My oldest child will be three years old in August, so I don’t know everything there is to know about feeding children. I don’t even know everything there is to know about feeding my 2.5 year old. There are some things I have learned, however.
- Feed your kid what you are eating. It probably won’t work on the first night, but when your kid is going through his Daddy Idolization Phase, and Daddy eats his veggies every night, your child might at least try them. Plus, if you give him something different from what you’re eating most nights, on the nights you try to get him to eat a grown-up meal he’ll ask for something else, because he knows it’s an option. On the rare occasion I make him something different because Mommy was craving grilled octopus and I know there’s only so far you can push a toddler, he asks questions about what we’re having and often asks to try it anyway. Instead of Jack thinking he is getting a good deal skipping the whole grilled snapper stuffed with tomato and basil, he leans over and wants to watch me pull off the skin and almost looks disappointed in his pasta. Until I show him the head and ask if he wants a bite.
- Ignore Pinterest. The more excited I am about a meal, and the harder I try to make something fun for Jack, the less he cares. I spent an hour making broccoli tots, which are dry, gross versions of tater tots, and he didn’t even try one. And then Robby and I were stuck eating the green pellets and no one wins, because we actually like regular broccoli. I remember thinking I was a total genius putting together personal chicken pot pies just knowing my son would LOVE the creamy filling with soft-cooked veg and chicken and the crispy puff pastry top. He wouldn’t even try it. He was having an off night, and it was a new meal to him, but I was still crushed. Now, I sometimes try to make food kid-friendly, but I stick to things we like and would eat anyway. My mom often made stuffed zucchini boats when I was growing up, so I made my own version with a Mornay sauce with mozzarella, fresh corn, tomato, bell pepper, and bread crumbs to give it structure. Fill hollowed out zucchini and bake to brown. Since it looks like a boat, I added a tomato flag and told Jackson it was a pirate ship. He tried it and seemed to like it, but just used the toothpick-flag to eat two helpings of Robby’s now-famous smoked chicken, which brings me to…
- Lower your expectations. I just can’t care too much that he didn’t devour my zucchini pirate boat. He tried it, he didn’t spit it out, and he ate a ton of smoked chicken, so it was a win none the less. Most nights he will skip his veggies and ask to eat a loaf of bread, and I spend the meal trying to explain that bread does not make a meal, and he won’t grow up to be big and strong if he doesn’t eat his tomatoes, blah blah blah. But eventually I stop focusing on every bite because he is old enough to tell me if he’s hungry and it will all balance out eventually. He might refuse to eat anything but a tortilla and a cheese stick today, but the times when you just let everyone enjoy their meal and try not to obsess he turns to you and says “more cucumber pwees?” Of course I assume he is using it to build towers or mushing it under the wheels of a monster truck, but it turns out he actually ate it all and wants seconds! Of something that is not bread! Unless your kid is raising eyebrows at his well-visits, it’s probably fine. This is especially true if your kids goes to school or daycare, because its a well-known fact kids eat all their broccoli at school and zero “green twees” at home. So they are getting vegetables, but it’s a secret between your kid and their magical teachers.
- Distractions. Jack brings trucks to the table. He has been doing this a long time and he is very good at independent play, so he will often mutter to himself and run a truck along the table while Robby and I actually get to eat dinner (until we had a second child, obv). Sometimes the dump truck is full of tilapia. Often the garlic bread requires a tow truck. I am OK with this version of food-play. I am not OK with grinding things into the table and flinging things on the floor. I slave over those microwaved vegetables for 3 to 5 minutes, they are at least good enough to be carried in a truck bed, not stepped on as we get up from dinner. A lot of this food makes it into his mouth. Not all, but a good amount. And it gives us some time to chew before cutting more bites for him to put in the bucket of his wheel loader.
- Pizza is a vegetable. It has tomatoes. This is actually in a parenting book I read, and instead of verifying this lunacy with my pediatrician I’ve decided it is law.
- It’s not your fault. If your kid refuses your boeuf bourguignon, it doesn’t mean Julia Child is in heaven wagging her finger at your freezer bag of pearl onions. Kids are weird. They like weird stuff and hate great stuff. Kids are stubborn. If you read all the books and nothing works, then you just have one of those kids in one of those phases, and may God have mercy on your soul. Jessica Seinfeld wrote a cookbook called Deceptively Delicious that tells you how to sneak pureed veggies into kid-approved meals, like butternut squash puree in your mac and cheese. That way your kids won’t get scurvy and you won’t lose all your hair from the stress of cooking for the toughest critic in town. Luckily, I have a kid that tries things most of the time. Sometimes he will try a bite and spit it back out, but you know what? There are things I don’t like, too. And honestly, if a food is new it might take 5 or 6 times to get a bite that makes it all the way to his stomach.
- Lie, cheat, and steal. Jack loves chicken, so when he eats half my salmon burger and asks for “more chicken pwees?” I say “absolutely! Let me cut up more of this special orange chicken for you”. When he is slowing down and filling up, I slip in the actual name of whatever food he has mistakenly called chicken and hope he doesn’t turn around and spit it all out. Usually, he isn’t listening, he’s playing trucks. Everything I have read says not to barter or bribe with desserts, as in “eat three more bites of pork chop and you can have a cookie.” So, we don’t bribe. Most nights we don’t have dessert (until the kids are in bed and I sit on the couch with some frozen yogurt and mentally prepare for tomorrow). However, we have a glass cookie jar on our counter that Jackson has finally noticed after two years, and when it has cookies in it he asks about them. And one night it accidentally morphed into a negotiation, because Jackson had helped with dinner (aka stuck his fingers in everything and wiped his nose on the cutting board) and saw the cookie jar, then sat down to dinner and immediately asked for a cookie. I said maybe after dinner, he said he was probably all done with dinner in that case, and it just came out. “Eat this, this, and this and then you can have a cookie.” And you know what? It worked like a charm. And when I saw that it worked, I added things he needed to eat before his reward, and he ate them all. This is probably not a good long term plan and would be exhausting to hash out every night, but it is also an effective way to get him to try something you’re pretty sure he will like but is refusing on principle.
Eventually your child’s diet will even out, and they probably won’t go to college eating only chicken nuggets and white bread. Until then, make a dinner you will enjoy and don’t watch your kid too closely, unless something whizzes by your head and hits the wall. A little play is exploration, and might demystify a food enough to make it palatable to him. If he doesn’t love your food, it doesn’t mean you’re a bad cook, it means that today he isn’t eating things that are red, so all your Italian specialties are OUT. Once you’ve totally given up, your kid will ask you for more ceviche and totally blow your mind with the things he’s open to trying. He might be 17, but still. Some day.