheese…

  4. I loved the book Hungry Monkey. The guy brings out the science on picky eating and the main message from the science is to stop worrying about it.
    Our dominant parenting philosophy is laziness, so there’s now way we’re short-order cooking. If they don’t want to eat what we’re having, then they can have something healthy that requires no preparation or preparation they can do themselves (a piece of fruit, a can of sardines, leftovers from a previous meal etc.). Even my little sister who hates to cook can make fried egg sandwiches, as that was one of her go-tos growing up.

    1. @NicoleandMaggie – I’m definitely nixing any attempts to make me become a short order cook in the bud. There are always bagels and granola bars around.

  5. Our two boys were also totally different in their food attitudes. DS1 is the food adventurer. DS2 was the non-eater, but he loved anything to do with numbers. So his rule was: as many bites of each food as you are old. Finally at 6, he was just eating and played other “number games” at meals.

    They’re 19 and 14 now, and have been delightful dining companions for years.

    I wonder if it’s part of the “second child syndrome” (you know, the theory that if your second child had been your first, there wouldn’t have been a second!)

    1. @nother Barb – my kids had different infant/toddler sleep needs, which was interesting to see play out. When my third kid went to bed at 7:30 without complaint (until recently – now she’s starting to need less sleep, and so she kind of talks and plays in her crib for a while – sometimes complaining) I was like, really? Kids do that? My first two went to bed much later. And they seemed to grow just fine.

  6. Thanks for writing this! 168 Hours helped me ditch a persistent, nagging guilt that if I would just get my act together and grow organic kale on the deck of our skinny rowhome, that suddenly my children would happily choose all things leafy and green over gummy and dayglo.

    As I calmed down, I realized that my kids are pretty average eaters, and that the green bean to chicken nugget consumption ratio in our household is just fine.

  7. This is a controversial opinion, and I know it can be debated forever, but I still believe that people’s taste buds adopt to flavors and that they simply need to try things over and over AND OVER again and they will grow on them. This is true for kids and adults alike. I do believe that kids have more sensitive taste buds, and I do believe that some people have more sensitive taste buds than others. However, I don’t think that means that sensitive taste buds will not adapt – it just takes more time.

    Growing up, I always told myself and others that I would never raise picky eaters. As I got a little older and closer to being a parent, I began to fear that that was a naive attitude and I’d be forced to eat my words. Luckily that isn’t the case, and I can still stick by them.

    I was thrown into the ring with two step kids (5 and 6 at the time) who did not even know what vegetables were (seriously they could not identify neither a tomato nor a peach at this age). This was an extra challenging situation as they were already used to eating macaroni and PB&J and whatever else. We, my husband and I, (controversially) forced the kids to eat what was on their plate (luckily my husband has a very authoritarian style of parenting – he doesn’t need to spank or punish or yell – but can just say “you need to eat this” in a stern voice and the kids will do it without too much protest). I made it a little easier by serving them extra small portions of vegetables (e.g., 2 beans and 5 small leaves of spinach and one morsel of cucumber in their salad) and started with somewhat more simple foods and flavors. And I’ll be honest, for the first 6 months it was pretty bad. Long dinner times, a few unfinished plates and early bed times, lots of instances of chasing bites of food with big glasses of milk, lots of complaining, etc. The next 6 months were a lot better. And now, two years in, the kids (8 and 9) will eat everything that goes on their plate without complaint. Brussel sprouts, asparagus, sauteed spinach, liver, onions, you name it. They don’t love all of it, but they like a lot of it, and will tolerate the rest of it. I also think it helps that I am a pretty awesome cook and serve legitimately good food (no soggy carrots, etc.) (And I have both a full time and part time job; I just make eating healthy and cooking good food a priority in my life). If I cooked something that turned out to be gross, I would admit it and probably cut the portion sizes way down. I am also more and more adventurous with what I will serve them. Not only will they eat it, but — since I have explained often enough how much work it is to shop for and cook healthy food — they will usually catch themselves before complaining and instead say thank you for cooking. They have a ways to go – if left to their own devices, they probably would still not choose to eat most of these things, but it’s getting better every day, and I am confident that in a few more years they will legitimately love all food (as I do). Dinner times are amazing, and I still stand by the idea that it just takes perseverance to learn to like (or at least tolerate) a flavor. I’m still working on really enjoying fennel and tarragon 🙂 The flavors on their own are okay, but as an ingredient they still seem pretty funky to me.

    On the topic of gardening, I will agree that simply getting your child to help in the kitchen or help in the garden (or choose veggies at the store) will not guarantee that they will eat them. I have found quite the opposite. I think it takes strictness on behalf of the parent in making them eat these foods (at least a few bites every time), which goes against a lot of parents’ opinions that kids should make their own decisions, etc. I just can’t get behind that, especially when kids are below the ages of 10 -12 ish. They are just not old enough to analyze situations and make informed decisions. Just as they can’t choose to stay up until 2 AM, they can’t choose to eat macaroni just because it tastes better.

    1. Miser Mom told her kids, “You don’t have to like it, you just have to eat it.” And that seems to have worked!
      With our son, we have kept a growth philosophy (as recommended in Hungry Monkey)– he may not like tomatoes now, and I didn’t when I was his age either, but he’ll probably like them one day, just like I do. (I still don’t like goat cheese or brussels sprouts, but we don’t need 100%, just more than before.) He, just like the hungry monkey guy’s daughter, is proud when he likes things he didn’t used to like.

    2. @M- if your strategy worked for your kids, great. Sleep training works for some kids too. It doesn’t on others. I’m not saying that the experience of the gardeners raising gourmands isn’t true for them. It’s just that it’s not true for all people, and I wouldn’t judge other parents because whatever methods work for me don’t work for them.

      1. p.s. Before I moved to the South, I just disliked greens (and tolerated turnips). Now, after several CSA years, I hate them with a passion. Sometimes repetition doesn’t improve food.

    3. Well, I’ve been trying for 40+ years, and I still hate peas. And my grandfather has made it 90+ years and still doesn’t much like spinach. To each their own. I do not want to fight with my kids about food, not even for 6 days let alone 6 months. I monitor overall healthiness of the diet, and make sure they have lots of opportunities to try things and have just let the rest of it go. Other parents are obviously free to choose differently!

  8. Your parenting philosophy is refreshing.

    Should you ever want to grow anything, I recommend sugarpod peas by a fence. My sons love these and they don’t require much maintenance.

    1. Arugula is awesome, too. That stuff is a WEED. It is so easy to grow that even I can’t screw it up. My kids love watching it come up. Neither will eat it, but I like it in my salads, and it is expensive to buy, so it is the one thing I like to grow.

      1. @Cloud- I may have to try growing it. I hadn’t really appreciated the phrase “grows like a weed” until I had to weed my veggie garden like every 3 days to keep the thistles and dandelions at bay…

  9. I think it’s so interesting that we fret about “picky eating” in kids, but as adults we accept that we all have different tastes.

    I married someone who would really rather not eat Asian or Mexican food (but will if the rest of us want to). We tease him about it, but don’t think it’s some moral failing on his part – it’s just that his personal taste runs to hamburgers and lasagna.

    As a kid, I thought sushi was the most disgusting thing ever, until I tried it in grad school and now it’s one of my favorite things.

    Circumstances change, people grow, etc etc.

    I do think it’s important to expose kids to different foods, and give them the option to taste it (maybe even several times!) but if they don’t like it, so be it. I never liked ice cream, and get by just fine as an adult without it 🙂

    1. I dunno, I still totally judge the guy in my freshman class who got SCURVY once he was on his own away from his parents. And until recently my SIL was always sick probably because she didn’t eat any veggies at all. (She started eating more variety when she decided to have children– she lost a ton of weight and got sick less.) And sometimes the obese person you know is obese because all he eats is junk food, and he eats a lot of junk food, carefully removing even lettuce if they accidentally left some on his order. We don’t make my kid eat specific veggies, but he has to get some fruits or veggies (our pedi said it didn’t matter which, and Hungry Monkey confirmed that– if your kid eats fruits but not veggies, that’s normal and your kid will be fine).
      I do think constant harping about picky eating, or even bragging about it to others, especially in front of the kid (something my MIL still did until my SIL went on her healthy kick), is more likely to cause long-term food issues rather than stop them or prevent them.

      1. @NicoleandMaggie – that’s where we are — some fruits, and even some veggies (corn and maybe carrots in a pinch). So I figure that eating bananas, grapes, apples, corn and strawberries gives you a fair number of nutrients.

      2. @NicoleandMaggie – but do you judge the scurvy guy’s parents? It seems he learned the hard way — and in a lesson he’s unlikely to forget — that fruits and veggies matter. That’s probably a much more effective way to learn that lesson than any amount of parental nagging!

        1. Well, I judge his parents for other reasons… for example, his mom took an airplane trip to our college once every month or two so she could do his laundry. His mom did send him with vitamins, but he chose not to take them. I suspect, but cannot say for sure, that the scurvy thing was at least in some small part the result of an act of rebellion. But hey, I assume he eventually got over whatever issues his parents gave him… at some point one has to take charge of one’s self.
          But, no, most folks are probably parenting within the range that doesn’t lead to weird issues, and eventually many people get over the issues anyway. There’s a wide range between force feeding and only serving chicken nuggets.

          1. Oh, and the whole point of that comment was that yes, some of us do still judge adults for having different tastes. Heck, I judge #2 on our blog for not liking orange juice (and bananas, and seafood, and mushrooms, and whole wheat bread, and all sorts of weird stuff… she judges me for not liking egg-nog or goat cheese… but eggnog reminds me of middle school because I used to have it for breakfast, and goat cheese tastes like goat).

        2. Raising a good eater doesn’t require nagging. 🙂 I don’t nag but my kids eat whatever I cook, even things like liver, asparagus, chard, whatever I’m serving up.

          One of my 7 kids was very picky… I say was, because over the last 2 years I’ve been applying things I learned reading about the French (I don’t agree with all their parenting techniques, but this one I do). It seems to me they have the food thing figured out, and as a result their kids are healthier, have less ADD, less obesity… etc

          Requiring “just one bite” and not allowing her to make her own meals (something I had let her get in the habit of doing) has made her much more flexible and polite at table, whereas before she was dramatic and rude.

          That was decidedly nurture, not nature. I do agree that some kids are more sensitive/picky and science points out that some kids are “supertasters”, but her pickiness was a behavior problem. I noticed she would suddenly refuse a food she had eaten with no comment for years when she heard an adult express dislike of that particular food.

          I’m pretty easygoing as a parent and a big fan of “benign neglect”, but some problems do need intervention, and for us eating is one of them.

          I had to change my mind on this one as the picky eating got worse and as I gained parenting experience. 🙂

  10. If you like gardening, fine. But I put “you must garden so that kids will eat vegetables” on the list of things that some mothers insist is essential in order to rationalize why it is they cant possibly have a career. (I don’t oppose staying home to raise kids but some moms really do try to convince the rest of us that growing our own vegetables, etc is that important).

    One of my kids would not eat veggies and it became a struggle. When she was almost 4 I cut a deal with her. She would pick one vegetable that she promised to eat and I, for my part, would never serve her a different one nor expect her to eat a different veg at a friend’s house or elsewhere. She picked Lima beans! For months, she held up her end of the deal and I held up mine.

    After a few months, she said “I think I will have broccoli tonight if that is okay?” that was pretty much the end of her pickiness about veggies. I had about 8 bags of Lima beans in the freezer when she realized that eating other vegetables was a much better plan. Now she eats everything…..except Lima beans!

    Of course, as you correctly point out, perhaps she would like everything but Lima beans today even if I’d just let her eat what she wanted. But maybe not! Maybe she would have scurvy!

    1. @J – brilliant. I might try that with my son who’s less adventurous on the food side. He can have whatever vegetable he wants (it will be corn) he just has to keep eating it without complaining. I think he will eventually like tomatoes since they’re a fairly palatable option. But I guess tomatoes are technically a fruit…

  11. I was blessed with a mostly-pretty-enthusiastic eater and have just one kid, so have no wisdom (or anything else) gained from experience and mostly I just count my blessings. We feed him what we eat mostly (everyone in our household of 3 does have a few things they either do get or don’t get that others do the opposite, for example, I’ll add anchovies and/or blue cheese to stuff I’m eating, but DH doesn’t like those. DS sometimes goes for the anchovies but not the blue cheese.), with the option of a PB&J or some fruit if he does’t want it for that meal or doesn’t eat much of it and is later hungry.

    While I have a hard time imagining the “try it again and again, you’ll learn to like it” approach working reliably (or deploying it), I do think there is some truth to our gaining a sense of what food “should” taste like, e.g. that if we eat sweet or salty stuff lots we come to perceive whatever the usual level of sweetness or saltiness is as “baseline.”

    I do think that growing up in a “crunchy” environment where people do things like show up to potlucks with kale — and (some) kids eat it and enjoy it has facilitated my son getting a sense that these are foods we eat and enjoy. So I do think larger social environment matters. But this is something I totally ignore, i.e., I don’t say to DS, “Look! Those kids are eating kale!” It just happens, and maybe he notices and eats some and likes it.

    For those contemplating gardening or looking for a way to make gardening easier, we’ve had easy and positive results with “square foot gardening” (easy to google), which is a particular raised-bed approach that employs a particular blend of mixed, purchased (!) ingredients for the soil and has reduced or eliminated a lot of the hassles of gardening in my area (no digging, very little weeding…) while producing plentiful and tasty results. Also, it requires very little space and indeed, can be done in pots if one is so inclined. DS enjoys doing it with me, but I don’t think it’s dramatically changed his eating. He’s been willing to try the lettuce we’ve grown but has not turned into an enthusiastic eater of lettuce!

    1. @bogart- I do think peer pressure often works better than parental pressure. Another comment mentioned a child eating carrots at preschool but never at home. The good news is it doesn’t matter where it’s eaten, it still counts!

  12. I think there is a cultural component to picky eating though. Some things like aversion to bitterness seems rather universal, but from my observation, most Chinese/Asian kids I know still end up eating a wider variety of foods (tofu, vegetables, meat that looks like meat, i.e. with bones or whole fish, etc..) than American kids simply because Chinese food culture is very varied and veggie-based (not referring to fast food Chinese of course).

    I do have a picky eater, but I’m not stressing about it. I just think with time and exposure to family cooking plus Chinese restaurants, he’ll come around.

    1. EXACTLY. Meaning picky eating is most definitely a nurture problem. This is why I have to laugh when nursing moms in this country are told not to eat spicy or “strong” foods. Ridiculous!

      I also have to point out that picky eating and having a free for all attitude when it comes to food is fine if you have a couple of kids, but once you hit 4,5,6,7 – it ain’t cute anymore to have kids eating whatever/whenever/wherever.

      It will ruin their teeth, your budget and the house.

      1. My MIL recently said the thing about any spice, not just hot spices. I’d never heard it before… which is probably good because at a year one of DC1’s favorite foods was jalepenos.

        Though I think the idea with cruciferous veggies is that they can produce gas in babies via mom’s milk.

  13. My brother was a very picky eater growing up (mac n cheese and apple sauce were his mainstays). Now, he has a CSA membership, shops at farmer’s markets, etc. So I think there is something to the fact that our tastebuds eventually adapt (although mine have not and never will to peas or brussel sprouts).

    I have one friend with a kid who is picky, but if you tell her it has bacon in it, she’s usually all over it. She ate my stuffed baked potatoes with jalapenoes it in it because there was bacon…go figure. And my friend’s girlfriend has her help cook, which doesn’t necessarily get her to eat the food, but keeps her entertained and so forth. And its really funny to hear an eight year old throw the term “sous chef” around 🙂

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