By Debbie Koenig
Next week my son turns 12, which means we’re hitting the 10-year mark for his frustrating palate. This has cemented into a power struggle, and since you can’t force-feed a kid, he’s definitely winning. He’s erected a wall of NO, and nothing seems to penetrate. All he has to do is refuse food in order to claim victory, even if it means he’s really losing—in terms of pleasure as well as nutrition. But a decade of preparing family meals has taught me three useful lessons. And by useful, I mean: Do the opposite of what I did:
1. Don’t push. This is the biggie, by far. If I could rewind 10 years, I’d maintain a façade of neutrality when my toddler began to say no to foods he used to love. Once he learned that his eating mattered to me, it gave him a sliver of autonomy—a new, exciting experience for a little one. He went from pesto-on-everything to ewwwww-pesto in a flash. These days, he feels pressure if my husband and I so much as look at his plate during dinner. He watches for us to watch him. It feels like an impossible pattern to break.
2. Serve meals family-style. When I was losing my 100 pounds, I glommed onto a piece of advice that helped me tremendously: Don’t bring platters of food to the table, since it makes it too easy to keep eating past the point of satisfaction. Instead, I served each of us plates of food. While it worked for my needs, it deprived kiddo of an opportunity to decide for himself what he wanted on his plate, to exert some control. By the time I figured that out and started serving family-style, the damage had been done.
3. Prepare food you love. I’m not going to lie: Dealing with a picky eater is exhausting. It takes the fun out of cooking if you spend half your time stressing over whether or not your kid will eat dinner. While I never fell into the trap of preparing separate meals for him and us, after a few years I realized I’d stopped playing with new ingredients in favor of preserving the limited list of foods my kid would eat. Instead of spicing up chicken with Aleppo pepper or creating a lively marinade for steak, I was serving simply cooked proteins, since I knew he’d eat them. Not only did I deprive myself of experiences I enjoyed, I also took away my son’s opportunity to (someday) decide for himself to try something new.
I can’t tell you how much I wish I could’ve ended this blog by declaring victory over my son’s picky eating. These days, I cook what I want and (mostly) accept that he won’t try it. He’s old enough to decide for himself when he’s ready to tear down his wall of NO.
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