Many children need time to stare offensive food “in the face.” They need time to think, to ponder, to consider, to struggle, to sit and stew. Eventually they’ll eat.

This is a point I made in my last post Cooking with Kids, but since it was buried at the bottom you might have missed it.  It’s such an important, and counter-intuitive point, that I want to revisit it here.

When it comes to getting kids to eat right most parents I know think they have to choose between being lenient and being strict.

Many parents also think it is mean to put a picky eater in a situation where he has to wrestle with his demons (or a well-crafted crontrol sturggle), but think of it this way: You wouldn’t keep a shy kid away from social situations. Instead you would expose your shy child to carefully choreographed, and increasingly complex, moments of mingling.

That’s what picky eaters have to do with food: They have to mingle.  With a safety net (more on this in a moment).

I am not advocating a starve-it-out strategy.

In this month’s Real Simple Magazine, Noelle Howey writes about how she put her kids through a picky-eater boot camp. Look at how she let her kids sit with their own struggles.

First, Howey established a set of rules that included general politeness and appreciation, and rules such as:

  1. Three bites before you say you don’t like it.
  2. Kids get to choose their own portion size.

Then, Howey proceeded to make a series of meals, some of which were “easy” for her kids, some of which were more “challenging.”

Finally, THE SAFETY NET. Howey made sure there was at least one ingredient in each dish that her kids found palatable.

A safety net provides your child with nourishment (so you don’t have to worry he’ll starve) but also gives him the opportunity—time— to think about eating whatever it is you’ve cooked.

I might not make kids eat three bites, and I’m particularly wary of “I don’t like it,” but, the key to Howey’s system is this:

After the rules were established, Howey sat back and let her kids work through their eating issues on their own. She didn’t beg, scold, demand or do anything else. She remained silent (and hopeful).

And her kids began to eat. Tentatively.  Read Howey’s story.

If you’re too lenient your kids never have to come to terms with their own food challenges.

But, if you’re too strict, your kids also never have to come to terms with their own food challenges—because they get wrapped up in the struggle.

You have to expose your children to food challenges without too much pressure to help them grow.  Structure, with a safety net, lets you do that.

1) Decide not to fight about food.  Cook foods you like to eat.  Make sure there is something on the table your children will eat (even if it’s not their first choice.) Ellyn Satter recommends bread and butter, but I recommend you switch up your “safety.” (Variety creates a variety mentality; monotony creates a monotonous mentality.)

2) Let your children sit with their own internal struggle.  Get on your kids’ team by finding ways to help them: Serve foods that aren’t too unfamiliar; Teach your children how to predict what a food will taste like; Make sure there’s a glass of water handy.

Might your picky eater still refuse to eat?

Sure, but that doesn’t change a thing.  If you’ve put a safety out that your child should reasonably be expected to eat—he ate it yesterday for instance—then you’ve done what you can do.  Some kids need to choose NOT to eat before they’ll chose TO eat.

But, if you completely cater to your kids’ culinary demands you’ll reinforce the pickiness rather than take steps to eradicate it.

~Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.~