I got a lot of pushback for this post. I want to add this:
I appreciate that kids are kids. Every person has personal preferences and tastes — especially kids' tastes — change and evolve. While my daughter is an award-winning eating champ, my son is less so. He has a smaller appetite, and is often not that interested in foods. But the same tabletime rules apply to both kids. If you don't eat the meal, there is no snack.
Also: I don't take credit for my kids good eating habits. My kids join the vast majority of people in that they were born interested, curious and hungry. I don't do anything that has not been done since caveman days: I cook and expect them to eat.
There are no doubt some kids who are unuusally picky eaters, and my heart goes out to them and their parents. As you can tell by this post, I enjoy food very much and think that mealtime is a critical part of life. My goal in writing this post is not to shame parents into changing their ways, but rather take a big-picture look at what every grilled-cheese sandwich and special kid meal means to a person's whole life — beyond remedying the aggravation of an ornery child who refuses to eat a perfectly delicious home-cooked meal. Because we've all been there, me included.
So carry on – and bon appetit!
Lately my daughter, 5, has been making a big deal out of the fact that she doesn't like avocado. Announcing it publicly – to anyone who will listen. This is news only because avocado is the only food she doesn't care for.
I love watching this kid eat. Whatever I put in front of her, she consumes hardily, seemingly enjoying every bite. Most of the time, when faced with a square meal, Helena dives first into the green vegetable, polishing off the broccoli, asparagus or zucchini before gnawing on a chicken thigh, quinoa or roasted salmon. Would she like more? No, thank you. Satisfied, she pushes away her chair, and lops off to play with the cat. I often admire her healthy body – strong legs, fleshy tummy, shiny straight brown hair and those incredible, sparkly eyes. My kids are rarely sick.
I don't need to tell you how I got such good eaters for children: I cook healthy, tasty meals three times per day. We sit down together for breakfast, lunch and dinner (when we are in the same house). There is no snack or dessert until they clean their plates. We cook together, shop and visit the farmer's market. No magic involved. No chicken nuggets shaped like dinosaurs.
It helps that, yes, I do enjoy eating cooking very much. Yes, shopping for food and teaching my kids where it comes from is interesting and fun for me. At least once per week we have dinner guests. Last weekend we snuck off to spend a night in an adorable, simple cabin (no plumbing – yay!), located on a small working farm in upstate New York. The kids collected eggs, we poked at the mama goat's full, wobbly utter, and oogled the adorable black piglets (the small, fat sow's name is Football. ha!).
Clearly, food is my thing. It may not be yours, and that is totally OK. But there is so much wrong with raising picky eaters. Catering to childish pallets. Feeding young bodies stupid, dumbed-down food that is not only low in nutritional value, but poor in its flavors.
I don't want to hear about how your kid just won't eat vegetables. Hogwash.
Hunger is the most powerful human drive. If a child is hungry enough, she will eat. But you don't have to starve your kid to encourage that. Just put the food there. Eat it with them. Say a few nice things about the meal and where that eggplant came from. Don't overdo it. Kids can sniff out a phoney from a mile away. Just be normal and eat your food and expect them to do the same thing.
This isn't sophisticated child psychology. This is basic parenting. Food is a basic, core element of life. Normal, healthy life includes good meals enjoyed with other people. Raise picky eaters, and this is what you rob your children of:
1. Good manners. Like I said, I host lots of dinner guests. Before I cook, I always ask: “Is there anything you don't eat?” I respect dietary restrictions for health, religious and political reasons. Once in a while a guest will lend a long list of foods they don't care for, and another of foods they prefer. Oh, barf. Just come over, enjoy what I cook. Or don't. But I'm not a restaurant. Just like I tell my 3 and 5 year-olds — people who know that you eat what you are given.
Open, adventurous diners have the world at their fingertips. You are a delightful and oft-invited dinner guest, yes. But also an open-minded traveler, likely to be invited to locals' homes. You are fun to hang out with because you don't make friends crazy with your demands on restaurants. When someone brings you their raisin pie when your dad dies, or a bottle of grocery-store Malbac on your birthday, you dig in with delight — right there in front of them. The picky eater pushes the foodstuff to the back of the counter, with a weak smile and promises for later snacking. Happy eaters are delightful people. Picky eating is rude.
2. Gratitude. A few blocks from my apartment in Astoria, Queens, New York, there are two produce markets next-door to each other, with all their colorful abundance laid out for me, every single day of the whole year. Each time I walk by, I am overwhelmed with a sense of how rich I am to have access to this kind of wonderful food, whenever I want. I share that feeling with my kids. It would be heartbreaking if they did not appreciate all that they have.
If you expect the world to be a kitchen with a private chef, you are robbed of the empowering awareness of all your wealth.
3. Enjoying life. I recently heard that the tradition of clinking glasses comes from the notion that the chime of crystal introduces the fifth sense into the wine-drinking experience: The taste, smell, sight and touch of the drink are rounded off by sound.Enjoying good food is one of the greatest human pleasures. Long meals with people who lovingly cooked for you, shared recipes and culinary traditions. That satisfied feeling of having ingested great things, with great people. This is the pretty much all there is in life. The importance of good food transcends every culture and time. If all you eat is a piece of meat shaped like an extinct reptile, you are robbed of life.
Emma Johnson is a veteran money journalist, noted blogger, bestselling author and an host of the award-winning podcast, Like a Mother with Emma Johnson. A former Associated Press Financial Wire reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Glamour, Oprah.com, U.S. News, Parenting, USA Today and others. Her #1 bestseller, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), was named to the New York Post's ‘Must Read” list.
Emma regularly comments on issues of modern families, gender equality, divorce, sex and motherhood for outlets like CNN, Headline News, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fox & Friends, CNBC, NPR, TIME, MONEY, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Doctors. She was named Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web,” “Top 15 Personal Finance Podcasts” by U.S. News, and a “Most Eligible New Yorker” by New York Observer.
A popular speaker, Emma presented at the United Nations Summit for Gender Equality. Read more about Emma here.