Thanks to Emma who originally posted this question on my Facebook page and to everyone who wrote about how they handled the situation when I posed the quested back to my FB friends.
Do you recommend serving your kids exactly what you eat, or making it a little more “kid-friendly” for them if it’s easy to do, or do you make everyone’s meal a little more kid-friendly in order to get something on the plate you know he’ll eat?
My answer is “yes” and “yes” and “maybe yes depending on how much you’re going to dumb down the meal.” How’s that for clarity? Let me explain.
1) You want to set up the expectation that everyone in the household eats the same food.
Otherwise, why would your child ever rise to the occasion? Plus, you don’t want your tot even to toy with the idea that there are separate foods for kids and for adults. We can thank modern American manufacturers for that distinction, but it’s not a real (or necessary) one. Read this post on feeding a one year old.
2) But, you don’t want to disregard your child’s taste preferences (though they’re always changing), personality and stage of development.
That’s a recipe for conflict. So you need to make some compromises.
3) You want to serve meals without putting on the pressure.
Pressure is the kiss of death. Read The Pressure-Cooker Problem.
In practice this means you need a hybrid approach to serving meals.
- Serve the food you eat.
- Be willing to serve foods separately, and to add extra flavors that you enjoy at the table. It’s better to add these items — onions, jalapenos, and other spicy stuff—in front of your child (think of it as a form of exposure) than to create separate dishes in the kitchen.
- Put something on the table that you know your child will eat (bread, rice, apples…) or consider using a backup. Read How Cottage Cheese Changed My Life.
- Use dessert constructively, not coercively. Read Dishing Up Dessert.
- Don’t take your child’s likes and dislikes too seriously, and never pressure your child to eat. Read The Easy Way to Solve Your Toddler’s Decision to Suddenly Refuse Certain Foods.
As with everything parent-related, you have multiple goals at each meal:
- Nourish your child.
- Socialize your child to eat with the rest of the human race.
- Keep the peace.
It’s not always so easy to balance these goals. Let’s take a look at each goal, and then, in the spirit of the political season, let’s vote to see how the balancing turns out.
A vote for Your Food=Serve your kids what you eat. A vote for Their Food=Serve your kids what they want to eat.
Goal One: Nourish your child
Fundamentally, you want to get enough food into your child so he’ll make it to the next meal, without having a major meltdown—or worse, waking you up unnecessarily throughout the night. Vote: Their Food.
On the other hand, how nourishing is the stuff your kid prefers? If it’s typical “kid-friendly” food then…not so much. Read The Truth About “Child-Friendly” Food. Vote: Your food.
If your child isn’t into the usual crap—i.e. macaroni and cheese and hot dogs—you might get a pass. Before you vote, though, take a long hard look at what you’ll be serving if you continue to cater to your kid. Read What’s the Problem with Cheese?, Polly Want a Cracker?, and Yogurt vs. Coke. Then decide how to vote: Your Food or Their Food.
Overall to reach your Nourish goal the vote is…too close to call.
Goal Two: Socialize your child to eat with the rest of the human race.
I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that you’d like to move your child beyond pasta and chicken nuggets, and so the question becomes: what’s the best way to do it?
One strategy is to wait until your child expresses an interest in other food. The underlying logic is that when your child is ready, it’ll be a lot easier to introduce these items. Vote: Their Food.
On the other hand—Didn’t you know this was coming?—research shows that the strongest predictor of the number of foods liked at age 8 is the number of foods liked at age 4. Furthermore, kids are more likely to accept new foods that are introduced between the ages of 2 and 4 than they are to accept foods introduced between 4 and 8. Vote: Your Food.
And, if you consider the evidence that repeated exposure is the key to food preferences—You know the advice: you have to introduce your child to a new vegetables 3492 times before he’ll like it.—then you have to factor this into your feeding strategy. The more you feed your child stuff that resembles fast food (salty and sweet snacks, sugar-added items) the more you reinforce a preference for those kinds of foods. Vote: Your Food.
Finally, since the brain biases the buds—what people eat is related to what they think they like— it’s vital not to teach your child that children eat differently than adults. Keep categorizing foods as “kid-friendly” and that is what your kid will want to eat. Read Mind over Matter.
Overall Join the Human Race Votes: Your Food. (Personally, I think this is the most important goal, but I understand why you might not agree with me.)
Goal Three: Keep the Peace
If you are willing to be a short-order chef for your child for the long haul, then vote Their Food.
If you think you’d like to stop some day vote Your Food. Kicking the can (or in this case the confrontation) down the road will only make it worse.
Overall Keep the Peace Votes…another toss up.
And the winner is…Your Food.
If you have a child with a very limited diet this might seem like a total disaster. Before you disregard everything I’ve written, read this woman’s experience with a very picky eater. She stopped catering dinner to her daughter “cold turkey” with a Dinner Challenge.
Even though a Dinner Challenge might not work for you, the habits idea being served up in this strategy, is a message well worth considering. Your expectations really can shape how your child eats.
~Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.~
Skinner, J. D., B. R. Carruth, W. Bounds, and P. Ziegler. 2002. “Children’s Food Preferences: a Logitudinal Analysis.” Journal of the American Dietetic Association 102(11): 1638-47.
Cornwell, T. B. and A. R. McAlister. 2011. “Alternative Thinking About Starting Points in Obesity. Development of Child Taste Preferences.” Appetite 56: 428-39.