Everyone — from friends to grandparents to pediatricians to therapists — told us we were doing it all wrong with our first born when it came to his eating. And you know what? They were right.
At five years old, he still wouldn’t eat pizza at a birthday party. Or any other meal that meant foods were touching on his plate. The first time he ate an orange slice he held it in his mouth for twenty minutes, terrified to chew, fighting back tears.
Every single meal was a battle—a battle we kept fighting, despite warning after warning not to.
But he was our first. And he was tiny. I desperately wanted him to gain weight, and sleep. My anxiety over him being up all night with a bellyache or not putting on a pound by his next doctor’s appointment led me to rage on in the fight over food.
Bargaining. Begging. Rewards. And threats of said rewards being taken away. You know all those things parents are told not to do, all the things that apparently lead to picky eaters? Guilty as charged.
10 years later, my child still struggles to try new foods. He eats the exact same thing for breakfast—3 waffles or one cup of dry cereal. Sandwiches consist of ham and white American cheese, and don’t you dare try to sneak a condiment on there. Tacos = meat and tortillas. That’s it. And he’s yet to eat basic things like mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie.
But he’s come a long way. On vacation recently, he tried calamari and loved it. And he ate his own steak for the first time. I can’t say we’ve undone all of the damage we did years ago, because we still have a journey ahead of us. But I am proud of how courageous he is when it comes to eating now.
However, do I wish I could go back and listen to all that advice?
You’re damn right I do.
So if you, too, are finding yourself in a daily mealtime battle with your child, take it from me and stop. And check out Chef Gigi Gaggero’s new book Food Fight: For Parents of Picky Eaters for help.
Chef Gigi gets why we do it—why new parents indulge in these food battles with our kids. “Parenting is rewarding, but daunting and can be a frightening experience on so many levels,” she says. “We don’t know everything. When your child is not eating this can be cause for alarm. The baby didn’t come with a manual so we are often left with techniques we have picked up along the way from our parents. Positive or not, working or not, we use them. Throw in tired and frustrated into the mix and we become desperate to try anything. And that’s ok too. It is important to give yourself a break and realize we are also learning along the way.”
However, despite the exhaustion and desperation and floundering as we work our way through the fog of parenthood, Chef Gigi says we need to model healthier eating habits for our kids and avoid these five common mistakes:
1. Bribing and coaxing
2. Disguising vegetables
3. Threatening consequences
4. Negative comments about food and eating habits
5. Forcing children to eat when they don’t want to
If any of these sound familiar to you, don’t worry. There’s help. In her book, Gaggero says that the first step is realizing that kids aren’t all that different from adults in that, like you and me, they want to run the show. “Children want to feel that they have some control and power over their lives,” Gaggero says. “One way a child exerts his power and control is through food.”
So while we force our kids to sit for an hour, staring at their beans, refusing to eat, we are in a fight over who is in charge. Instead, Gaggero says to offer two healthy choices and let the child decide. Then he’ll be boss of his own decisions, and will be more likely to cooperate.
She also stresses the importance of starting young with healthy eating habits. Not only can you empower kids by giving them the choice between an apple and an orange, or carrots and broccoli, but you can also let them help you in the kitchen to foster a positive relationship with food.
Gaggero says we should allow our kids to help “with small, child-safe jobs in the kitchen, such as mixing ingredients and setting the table.” Also, she adds, “Allow them to smell, touch, taste, and play with the food. Talk about the colors, where they came from, how they were grown. Is the food from the soil or a tree? Note the color variety and talk about its history if you know it. Bring up the nutrition value and why we eat it. Not all children will be curious, but some will. Not everyone will eat foods they prepare, but preparing will pique interest in it. Don’t force it to happen. Touching foods they would normally not consume is a very good first step.”
But most importantly (and this was a huge fail for me), she says we need to maintain a positive attitude about food. “If you scowl or comment negatively about food, the kids might too.”
(Yeah, huffing and puffing and yelling in frustration when your kid won’t try ham on Easter doesn’t work. Trust me.)
Instead, Gaggero says to model positive eating behaviors. Sit down with your kids in front of a plate full of lots of different healthy foods and let them see you eat it. Let them hear you talk about how yummy and good for your body it all is. Knowing how much they emulate us, maybe they’ll end up taking a bite.
So, here’s the cold hard truth. I can’t go back nine years and shake new-mom me, telling her to wake up and listen to the experts. What’s done is done. But I can continue to model healthy eating, expose my kids to new foods, and avoid negative food battles as best I can while moving forward.
And hey, maybe this year my child will finally delve into Nana’s giant vat of mashed potatoes at Thanksgiving and see what he’s been missing all these years. Fingers crossed!