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Unburdening: Avoiding Food Fights

October 9, 2014

Today, we continue the Unburdening series.

Cooking healthful, affordable meals for a family doesn’t have to be a burden. I’ve been there. I’ve lived through the challenges. And for the most part, I’ve found ways to overcome them. Today’s topic however is especially close to my heart and lies at the intersection of cooking and parenting.

Thanks to a recent study from North Carolina State University, and the media attention it has received, the barriers to cooking meals at home have been painstakingly documented. My goal is to offer solutions to as many of these problems as I can.

We’ve addressed the impossible expectations of the ideal meal.
We’ve covered the expense of lean meat and less expensive options.
We’ve identified healthful alternatives to expensive, perishable produce.
We’ve explained how a few quick preparations are better than 30 minute meals.

And there are still more to overcome. Because what good is it to make a simple, quick, inexpensive meal, packed with nutrients if it’s going to create fights over the family table?

Let’s go back to the text of the original study to clarify this problem a bit. The boldface below is mine, which I’ve added for emphasis.

Low-income mothers tended to avoid using recipes, because the ingredients were expensive and they weren’t sure if their families would like the new dishes. Instead, they continued to make what was tried and true, even if they didn’t like the food themselves. Sandy, a white mother of two, tried hard to cook around her boyfriend’s preferences. She liked fish, but her boyfriend didn’t. So she ignored her food interests in order to “do something for my whole house.” Sociologist Marjorie DeVault also found in her book Feeding the Family that women considered men’s needs, sometimes above all others, when it came to preparing meals.

For middle-class mothers, cooking was about more than negotiating preferences for certain foods. They felt that offering new foods was crucial for developing their kids’ palates—even if the process sometimes led to food fights.

The mantra I taught the kids from a very early age has to do with importance of a varied diet.

Maybe some day in the future nutritionists will find that human bodies are actually better off eating the same food day in and day out. But for now, to the best of our knowledge, there are micronutrients everywhere. The most effective way to get all of these healthful compounds into your body is to eat a little bit of everything.

Don’t tell the kids, but I have my doubts on that. It’s easy to imagine that small quantities of these micronutrients are largely inconsequential. But let’s not completely derail the original thesis.

Anyhow, to make sure the kids eat a little bit of everything, we initiated a series of rules as soon as the kids turned two. Here’s how they go:
– Everyone gets served a little bit of everything
– Before you get seconds of anything, you have to eat X bites of everything
– X = Your age

For a while we started tying this into dessert to make it more effective:
– If you eat all of your bites, you are entitled to a small dessert
– If you eat everything on your plate, you can have a big dessert

There is also room for exceptions:
– Should you find the food to be so vile that attempting to eat it will likely cause gagging, then you can have a plain bowl of cereal (or rice with soy sauce – pending availability)
– However, taking this option eliminates the possibility of dessert

It didn’t take too long until green leafy salads became classified as a separate part of the dinner. That meant our kids were no longer expected to choke down a few bites of the lettuces that were clearly causing them distress.

Once a rule like this is established, there are no more fights. The kids can make their own choices, and they are aware of the consequences. If they go to bed with just cereal in their bellies, the kids will be fine. If they go a few days without any vegetables, they’ll be fine too. And even if they decide to go to bed without eating anything* in protest, they’ll still be fine. Kids are quite resilient.

That’s not to say there isn’t disappointment. But I do try to manage the long faces on broccoli and tatsoi stir fry night by telling Little Miss Fussy that Cuban black beans will be served later in the week.

Do I alter what I cook based on who will be eating the food? Absolutely. I pull punches on levels of spice, and I’ll leave out or reduce the leafy greens in a dish so the kids can have a more pleasant meal. And I’m not going to give the kids some expensive fish just to have them dutifully force down their required bites. I’ll save special proteins for special occasions.

One such occasion was my birthday dinner. I brought in lobsters for everyone. The kids had never tried them before, but I thought it would be fun to share this experience with the little ones. Turns out they hated the crustaceans. But that didn’t mean two lobsters went to waste.

What had started off as a decadent treat for Mrs. Fussy and me turned into a magnificent feast.

Now, not all leftovers are so delightful. And it raises the critical question of what do you do with uneated food to make sure it doesn’t get wasted.

We’ll save that answer for next week. Until then, keep on cooking. And please remember, if you’re having any problems, just let me know. I’m here to help.

* At the dinner table, everyone is expected to behave. If the kids are so overwhelmed with disappointment that they are brought to tears, they are invited to cry it out up in their room. Dinner happens at a specific time. There is no food served after dinner. Although, they can have a glass of milk (aka liquid food) if they have an empty feeling in their bellies.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Laura K. permalink
    October 9, 2014 11:15 am

    I tend set aside some of the individual ingredients as I’m cooking, keeping them raw when it’s safe to. That way the kids can try foods that haven’t touched each other. Because that’s pretty much the worst thing in their minds. If they are eating raw vegetables and plain rice or pasta, I don’t care if they eat the prepared meal.

  2. October 9, 2014 12:36 pm

    The rule in my house growing up was you eat what is served, or you make yourself a peanut butter and jelly, have a yogurt, or cereal. You had to try it, and you couldn’t complain either way. As a kid I couldn’t stand beef in any form, just the mouth feel made me gag; so I appreciate the alternative options while my mom kept cooking what she wanted.
    I eat just about anything now, so I think having no horrible memories associated with food allowed me to embrace more things as I got older.

  3. christine permalink
    October 9, 2014 4:49 pm

    Under the advice of my kids’ pediatrician 25 years ago I set no real rules around meal times. Dinner was served and that was what there was- period. No sandwich or cereal option was available to my four kids. And, they were welcome to have it or not. No fighting or begging or rules about how much they had to eat. I didn’t really care about it. Their doctor said if they refused dinner there was always breakfast the next day. And, you know what, it was brilliant! All of them were open to just about anything and if they didn’t want something no fuss was made.

  4. October 9, 2014 8:02 pm

    Within reason I pretty much tailor dinner to each of my family member’s diverse tastes. I really don’t find it to be that much trouble and I don’t get all bunched up about it. I don’t think there is some grandiose life lesson in forcing your children to eat random crap against their will. In less one of them veers towards a truly deficient diet I am very c’est la vie about the whole situation.

    I was raised on the most truly horrific shit and I turned out just fine. I think the real key with kids is the exercise. As long as you keep their diet in the somewhat sensible range and keep their little exercise furnaces burning they will turn out just fine.

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