Emma Waverman writes about the chaos of modern family life in the kitchen and out of it. She has a weekly food column on CBC Radio One, Here & Now. She is the co-author of the family cookbook Whining and Dining: Mealtime Survival for Picky Eaters and Families Who Love Them and is hoping to one day finish her certification as a parenting coach. She lives with her three kids, ranging from tween to university student, and husband in Toronto. Emma has written for a variety of national lifestyle magazines and newspapers. When she's is not making typos, telling you what she thinks, and thinking about dinner, you can find her on Twitter at @emmawaverman and Instagram. You can contact Emma at embracingchaos@hotmail.ca.

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Don't Fear the Food Fight

Ever been part of a food fight? Of course you have! If you are a parent you know all about conflict at the table. When my son Aaron was three all he would eat was white food (no, not cauliflower, not even bananas) and it made me literally crazy. Here I am, a scion of a food dynasty and I was serving meal after meal of boring, bland food. I thought there must be some answers out there to deal with picky eaters, but no, there weren’t. And that is when my friend and fellow foodie Eshun Mott and I had this crazy idea that we could simultaneously write a book and solve our own problems.

And two years later and many, many meals later,  Whining and Dining: Mealtime Survival for Picky Eaters and the Families Who Love Them was on store shelves.

If you heard me on CBC’s Definitely Not the Opera on Saturday (and yes, I am cooler just by having some proximity to Sook-Yin Lee) then you heard a little bit about power struggles at mealtimes. But to sum it up, picky eating is less about the food and more about control, control of your kid and their own need to control themselves.

Every cell in a kid’s body is moving towards separation from you, which is a perfectly healthy part of growing up. Your kids are choosing to reject your fabulous food because it gives them power over you and as a bonus also control over their own bodies. Because despite the yelling, the bribery and the threats you can’t really force your kids to eat.

When I read Ellyn Satter's idea that the parents are responsible for preparing and offering healthy food but the kids are responsible for choosing what to eat and when. I started to shift my idea how to handle meals. Once I realized that kids share the responsibility to learn how to feed their bodies in a healthy way, it was easier to let go. As parenting coach Alyson Schafer says, when you are in a tug of war, drop the rope.
Here are some things you can do to take the stress out of mealtime:

  • Fire the Short Order Cook. Yes, that’s right the whole family gets the same meal. No more making dishes for each of your children (and partner). If they don’t like the food they can have a yogurt.
  • Predictable Meals and Snacks: Enough said?
  • Serve it Family Style: All the food goes on the table and everyone serves themselves. This ensures that the kids learn how much food they need to feel full.
  • Serve One Food that Even Your Pickiest Eater Will Eat: If you don’t want your kid coming to the table with an agenda then you have to make sure there is something they can eat. But that something should be a component of the meal that everyone is having, and yes, stale bread counts.
  • No Bribery, No Bargains: Sorry, if a kids sits at the table then they deserve to get dessert, even if all they did was smell the food. Dessert should not be the prize, especially when dessert is a child-sized dish.
  • Hunger is Punishment Enough: If your kid decides that dinner is not for them, that’s ok. Missing one meal won’t hurt them and may teach a valuable lesson about what it feels like to be hungry. And since you have created a reliable schedule, snack time is never far away.
  • Start Your Kids Off Right: As soon as you can think your baby can handle it (10 months or so) start feeding them the same food that you are eating, just cut up in smaller pieces. If your dinner is good enough for you then it should be good enough for your kids. Start giving your kids flavourful and diverse foods early on and they will be less likely to expect bland food later.

And if that wasn’t enough rules, here are a few more:

  • No saying yuck
  • No yelling, no lectures and no guilt trips.
  • Focus on connecting, not on the healthy components of each part of the meal.
  • And if all else fails, order take-out. Kids are a lot more likely to try strange food that is brought to the door by a stranger.

And I can happily say that we are a success story, not like an Oscar-worthy success, but the entire family can get through a meal together. My son now eats foods of different colours and flavours (and so do his siblings). But I have to be truthful, it ain't perfect over here. In fact tonight's dinner was a complete disaster, only two out of the three ate anything but bread... but luckily, I have three more chances to mess it up tomorrow.

Pass on your worst picky eater story. How do you deal with your kids when dinner disintegrates?

Reader Comments (2)

My youngest kid (boy, aged 9) just discovered vegetables through the magic of Renee's low-fat caesar salad dressing. He'll now eat veggies served any way - raw and cut-up, steamed, stir-fried, or even cooked in a sauce - with a teaspoon of dip in the side. Do I wish he would eat veggies without the condiment? Sure. Am I worried that I've set him up for a life-long caesar habit? Nope. He found something he likes, and as a consequence has tried all kinds of other foods he wouldn't have dared before. Now, if I could just find a way for him to enjoy fruits other than bananas and green grapes...
October 21, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterBatgirl
Hi I was thinking adults like chocolate fondue with there fruits right why not melt some bittersweet chocolate that is actually good for you and melt it then you can cut up your favorite fruits dip half of anything in the chocolate put it in the fridge so the chocolate can set and this way it looks like they are eatting a healthy chocolate fruit bar..
October 22, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterPyari

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