“My plans never work out.” The wails of a three year-old. He’s sitting straight up in his chair, arms limp by his sides, crocodile tears spilling over and down his face.
“Get the food out of your cheek. Chew and swallow. You have thirty seconds or no cake.”
“I hate it when you set a timer!”
“If you’d eat your food, there wouldn’t be a timer.”
“This is not fair.” He immediately begins to chew.
“Ten seconds. Have you swallowed?”
“Show me your mouth.” He opens his mouth, now empty.
“Good. Now three bites of broccoli and three more bites of steak.”
“More bites?!” More wails. “My plans never work out.”
“May I have ketchup?” Ketchup is added to his plate.
“This is good!” He eats all six bites, all covered in ketchup (including the broccoli). “Done!”
“Now was that so hard?”
“Nope! That was easy!”
For years, the birthday tradition at our house has been chocolate cake with chocolate icing. And, if you’re the birthday person, you get to eat a piece for breakfast the next day. When Littlest entered the picture however, he provided his own twist. Due to his refusal to eat almost everything, especially meat, he’s only gotten cake after a birthday meal about three times in his whole young life and that includes the birthday meals of everyone in the family, not just his birthday.
The food fight at our house started long ago with Oldest. As an infant, she would eat only orange food. We once took her to the pediatrician because we were afraid she was jaundiced. Turned out, it was her orange diet that was providing her orange glow.
When she got old enough to eat table food, she decided she would only eat cheese and peaches. We tried everything to get her to widen her tastes, including allowing our cat to sit next to her high chair on a bar stool for distraction. We also had a musical toy with a pull string that helped. The trick was to hold it in your mouth, pull the string, and quickly shovel in the food while the music played. No easy feat, but it worked at least for a while.
Then there was the Three Bite War. While she extended her horizons and started eating more of a variety, she’d still refuse to eat sometimes. One Sunday at lunch she simply said, “No.” Kent told her she couldn’t get down from her high chair until she’d eaten three bites. When we were done with our lunch, she still hadn’t eaten her three bites. I cleaned up the table and kitchen while Kent sat beside her and read the Sunday paper. (That was when the Sunday paper was a thing, lots of sections like news, sports, comics, classified ads.) Reading it took a while.
He calmly read the entire paper, stopping periodically to tell her she couldn’t get down until she finished her three bites. She calmly stuck her lip out each time and refused. No drama, just, “No.” When he was done with the paper, he turned to her and said, “You can get down and play if you will eat your three bites.” She locked eyes with him, ate all three bites in quick succession, and was released from the chair. A battle, but Kent won.
It was more a battle of wills at that point, not food preferences, but we knew better than to back down. Our consistency paid off in the future, too. She knew the rules were firm and fair. And as Middle and Youngest followed behind, the precedent set with Oldest made it easier for all of us. The food fights were still part of life, but it was less stressful with a plan in place. Most of the time no one felt like, “My plans never work out.”
Teaching kids to eat is tough, especially since it’s not completely about the food. You want them to get the nutrition they need, but you also want to allow them to have favorite foods and preferences. I tried to make a menu that included a wide variety of colors, spices, textures, and tastes. My hope was that they would learn to try new things and develop a wide palate while eating healthfully. At every meal the kids were expected to try everything—more than once. They were allowed to express their opinions, but no one was allowed to make negative remarks.
One Thanksgiving I’d made sweet potatoes, the kind with butter, sugar, and pecans—you know, lots of artery-clogging calories. One of the kids said, “These are disgusting.” The other two agreed enthusiastically. Kent made them all take double portions and eat every bite. The general consensus among our three that day was, “My plans never work out.” But after that, even if someone really didn’t like a particular food, they learned to express their opinion in a polite manner that was appreciative of the fact that we had food on the table and in a way that didn’t insult the cook.
Winning the food fight with kids is challenging but not impossible if you’re always on the lookout for good ideas. On social media the other day, I saw a friend providing charcuterie to her kids for lunch. What a great way to appeal to picky eaters! It’s fun and if everything on the board is good for them, it makes sure they get to have nutritious choices and still succeed at the food game.
I want to try charcuterie soon with our littles. In fact, maybe we’ll do that for the next birthday meal. Then, Littlest won’t have to take his cake home in a to-go box.
If you have ideas that have worked at your house, leave them in the comments. We’d love to hear them!
Meanwhile, we hope your summer is full of food, fun and summer treats!