My oldest daughter was a great eater as a baby. She didn't shy away from strong flavors, she loved vegetables, and she would happily chomp whatever we gave her. I took pride knowing I was raising an adventurous little foodie.
Then she turned into a toddler and all bets were off. Suddenly she was picky for seemingly no reason at all. All the things she used to like, she hated. She even went through the dreaded "white food" phase. I couldn't help but feel deeply ashamed. How is it that I, a food professional who will eat almost anything, ended up with a picky eater? I thought I did all the right things. What was I doing wrong?
Nothing, of course. Picky kids are a fact of life. It's part of their development. Plus, my kids' preferences — not to mention their personalities, skills, achievements, or lack thereof — aren't about me. They are their own people. Whether or not they like certain foods shouldn't be a personal affront.
Once I came to peace with that, I had to come up with a plan. You don't serve your kids chocolate ice cream for dinner just because they like it, right? Besides, research shows that kids often have to try a food 10 to 15 times before it's familiar enough for them to like it. Armed with this information, and knowing it wasn't sensory issues I was dealing with, just taste preferences, I created our family's strategy for eating.
How I Deal with My Kids' Food Issues During Thanksgiving
My eldest is now 14 and she's still very picky (unlike her little sister), but she'll eat whatever I put on her plate — even though she doesn't like it about 50 percent of the time. Here's how we deal with it, on Thanksgiving and every other day of the year.
Rule #1: We the parents decide what the kids eat and when.
Left to their own devices, they'd snack on chips and cookies all day and never eat dinner. So it's our job to make sure they eat meals made with nutritious foods. Period. That means no binge-snacking late in the day and no special kid dinners.
On Thanksgiving, I try to keep the kids from snacking on appetizers two hours before dinner. And they must have at least one piece of turkey and one helping of green vegetables on their plate. Everything else is up to them. My eldest loathes poultry of any kind, but she follows the turkey rule without complaint because she knows she can cover it in as much cranberry sauce and stuffing as she likes.
And that brings me to rule #2.
Rule #2: We decide what they eat, but my kids get to decide how much.
It's an awful kind of torture to be forced to eat when you're full. I'm still scarred by the times in my life when my mom's boyfriend heaped my plate with the same massive amounts of food he would eat, and then wouldn't let me leave the table until I had finished every bite. I sat there by myself for hours. Pressuring kids to eat, or not eat, robs them of respect and an important sense of control over their bodies. Plus, it doesn't teach them how to self-regulate.
When faced with the bounty of Thanksgiving, it's easy to overload my own plate, let alone my kids'. I let them serve themselves, knowing they can skip everything but the turkey and veg, and heap on whatever else they want. But I encourage them to just take a small amount to start so they don't end up wasting food.
Rule #3: Dessert is pretty much a given.
I know the nutritionists say not to use dessert as a reward, but I do it anyway. It works! When you're working through those 10 to 15 tries, having a little sweet motivation can keep the train moving. My picky daughter swore she hated raviolis (seriously? What kid hates raviolis?). But I kept giving them to her, time and again, and she'd grudgingly swallow them down just to get some dessert. Now she can't even imagine not liking them.
With so many pies beckoning from the sideboard on Thanksgiving, getting my kids to eat their turkey and veg is not even the slightest issue.
But there's a balance to this method. I don't want my kids stuffing themselves just to get that treat they've been craving. I want them to be able to read their bodies' signs for fullness. So, as long as they've eaten a reasonable amount of protein and vegetable, they can have a bite of something sweet afterward. And about half the time they forget all about dessert. Since it's not tightly restricted, it's not fetishized.
Rule #4: I ask my kids one simple question.
Speaking of protein and vegetables, we've had countless dinner conversations over the years about nutrition — how the foods we're eating will help them grow and keep them from getting sick. So when they declare they're full, but I suspect they just don't like the food, I'll literally ask them if they think they've eaten enough to nourish their bodies. They roll their eyes, but nine times out of 10 they'll take a few more bites. Growing strong and not succumbing to colds seem to be big motivators for my kids.
Rule #5: Cooking together works wonders.
The more my kids help with preparing dinner, the more open they are to eating it without complaint. And it's helped them learn to be more appreciative. Both girls know how much it hurts when you work hard to cook a meal and someone complains about it (they've each done this to each other once, and never again). Now when we go to friends' houses or family gatherings like Thanksgiving, I don't have to worry that they'll blurt out "Yuck!" when faced with the unfamiliar. In fact my eldest, when given her weekly serving of dreaded chicken, even responds with "Thank you." Maybe some day it'll also come with a smile.
How do you deal with your kids' food issues during Thanksgiving? Any strategies to share? Let us know in the comments!