Eating well, or trying to

IMG_1349We all have skills we don’t realize are skills until later. I love to travel, and while I don’t have the ability to fall asleep in any place (oh, would that be useful on planes!) I have learned over the years that international travel is much easier if you can eat anything put in front of you. Who knows what the menu says? Who cares! I love food. It is not that I have a strong stomach (I have had bouts of food poisoning in Bulgaria, Thailand, Botswana, even France, for crying out loud). It is that I know most food is fine and part of what makes travel fun is learning how other people live — and eat. If that means eating raw eggs and tiny fish with the heads on them in Japan, so be it.

I well remember a trip in the summer of 2002 to Prague, when my group of college students and recent grads stayed in a guest house-type hotel. They served what is actually a “continental” breakfast each morning: bread, ham, cheese, real yogurt. A few of my compatriots complained bitterly by a few days in that they were being fed this daily, as if the guest house didn’t understand the concept of breakfast. Um, not everyone worldwide starts the day with Lucky Charms.

Anyway, while some parents hope their children will excel in their particular sports, I hope to pass along my interest in cuisine to my kids. Which is why it bugs the *#$^ out of me right now that dinner often becomes a sob fest about the fact that I have put such outlandish things as salmon, teriyaki chicken, or shrimp on their plates, and expect them to eat some of it. I have no interest in making multiple dinners, but hello, I’m not serving raw eggs or fish heads. I also don’t expect people to clean their plates, and I have stuff on the plate that I know people can fill their bellies with (fruit, pasta, bread, cheese, etc.). I just expect that as a matter of respect for the cook, and as a good habit for visiting other people or eating out, they will eat visible bites of everything without whining and crying. And the thing is, they do ultimately eat 3-4 bites of everything (I require it), so why not just shut up and get it over with? As Daniel Tiger sings, “You gotta try new foods ’cause they might taste good!”

Really, food is good! It is not poison!

I do understand that people’s palates and sensitivities change over time. I am sure I had the usual young child preference for bland food. My little brother subsisted on pizza and grilled cheese (or some such) for years. He now eats things such as sushi and Ethiopian food and whatever else gets dished up in Brooklyn. I also understand that people have sensitivities over different things that other people view as no big deal. I, for instance, hate being forced to watch movies (like on long bus trips), whereas some people might view that as innocuous as eating a piece of shrimp.

In any case, I’m not looking for advice on how to get my kids to eat “healthier,” whatever that means, probably because most advice in books and on the internet is much like the advice for sleep. Some guru’s tips work for some families, and then those families become evangelical about the expert. The families for whom it doesn’t work assume they did it wrong. Given that my kids do take bites of various vegetables, we are not too bad on that front (see the photo of the mac and cheese plus produce rainbow). I am just venting because I would love to take the family out for, say, really unhealthy Indian food, and have them love it as much as I would love it. Also, there is little more annoying than working all day, cooking dinner, and then having people whine about it. Food is good!

In other news: I am working on an article for City Journal related to the Working Stay-at-Home Mom post I wrote a few weeks ago. If you are mostly home with your kids, but are doing a few income-generating activities, I would love to interview you about the economics of this, and the reasons you’ve chosen this approach. Please email me at lvanderkam at yahoo dot com. Thank you!

26 thoughts on “Eating well, or trying to

  1. I hear you! One of the things we did on our recent kid-free week was go out to Indian food. I love it now (would never have touched it as a kid!) and neither of my kids will even reliably eat naan, which baffles me, since I think of naan as something akin to the food of the gods. As annoying as this is for me, I can imagine it is much more annoying for someone who really enjoys trying new food. (I’m more of a slowly adds new things by finding the most familiar looking thing on the menu sort of person, and as much as I love travel, it is rarely about food for me.) Somewhere, Michael Pollan wrote about how hard it is for him that his child is picky eater (maybe in the intro to Omnivore’s Dilemma?) It was really good. He talked about the theory that some percentage of the population are food neophiles, and some percentage are true food neophobes. Presumably the majority of people are in the middle. Anyway, the theory is that the neophobes kept the population from all dying due to a mass poisoning when they came across a new plant, while the neophiles kept the population from all starving to death when their usual food sources weren’t available. I’m always leery of arguments from human evolutionary biology, because I think they are rarely well supported. But this one does provide a comforting way to think about my own little neophobe! Anyway, I hope your kids get a little more adventurous soon.

    1. @Cloud – thanks! I think this split between “healthy” and “adventurous” is something I hadn’t really thought about much until I wrote this post. It’s not so much that I want my kids to eat “healthy,” although that’s all fine and good, it’s that the unhealthy foods they like are within a narrow, bland range. Not fun.

      I agree that the human evolutionary biology argument is massively abused. People use it to explain everything, though probably there are people who are naturally more sensitive to tastes than others.

  2. I have similar frustrations in that I am pretty adventurous but there are a limited list of cuisines hubby considers to be “real food” and he is definitely not adventurous, though very polite about it. He will happily accompany me to a Thai restaurant or an Indian restaurant, but about half the time, he will just not eat. Which kind of sucks, because then I feel like he’s not enjoying it (obviously) and why did I “drag” him here when I could have just come alone. Sigh. This is one of the many things we compromise about (travel is another) and as much as it frustrates me, I’ve learned just to think about the good parts of this:

    1. He’s willing to keep me company even if he doesn’t want to eat the food.

    2. We do have a handful of ethnic places where there’s *something* on the menu he genuinely enjoys.

    3. We’ve both come around to meet in the middle – ie I am more willing to eat “American” food more regularly, and he is definitely WAY more open to ethnic foods than when we first met.

    I am enjoying reading these conversations about picky kids, because as much as mine infuriate me when I’ve spent 30+ minutes cooking $20/lb fresh halibut and they dislike it, there are good points too:

    1. Their first choice for dinner out is *always* sushi, even if most of what they eat there is cooked.

    2. I spent 3 weeks in Scandinavia with my pickier eater and she DID NOT COMPLAIN once about the food even though it was not her favorite overall – there were things she ordered and did not like them, but she tried everything and generally found something to eat. (And who knew – she LOVES crab that you have to crack and eat.)

    3. They did understand the idea that it hurts the cook’s feelings when you make faces or say mean things about the food they spent time and effort making. So at least from a manners/politeness aspect we’ve made it a little better.

    I think we just keep trying things. I never know what will be a big hit and it’s often totally random. My pickier older one ADORES olives, but my younger one doesn’t. The younger one loves eating pepperoni or salami by itself, but getting protein into the older one (other than tofu, oddly) is a challenge.

    And as I think about it, I realize my kids do eat a lot of things, but it was more the comments and whining that annoyed me especially when I put in the effort to make food (which is still a struggle for me and worse now that I no longer work from home).

    1. Your story about your husband is why I tell my kids that the goal is to be able to find *something* to eat in just about any restaurant! I’m mostly there. I’ve also told them about my “adventures” in eating in China and Japan, and how much it helped that I had pushed my boundaries slowly over the years. I still struggled a bit on some meals, but I didn’t starve, and I really enjoyed the trip. Both my kids really love traveling so this is something that motivates the older one a bit.

  3. Even though I battle my youngest, ethnic adventures still occur. We have a very friend famous picture that still floats around of Luke’s face at a Cuban restaurant in Little Havana where he ordered papas frittas. He looked distraught because even though they looked like fries they weren’t called fries. You never know. The little booger’s favorite cuisine is Mediterranean and he will eat mousakka, hummus, tzatziki, and his body weight in fresh pita. It’s a toss up. I just keep dragging him and hoping for the best.

    1. Sometimes I think I should actually keep a list to convince myself that they have plenty of variety even though they’d be happy to eat, plain pasta and PB&J every night 😉 My older one INHALED a Thai cucumber salad I made the other night on a whim. I was not expecting that. So I guess that is motivation to keep trying…

      1. Lol. I have such a list. One night after a particularly nasty battle, I sat him down and made him tell me exactly what he does eat and I wrote it down. (Not out to eat foods, mom made foods) One night I pulled heavily from the list and he balked at all of it. I just pulled out my handy dandy list. That’s when I realized it’s not a matter of he doesn’t like it, it’s the battle. His little exertion of power over me. I can make him clean his room, brush his teeth, and the like, but he can choose not to eat. This doesn’t mean it’s gotten easier. I’m as stubborn as he is, but at least, I don’t get as angry about it. (The list hangs on the fridge now. And is brought out regularly. Occasionally something gets added.)

  4. My kids are all pretty adventurous eaters. This has more to do with luck and temperament, than parenting. But I have found that anything we give a “fancy” sounding name to, they are more willing to try. It’s the same reason we tell them that we are dining al fresco, as opposed to “eating outside.” It just sounds more fun!

  5. Great post!
    We are raising biracial kids (half Filipino, half American) and it wasn’t easy to get them eat Filipino food like I do the first time, but the more I cook the meal, the more they like eating them fried tilapia, rice, smoked fish from Asian market, adobo, for example. It’s nice to try different dishes once in a while. I thought Bibimpab, a Korean dish, was bad but I ended up liking it.

  6. We don’t require our kid to eat what we eat; she can make herself something else if she wants. We do forbid whining or insulting either the cook or other people’s food choices. I’m grateful her palate has expanded to include Chinese and Mexican food. So far no Thai or Indian, though.

    As far as eating “healthy” goes, I’m raising a dancer who is very invested in her looks. I’m grateful she doesn’t restrict calories and don’t give a hang about the “junk.”

  7. My kids were taught in school to politely say “that’s interesting” when they tried something they didn’t like, so we have carried that into our home.

    I have also done series of “experiments” where I focus on a type of food (i.e., The Great Soup Experiment, Best Breakfasts, etc.). Over several months, I make a variety of dishes and have each family member rate them on a scale of 1 to 10. Knowing that I am respecting their feedback makes them more willing to try things.

    1. @Stephanie – I find it especially galling when people think they’re offering something cool and fun. Like pediatrician waiting rooms where there’s a movie playing that you have to watch/listen to. It does not improve the experience, it just makes it exponentially worse!

      1. I HATE THIS. We left the pediatric dentist after our first visit. My daughter was 3 and easily frightened. We walked in to the waiting room to find the stampede scene from “Lion King” on the TV. She was terrified.

        Then there was the dentist’s office with the “Master of My Domain” episode from Seinfeld. I think it’s hilarious. I didn’t want to explain it in public to my then-six-year-old.

  8. I love the comments about real continental breakfast and tiny fish with heads. Growing up in Croatia, the tiny fried salted fish were a favorite with kids in the summer, considered something like “seafood fries”, and I’m still always surprised how freaked out most Americans are when served a whole fish (my favorite food since childhood).
    I was considered an extremely picky eater as a kid, seafood aside, but I also clearly remember how things tasted differently when I was a kid and over time my tastes changed and expanded. I think kids like blander food because their taste buds are just different and need developing. I don’t have kids and as an only child I grew up eating with adults most of the time, but I know that my parents who liked to cook and travel, got around my food habits by realizing I didn’t like sauces (thus sauce served on the side), I liked vegetables without dressing only (now I know I’m highly sensitive to vinegar and still avoid it) and I was more likely to try new things when I wasn’t actually hungry. They managed to raise an adult who is an adventurous eater (but not when starving), so there is probably hope for everyone.

    1. @Morana- funny you say that you were more adventurous when *not* starving. It is an article of faith among some internet experts that your kids must be deprived of snacks so they come to the table hungry, and therefore willing to eat what you put on the plate. But as you point out, sometimes that works and sometimes that doesn’t. Yet another reason to go with what works for you and your family!

      1. I heard the tidbit about “they’ll eat when they are really hungry” so many times, especially while growing up, and yet there is a slew of research out there how we are less agreeable and less open to new things and more likely to make bad food choices when we are tired or hungry. Those two just don’t compute, and if it’s a battle of wills defeat by starvation is not really what you want to go for, is it?

  9. It drives me nuts when my son complains about food! We, like you, do not make special meals. He eats what we eat. Or at least, he gets a plate of the same food we do. Whether he eats it or not is a different question!

    What we do at home is, if he doesn’t eat, that’s his choice but he won’t get something different. If that means he only eats two bites of food for dinner, so be it. So far, he had not decided to starve himself!

    Also, in one glorious parenting moment, we did get him to enthusiastically eat Ethiopian food. After ordering (but before it came out) we watched a brief youtube video of Ethiopian kids singing a song. He liked the video and ate the food without griping!

  10. Amen!

    I am always amused at how strong willed my children are about not eating food. They will hold out as long as they can, hoping I will cave in and feed them something junky.
    and yet, these are the same children that eat boogers, put coins in their mouths, and eat gum off the floor. Seriously. When my kids get upset about what I am making for dinner, I just say, ok, you can eat boogers for dinner then ; P
    I often get frustrated planning out dinner bc my husband is a picky eater– and I too often cave into his suggestions to order out, or bring home something quick. I know its not good for anyone, but I loathe being the only one that puts meals together. If Ive fed myself and the children for 2 meals, I am much more inclined to agree to getting something quick.
    Thanks for this post, was enjoyable to read. P.S I wouldn’t eat raw eggs or fish heads, but I have had sushi in Japan : )

  11. It bugs the ^%*& out of me, too! My oldest son had terrible ear infections as an infant/toddler, and rather than focus on really fixing that problem, the primary medical person harped on and on (and on and on and on) about his lack of weight gain — enough so even 6 years later, I still feel anxious just typing this. I did fight back and did finally get to see an ENT and everything got fixed and great, but that did a lot of damage to my relationship with my children’s eating habits. It’s taken a lot of self-control for me to learn that, like an earlier poster wrote, it’s about the battle, not the food. My son is also just sensitive to new experiences and seems to have a very heightened sense of taste.

    Anyway, all this just to say you’re right — every kid is different, and to commiserate. It is frustrating! I don’t push mine to try everything on their plates, but that’s because of our history. I also don’t make special meals. If all they eat is bread, well, there’s always breakfast in the morning.

    Slowly, very slowly, he’s willing to try new things. I’ve read that we have way more tastebuds as children than as adults, so it does make sense that strong flavors will be overwhelming to children. And if he becomes an adult who will only eat PBJ, well, he will at least be an adult who can fix his own PBJs.

    1. @Meghan – I’m sorry you had that experience with your doctor. Ugh. And yes, your son will figure out something when he grows up. Maybe he’ll manage to convince clients to join him for dinner at McDonald’s!

      1. Thanks! We have a very supportive GP now 🙂 And he ate his weight in popcorn shrimp for dinner tonight. Honestly, it’s just so helpful to read stories of others’ struggles when I feel like I’m surrounded by kale-and-asparagus-loving other people’s kids!

  12. Reading this post while breastfeeding my first child (one month old). I haven’t really been able to put her down for the past few days because she scream-cries until she’s picked up. But she’s happy while she’s drinking her one food 🙂 This won’t last long, I know…

    I eat a pretty diverse diet, so hopefully that will come through in the breast milk and help her develop a more adventurous palate. If that really works, I guess I better start eating the craziest food I can get my hands on ASAP, lol.

    1. @Christine – congrats on the new baby! You should eat absolutely whatever you want. I’m not sure if it helps at all with adventurous eating later, but it’s a good philosophy in general for surviving round-the-clock breastfeeding 🙂

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