I am a 34 year old picky eater. I am the product of the “You get what you get and you don’t have a fit” camp of parenting food philosophy. My parents decided what I ate as a child, and that was what I ate. I got my plate filled, and I ate everything on the plate, whether I liked it or not. I ate a wide variety of foods, like chili, seafood, La Choy Chinese style food, a variety of veggies, and sugary cereal – no Trix or Fruity Pebbles, mind you. Just Frosted Flakes and Lucky Charms and the like. My parents made square meals and I sat at the table until my plate was clean – even if I sat there until bedtime. I have been assured that, while it only happened once, I was served my dinner for breakfast the next day – cold, I’m sure.
Now, the parental goals in this philosophy vary greatly. Many parents believe that exposing a child to the same food over and over again will make the child eventually realize that they like the food – that some tastes are formed over time. For other families, it is that mom (or dad, as was often the case at our house) is not a short order cook, and is therefore, only making one meal. For other families, it is a matter of economy – they cannot buy enough food for everyone to pick a different meal. I don’t entirely know what my family’s goal was. I know that my dad had come from a childhood without a lot of extravagance, and that he felt that providing one meal was sufficient. I know that my mom (and probably my dad) abhors waste, so throwing away uneaten food does not go over well. I know that my parents ate a wide variety of foods, and probably wanted to help me and my sister to enjoy a wide variety of foods. The bottom line, really, is that my parents were making the choice to feed us this way out of love. But the outcome was not necessarily the one that they thought they would get from me.
I doubt that they thought they would wind up with a picky eater. When I first began to make my own food choices as an older teenager and young adult, I largely ate cheap, bland, fast food. But really, I rarely ate at all. I absolutely hated food; all food. But I especially hated food with a lot of flavor or spice. I was very picky about the way things were prepared – not too much of this, plenty of that. I had anything but a healthy food attitude. The more stress there was in my life, the less I ate – because exerting my own control over food made me feel good. It would have been just as easy for me to have turned my “control” over food the other direction and eat just as much of everything that I wanted, instead, but that just wasn’t how I was built.
At any rate, food and I did not have a healthy relationship. Now, for a lot of people, that is where the story would have ended. For a lot of people, finding 5 meals that they like and eating them over and over, day after day, is perfectly acceptable – any other considerations not being worth merit. Fortunately for me (and those whose dinner I prepare most days), I am very interested in living a healthy lifestyle AND I can become a little obsessed with saving money. So, in my mid-twenties, I decided to learn how to cook real food. This was a huge revelation for me. Micah and I were engaged, and for the first time in my life, I really cared about the longevity of my life. I began to look around at ways that we could become healthier, in general. One of the biggest things that stuck out at me was food. Micah is an adventurous eater. He is happy to try out a new recipe any time. He likes spicy food. He likes ethnic food. He likes sweet, down home food. He just, pretty much, likes food. In our dozen years together, I have found exactly 2 foods that he doesn’t like.
So when the prospect of feeding us differently came up, I was the one in our way. It was a huge undertaking in my consciousness to let go of my hatred of food, and to decide that not only would I eat on a regular basis, but I was also going to eat nutritious, flavorful foods. It meant that I would not only have to learn to cook differently than I was used to, but also that I would have to be open to trying out new recipes. Being an adventurous person, I was up to the task of taking on my issues, head-on.
I learned how to cook. I browsed magazines and stacks of cookbooks from the library. I copied down recipes to try in notebooks. I started a recipe box and added new ones to it regularly. What we ate became healthier. My relationship with food became tolerable. Micah stopped feeling so frustrated with my limited palate. But I wasn’t satisfied. At that point, I could cook 10 or 12 specific meals, in a very specific way. They were all pretty meat and potatoes type meals – very basic, still somewhat bland, and expensive unless there were good sales going on.
Expense was the second obstacle that I found myself wanting to overcome. At the time, Micah and I were just starting out in life, and we had far more love than money. I knew that if I were able to somehow like foods that didn’t cost as much, we would be able to save a lot of money at the grocery store each week. But I just didn’t like a lot of foods. I hated rice, for example, and garlic, beans, onions, chicken, most vegetables if they were steamed… you get the idea. So, if I was going to lower our food bill, I was going to have to come to terms with some cheaper food tastes.
I spent years trying out new recipes, new ingredients, new styles of cooking until I really came into my own and found ways to cook food so that I truly enjoy it. A huge change occurred when I got off of the foods that I am allergic and sensitive to. But that, on its own, was not enough to make me an adventurous eater. I became an adventurous eater because I decided to become one. I became an adventurous eater because it became important to ME.
I did not become an adventurous eater because I had the “Try One Bite” rule, or the “Clean Your Plate” rule, or the “Get What You Get and You Don’t Have a Fit” rule. I became an adventurous eater because the choice was mine and it is what I chose to do.
And then, one day, I became a parent. And I had to decide how I felt about feeding my children, and what types of rules we would have about food. I looked at what my long term goals are for my children. I looked at what attitudes had been imparted to me and to Micah by our parents and their food philosophies. And Micah and I decided what we felt was actually the healthiest philosophy for our children, along with what works for our family and economic situations.
1. We never make our children clean their plates. In fact, we never make our children eat anything specific. We may ask that they choose a protein to eat, because they haven’t had much protein for the day, but we don’t dictate what that protein has to be. We have rules about sweets and junk foods (after lunch only, when they won’t interfere with another big meal and they won’t affect going to bed at night). We have rules about snack foods (foods from the snack cabinet or fresh fruit or veggies are always ok, as is anything that we have made specifically to snack on, like muffins). And we have rules about meal times (we all sit down together for lunch and dinner, and largely for breakfast, depending on when everyone wakes ups). But, there is no rule that says that everyone has to eat any certain food – just that we participate in meal times.
2. We educate our children about food and food choices. We have made it very clear to all of our children, from the time that they are old enough to understand, that food is what fuels our bodies; that it either nourishes, or it depletes our strength. We have taught them about what different foods do for the body, and how to eat a balanced diet. We have taught them about the environmental impact of the foods we eat, even.
3. We discuss the price of food, and why some foods are always ok and some are only ok sometimes. Our kids know that apples are pretty much always in the house, while a bag of gluten free crackers is a rare and special treat.They know that pancakes or waffles are a daily breakfast, but cereal is almost never on the breakfast menu at our house (because cereal that meets our allergen needs is often around $5 a box, and we can eat an entire box for breakfast).
4. We discourage food waste. We have taught the children not to take a food if they are not going to eat it. We have taught them that once a food is on their plate, it is theirs. They control portion sizes, so if it has been put on their plate, they need to eat it. If there is a pile of one thing on their plate, they need to finish it before getting something else. If they eat only a section of a fruit, we can save it and cut off the rest to eat later.
5. We cook only one meal. I’m not a short order cook. I prepare one meal at meal times (except for lunch a lot of the time). I try to cook things that I know everyone will like, and to have something for everyone at each meal. However, Walter rivals me for pickiness, and there is no telling what he will eat from day to day. So, I cannot plan around him and retain my sanity. So, I make what sounds good to the rest of us, and if he wants to join us, lovely. If he doesn’t want what we are having, he is welcome to make himself something else. I’ve been asked before about the economics of allowing him to do this, and the food waste that goes along with it, but truly, it isn’t a problem. He isn’t allowed to subsist on expensive processed foods. He often eats peanut butter and carrot sticks for dinner if he doesn’t like what I’ve made. Both of those are cheap and always on hand. And I don’t throw away his portions of our meal, just because he doesn’t eat them. They just become part of the leftovers that are eaten for lunch in the next few days.
I love that our food philosophy has empowered all of our children – adventurous and hesitant eaters alike – to make informed decisions about their own food choices. I hope that they continue to make empowered food choices throughout their lifetimes.