This is a Guest Post by Annie of Tunheim Family!
My brief disclaimer to this post is that I am well aware that every child is different and there are always some particular situations that can lead to disruptive eating patterns for children. But some parents say that they are lucky that their kids are good eaters, or maybe one is and one isn’t, as if it’s simply luck of the draw. It very well may be, but my husband and I have three boys (ages 8, 6, and 3) who are all adventurous eaters, so did we win the lottery? Maybe so, but we have also worked hard to create a consistent structure that has clearly worked with our three guys. Here is my unsolicited advice for what worked in our family; taking different parenting styles into account, I’m sure there is still something you can take away from this post to help instill healthy eating habits in your child—a desire that is the same no matter the culture or philosophical position.
1. Make Your Own Baby Food
It’s economical, more Earth-friendly (you’re not using all those jars), and the most healthy choice for your child. I promise, it’s not nearly as daunting as it sounds—it’s actually really fun! You won’t need any equipment you don’t already have in your kitchen except for a small food processor (the kind sold at drugstores works just fine). There are a number of great recipe resources out there; I used Annabel Karmel’s book, First Meals.
You may be wondering how making your own baby food has anything to do with raising a child who ventures outside the mac and cheese, hot dogs, and pizza box. As an experiment, close your eyes and try a variety of jarred baby foods vegetables, even the pricier organic brands—they are so bland it’s difficult to identify them! How to easily make and store your baby foods is worth a separate post (or check out First Meals at your local library!), but by steaming and pureeing carrots, squash, peas or broccoli they retain a lovely flavor so a child’s palate becomes accustomed to flavor. And once your baby moves beyond single foods, there are wonderful recipes out there that incorporate leeks (a wonderful, mild first onion for babies), spices and meats so your growing child doesn’t balk at textures and flavors. All three of our boys loved Annabel Karmel’s Baby Bolognese, Potato Leek and Pea Puree; and even Fish with Carrots and Oranges!
2. Expose Them to All Kinds of Foods
When our first son was an infant, we’d go out to sushi for special occasions. Our son would sit in his high chair and have miso soup in his sippy cup with rice on a plate. The caveat to this, of course, is that now we can’t afford to go out for sushi because our 8-year old consumes more nigiri sushi than we do, eating pieces of raw fish, shrimp, octopus and eel like candy! Like making your own baby food, simply exposing children to different cuisines at an early age develops their palate. This early exposure also normalizes different foods so your child doesn’t perceive it as different or weird.
3. Avoid Vicious Cycle #1: Multiple Meals
It’s not uncommon for a mother to prepare one meal for herself and her husband, and one for her child (or heaven forbid, separate meals for each child!). They’d rather their picky eater consume something rather than starve, and one child only eats white foods while the other will only eat peanut butter and jelly on bread (crusts cut off). When it comes to the battle of the wills, don’t let children win! There have been plenty of nights where my children are not necessarily pleased with what they are being served for dinner, but we’ve been consistent with the ‘this is dinner, so if you would like food in your stomach this is your only option’ lecture so there isn’t a lot of complaining.
4. Avoid Vicious Cycle #2: ‘Hungry’ After Dinner
Sometimes mothers don’t make an extra meal at dinnertime, but their child barely touches his dinner and then complains of hunger an hour later. Not wanting the child to go to bed hungry, they offer a yogurt, toast, or some other snack. The child learns that he doesn’t need to eat what’s in front of him, because he’ll get a snack later. I don’t mean to suggest that snacks are evil—our boys eat mid-morning snacks and after-school snacks, but after dinner eating does not happen in our household (apart from the occasional dessert, which of course only happens if their dinner has been eaten).
My middle son went through a period where he barely ate dinner—he’d stoke his fire early with a huge breakfast of homemade oatmeal and fruit and a bowl of cereal afterwards. He’d eat a good lunch, and then almost nothing for dinner. He never complained of hunger, though, and has since shifted to a more steady meal consumption.
5. Hire a Kitchen Assistant
Not a personal chef—ha! That would be nice, but clearly a pipe dream for most families. When time permits (because of course it slows things down a bit), I invite one of my guys to help me in the kitchen. Even a child as young as 18 months can help scoop or pour into bowls, as long as you are standing away from a hot stove. Aside from developing math skills and manual dexterity, allowing them to taste different ingredients and involving them in the process of cooking will make them much more invested in the meal that will be served on the table.
Don’t get me wrong–our mealtimes still have plenty of the usual canyoupleaseuseautensiltoeatyoursalad, fooddoesn’tbelonginyourwaterglass, youneedtositonyourbottom, and ishouldn’tseeyourkneeswhenyou’resittingatthetable. I often wonder if our boys will have proper manners by the time they are eating dinner at a girlfriend’s house for the first time (hopefully many, many years from now!). But I know the healthy eating habits we’ve instilled in them will stick with them, despite the requisite Ramen Noodle-Mountain Dew-and-Twinkie phase that they will surely go through when they first leave our nest.
This has worked for us; what has worked well with your family, or what struggles have you experienced, in your quest to establish good eating habits?
Annie is a wife, a mother of three young boys, and an attorney with a virtual intellectual property law practice (www.annietunheim.com). She lives in a 100-year old home near downtown Denver, although she and her family will embark on a year-long adventure to Australia in December while her husband participates in a teacher exchange program. Read about mindful parenting, home renovation, and family adventures on Annie’s blog at www.tunheimfamily.blogspot.com.