Young children are notoriously finicky. Broccoli, salmon, beets — name a healthy food, and there’s a preschooler who won’t eat it. But many just as quickly rule out carrots, pot roast or scrambled eggs, or anything that’s not white or smothered in ketchup.
“Picky, picky, picky,” many a parent, myself included, has muttered over the antics of a recalcitrant pint-sized diner.
Of course, worrying about what children eat is nothing new. But parental concern has reached a fever pitch in this age of hyper-parenting, rising rates of childhood obesity and a tide of “kid-friendly” food products.
“The trend in recent years is that almost everybody has become more anxious about it,” says Ellyn Satter, a registered dietitian and family therapist and author of “Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family” (Kelcy Press, 2008).
I certainly have. With my first child, I thought I had it all figured out. She was a happy eater, devouring almost everything I cooked. We took her to Thai, Mexican, Italian and sushi restaurants, burger joints and barbecue shacks. She loved it all. Now 6, she’s still up for at least one bite of anything.
Not so with Daughter No. 2, who lived on bread, fruit and milk for an entire year. A third child has now joined us at the table. He has eaten everything from peas to pineapple and lasagna to lamb, but will his enthusiasm persist? What can I do if it doesn’t?
The uncomfortable answer: Nothing.
Parents can cajole, demand and camouflage, but it’s hard to make a child eat something he doesn’t want to. Forcing the issue merely turns the dinner table into a battlefield. That’s not me talking. I’m broadly summarizing Satter’s approach to feeding children, something she calls the division of responsibility.
“The parent controls the what, when and where of feeding,” Satter says. “The child is responsible for how much and whether to eat.”
Her advice sounds simple, yet it’s hard to follow. Nothing is as disheartening as seeing tiny lips clamp shut against a lovingly prepared meal. It’s easy to give in and race back to the kitchen in search of something — anything — your child will eat. Or buy packaged toddler or kiddie foods with his favorite character on the box. Or stick to the universal children’s menu of burgers, grilled cheese and pizza.
These tactics achieve the ultimate goal: a full tummy. But none teaches your child about enjoying a variety of foods, says Nancy Tringali Piho, author of “My Two-Year-Old Eats Octopus” (Bull Publishing, 2009).
“You want to expose kids to a lot of foods, a lot of flavors and a lot of textures early on as their tastes are beginning to develop,” Piho says.
The best way to do that, she says, is to serve children the same meal you make for yourself. They don’t need separate “kid-friendly” foods or snacks, many of which are inferior to the grown-up versions in both taste and nutrition. Parents are often surprised by the spices, cuisines or dishes — in the case of my oldest, barbecued eel — their kids take to.
It’s no surprise to chef Cecilia Green, who prepares two snacks and lunch daily for about 75 children at Christots Country Montessori Day School in Shawnee, Kan. On the day I visited, lunch included turkey-spinach casserole, tomato-and-cucumber salad, bananas and whole-wheat bread. The meal was served family-style, and the students (ages 2 1/2 to 6 years) dug in, several happily helping themselves to second servings.
“We’re not afraid to serve kale, spinach, broccoli and cauliflower — all the strong-tasting vegetables,” says Linda Steck, who founded the school with her husband, Phil.
The menu is built around vegetables, fresh fruit, brown rice and other grains, dried beans, dairy, pasta, tofu and lean meats.
Children learn how nutritious food helps their bodies grow and stay healthy, sometimes by playing a food version of the red light/green light game. They help harvest vegetables from an organic garden, as well as plums, peaches and pears from the orchard.
Kids who say “yuck” at the table are encouraged to talk instead about foods they do like and why those foods like them. Peer pressure prompts new students to taste unfamiliar foods. After all, if everyone else is eating it, that spinach might just be pretty good.
Unfortunately, the same dynamic doesn’t always work at home. In families like mine, kids outnumber adults at the table. They’re often suspicious of new foods, are prone to food fetishes and go on food strikes. Favorites today might be despised tomorrow.
In “Hungry Monkey” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009), Matthew Amster-Burton relates his daughter’s slide from chowing spicy enchiladas and pork curry into what he describes as extreme pickiness. He was bummed, but kept cooking Brussels sprouts, roasted trout with fennel and Chinese-style spareribs.
He took his daughter food shopping and let her grind meat for meatballs. And then he backed off once it was all on the plate.
“When I put the food down in front of Iris, my job is done,” Amster-Burton writes. “I also don’t hold myself responsible for making sure it goes in her mouth.”
I recently adopted that approach in hopes of helping my kids develop a more positive, healthy relationship with food. My own 2-year-old is far from eating octopus, but dinnertime is definitely more enjoyable for us all now.
Here’s what else I’ve learned:
• Remember the when and where: Food is a big part of a small child’s day, Satter reminds us. She recommends offering three meals and two snacks about the same time each day, preferably while seated, so kids can focus on their food and learn a few manners.
Satter’s approach is detailed on her Web site, www.ellynsatter.com. Skip the kiddie foods. Children’s food products often rely on sweeteners, salt and fat for much of their appeal, making it hard for kids to develop a taste for anything else, Piho says.
• Don’t label: Calling a child picky gives her license to refuse food and discourages parents from trying new things. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy that can also damage a child’s self-esteem, Satter says.
• Don’t give up: Toddlers especially are wary of new foods and might need to see, smell and touch a food many, many times before agreeing to taste — much less eat — it. Develop a repertoire of standards, but keep presenting a variety of things. Your child might not eat broccoli today, or tomorrow, or even next year. But if you don’t offer it, he never will.
“You really have to take a long-term approach,” Piho says. “We’ve got a long time with these kids.”
Browned and Braised Brussels Sprouts
Author Matthew Amster-Burton says he once ate nothing but Cheerios without milk, macaroni and cheese, pizza and white meat chicken, cut into small pieces. Now, he eats almost everything, and his favorite vegetable is Brussels sprouts. This recipe is from his book, “Hungry Monkey” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009).
1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
1 1/2 tablespoons butter
2 cups frozen Brussels sprouts, thawed and halved lengthwise
Salt and pepper
1/2 cup water
In a large skillet, heat the butter and oil over medium-high until the butter foams. Add the Brussels sprouts and cook until lightly browned, turning once or twice and sprinkling with salt and pepper, about 5 minutes. Add the water, cover and reduce heat to medium-low. Cook 10 minutes or until sprouts are tender but not mushy. Uncover, boil off any remaining water and serve. Serves 2.
Per serving: 202 calories (81 percent from fat), 19 grams total fat (7 grams saturated), 23 milligrams cholesterol, 7 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams protein, 163 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.
Sicilian Sweet and Sour Tuna Pasta
Nancy Tringali Piho, author of “My Two-Year-Old Eats Octopus” (Bull Publishing, 2009), advocates serving your children the same meal you make for yourself and skipping the highly processed foods marketed for children. Here’s a recipe her family enjoys.
1-pound box penne or fusilli pasta
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 small onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
Two 5-ounce cans tuna, well-drained
1/3 cup capers, well-drained (if not available, substitute 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar)
15.5-ounce can diced tomatoes, drained
1 cup golden raisins
1 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley, or chopped basil
Cook pasta until firm (al dente). Reserve 1/2 cup pasta cooking water, and then drain pasta and return to pot. While pasta is cooking, warm olive oil in large skillet over medium high heat. Add onion and garlic, salt and pepper. Cook, stirring, until golden, about 7 minutes. Stir in tuna, capers, tomatoes, raisins and reserved cooking water. Stir well to warm and combine. Stir pasta into tuna mixture. Top with parsley, stir well and serve immediately. Serves 6.
Per serving: 467 calories (8 percent from fat), 4 grams total fat (1 gram saturated), 19 milligrams cholesterol, 84 grams carbohydrates, 24 grams protein, 428 milligrams sodium, 4 grams dietary fiber.
Chef Cecilia Green prepares two snacks and lunch daily for about 75 children at Christots Country Montessori Day School in Shawnee. This recipe — despite the spinach, or maybe because of it — is one of the kids’ favorites.
1 pound ground turkey
1 onion, chopped
10.75-ounce can condensed cream of celery or cream of mushroom soup
1 pound frozen spinach
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon pepper
1 teaspoon minced garlic
2 eggs, beaten
1 pound shredded mozzarella cheese
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Brown ground turkey and onion, and then drain. Stir insoup and bring to a simmer. Blanch spinach until tender, and then drain. Add salt, pepper, garlic and eggs to spinach and mix well. Lightly coat a 9-by-13-inch baking dish with cooking spray.
Spread meat mixture on the bottom of the dish. Top with spinach mixture. Sprinkle with cheese and bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until cheese is melted. Serves 8.
Per serving: 342 calories (59 percent from fat), 22 grams total fat (11 grams saturated), 154 milligrams cholesterol, 9 grams carbohydrates, 26 grams protein, 1,018 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.