“This smells great, mom. What are we having this with?” My daughter asked as she watched me debone the roast chicken. The strong waft of rosemary and thyme had lured her into the kitchen.
“Linguine.” I answered.
“Yass! Can I have the chicken oyster?” She asked.
“It’s near the legs. It’s supposed to be the best part of the chicken.” She had read that on an online Japanese manga.
It’s the slightly darker meat nestled in the spoon-shaped indent near the thigh, on each side of the chicken. With only two in each bird and the size of a teaspoon, this tender piece of meat is worth every effort to look for than any twiggy wishbone.
She sure knows her meat.
The best parts of the fish are the cheeks and belly.
The best part of the pig is the crispy crackled skin on a roasted suckling pig.
If only she could be just as enthusiastic about vegetables as she had been on meat.
She had called cauliflower a mutated broccoli and claimed that spinach gave a strange aftertaste on her tongue.
She avoided beans like a plague because she had heard somewhere that it would make bad gas in the stomach.
She felt offended intellectually when someone told her that eating long beans would make her taller.
The only vegetable she would eat was stir-fried broccoli. Not boiled. Or steamed.
For those of you who have children with a vehement detest for certain foods, more commonly vegetables like mine, have you
pleaded with "Just one more bite"?
threatened with "or else"?
bribed with screen time?
tricked with epic food disguise?
Weren’t you just sick and tired of yelling, "Eat your veg!" to them who heard but did not listen. And who would cringe or sulk in retaliation.
I had done all that.
My cold silent aloofness, though had on occasion led her into submissive obedience, only made dinner a punishment for her and a tension-filled drag for me.
Friends told me that it was just a passing phase. But when the aversion to vegetables became prolonged, it can be worrying. Who wouldn’t want our children to be in the pink of health?
In the article Pathologically Picky, the writer wrote that “Psychiatrist Angela Guarda, who directs the Johns Hopkins Eating Disorders Program, says that most of the adult selective eaters she has seen in her practice were also picky eaters as children. Unable to outgrow their fussy habits, they continue to eat bland "kid" foods that often have high-fat, high-sodium, or high-sugar content, avoiding fruits and vegetables altogether. The problem is that not only are picky eating habits unhealthy—contributing to problems such as anemia, diabetes, even scurvy—they can also have severe consequences for one's social life, career, and family relationships.”
Our children's picky eating habit needs to be address at some point and it's best to start right from the onset.
Relatives told me she was playing a power tussle game.
They told me the only way for her to quit her picky eating habit was to let her starve and she would eventually eat when she become hungry.
I became defensive for her. Brussels sprouts are not on everyone’s food list. Sashimi could make one nauseous. If adults can have food preferences, why not kids?
I even make excuses for her. Could the misalignment of her teeth that had caused the underbite, made it difficult for her to grind the leafy greens?
I began to question if it was me? What have I done or not done that could have led her to be such a picky eater?
I grew up in a multi-generation household. Mealtime was a gathering of siblings, parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins.
My mum was in charge of the kitchen. She would prepare three dishes to go with rice and a slow boiled soup. We would eat whatever she cooked. No question asked. No complaints made. No one would even think of going on a veggie strike. There might be an occasional squabble on who should take the chicken drumstick amongst the children.
To an observer, this may seem authoritarian but
what is there to complain when the food she prepared wasn’t shabby? She made the best chicken rice, traditional herbal mutton soup and the all-time kids’ favourite, crispy fried wings with just a hint of ginger and rice wine.
Who would have known that there was an option to opt-out? It didn’t even cross my mind when it had been a standard norm to have rice-meat-veg-soup combo ever since I had learned to hold the chopsticks at the age of four?
So, what went wrong? Has it been my own doing?
I did many trials and errors and had compiled the methods that had worked in a guidebook called HOW TO GET YOUR KID TO EAT VEG WITH NO TRICK OR TREAT, FLUFF OR BLUFF, which you can download here.
In this blog post, I would like to share the mistakes that I had made (which are not in the guide) and the lessons learned that could help parents with kids who are picky eaters.
LESSON #1: DON’T STIFLE THE CHILD’S NEED TO MAKE CHOICES
For the practicality of cutting down the amount of washing, I had served my meals by plating the vegetables, proteins and grains on individual plates.
Serving the dishes this way also helped to ensure that each of us were having a Healthy Eating Plate of half plate of vegetables, a quarter plate protein and a quarter plate grains.
For example, it would be stirred-fried French beans with grilled fish and rice; or roast chicken and potatoes with stir fried broccoli; or a soupy all-in-one dish of udon with shabu-shabu beef and spinach.
Balanced. Quality produce. Picture-perfect. And in today’s context, it would have been Instagram worthy.
There were no reasons to complain, at least from my perspective.
According to Dr Rachel Busman, a psychologist at the Child Mind Institute, “It’s very normal for kids to go through stages where they’re a little more picky, especially when they are trying to assert their autonomy. Suddenly it’s I want to put on my own coat; I want to brush my own teeth; I want to choose the food that I eat.”
As much as I hate to admit, I had been rigid. I was even authoritarian to a certain extent. She was expected to accept and eat the “set meal” that I had prepared.
Though feeding my child right is important and a primary objective as it would be for any parent, the fact that I had rationed the food portions so strictly made our mealtime felt like a clinical exercise.
Don't get me wrong. I am not criticising the Healthy Eating Plate. It is an excellent template to help us eat the appropriate portions of food types to be healthy. Even when we have to change the way our food is served, we could still keep to the recommended ratios.
I began to prepare more varied vegetables for her to choose. Instead of individual plates with allotted portions, she picked her own food from the dishes that were placed in the centre of the table for all to share. This communal dining setting worked well with her. Mealtime became less restrictive, more engaging and enjoyable as a family.
The togetherness and warm interaction as a family when we sat down and ate induced a happy appetite for good food. It reminded me of my childhood.
LESSON #2: DON’T SET EXPECTATIONS
A passionate chef is most happy when his guests enjoy the food that he has meticulously prepared, leaving no leftovers on the plate.
Likewise for a mother, when her husband and children clean out the plates and leave not a trace of gravy behind, it speaks volume of her cooking skills and validates their appreciation of her effort and love.
When I had spent time, effort and dedication as a full time mom to provide the healthiest, perfectly balanced and tastiest meal for my family, I would expect them to like my food and reciprocate by expressing gratitude and appreciation. Of course, it would be even better to hear praises and encouragement that could spur me to cook more.
So what happened when my daughter refused to eat the delicious meal that I had painstakingly put up for her? What happened when the reality did not match the expectations that had already built up like a Youtube video in my head?
I felt utterly disappointed.
I raged, “How dare her!”
My ego was stabbed.
Soon, it became clear who was tussling for control.
Have you had these constant conflicting moments that sap the energy out of you?
We blame it on our children for bringing out the bad in us, when in reality, it is us who allow the false notion of martyrdom consume us.
Unknowingly, it could be the unresolved pain embedded deep in us being triggered and the layers of emotional bondages unfold that had led to the berserk outburst of anger.
I have adapted to take each day as it comes. Everyday is a new experience and development for both mother and child. Be it exhilarating or anything less than, just dance with the flow.
I have learned not to harbor any pre-conceived ideas of how things should be.
Let not the disappointment of yesterday become a baggage for today or the outcome of today set the precedent for tomorrow.
LESSON #3: DON’T MAKE ASSUMPTIONS
More often than not, my child could tell me what she didn’t want or like. And yet, she couldn't figure out what she really wanted. We, as adults, do that too.
I had often made the wrong assumptions of her likes and dislikes. I thought she would like strawberry flavored yogurt like most kids would. But little did I know that she hated it because it tasted like cough syrup. Instead, she liked mango lassi.
Over time, through many trials and errors, I discovered that she liked food with texture and chewiness.
She might not have liked cauliflower stir fried, but loved it roasted with a hint of mild curry and tainted with turmeric.
She might not have liked spinach in soup, but loved it steamed and smothered over with melted cheese.
She might not have liked string beans but loved haricot verts stir-fried till slightly charred and sweetened with a splash of mirin.
I took notes of how she got curious over a new spice that perked her senses or her hesitation to have a second helping when I added a new herb to a dish.
By being attentive to her reaction to the food and the words she used to describe them helped me ascertain what kind of food in terms of the texture, taste and smell that would appeal to her.
I could recall how she liked our little taste-testing sessions whenever she joined me in the kitchen. Her attention to details when she described the shape and form of the vegetables amazed me and the use of quirky adjectives that she spontaneously made up to describe the taste brought delight to this little session that we shared.
LESSON #4: DON’T SHOOT YOURSELF IN THE FOOT WITH WRONG ASKING TACTICS
I was at a restaurant when I overheard the mommy at the next table asking her five year old what he would like to have.
“Mac and Cheese!” came the loud answer.
The mother shook her head disapprovingly but conceded anyway.
That reminded me of myself. When my daughter was little, I would ask if she wanted to share a salad with me.
A question posed this way invites a “Yes” or “No” response.
Needless to say, her reply was a quick “No”.
I could have asked if she wanted to share a Caesar salad or grilled vegetables. By posing a question this way, she has the option to choose either 1 or 2. To her she has the “power” in making her own choice; to me, it didn’t really matter because it was a “Yes” to vegetables either way.
Perseverance does pay off. My daughter is now a teenager and she is definitely more receptive to vegetables than she had been when she was much younger.
Partly influenced by her junior high school friends who are neutral to vegetables with a couple of them being vegetarians, and partly wanting to be in good form to do well in martial arts, she has become deliberately conscious of what she eats.
The Immediate Action Plan
It does take a lot of patience to help your child acquire the taste for vegetables.
The key is to make the commitment to:
- work together with your child right from the start and stick to this promise that you have made to yourself.
- have a positive mindset that you are collaborating with your child on the common focus to have fun with food.
- re-align your perspective about mealtimes. It is a happy time and family bonding opportunity.
The Ongoing Action Plan
I would encourage you to:
- explore and experiment the different ways of cooking your food.
- give your child more options to choose for each meal.
- share with your child how you had prepared the vegetables and what spices or herbs you have added. Encourage him to describe the taste, texture and smell. From his facial expression and enthusiasm in his voice, you will be able to pin point his preferred way of having his food done in time to come.
- observe if there is any type of vegetables that practically causes your child to gag when he eats them. My daughter gags on baked beans and egg white and she couldn’t explain why. She couldn’t control her adverse reaction to these foods.
As much as you would like your child to be exposed and receptive to as many kinds of food as possible, it is not worth picking a battle over a particular vegetable, which in my case is a persistent offending bean. Just let it pass.
If you have any ways that can help improve a child's eating habit, do share here in the comments below or email me. I appreciate and read every email that comes into my inbox.
Credit: Featured image downloaded from pexels.com
She loves food - all food especially spicy authentic Asian dishes. She sometimes wonders if she eats to live or lives to eat.
As much as she is adventurous with food, she also likes to cook. A proponent for home cooking for better health, she believes that it's only when we start to cook that we become more aware of what goes into the food we eat and vigilant of our food portion sizes.
She's a relatively good home-chef and could make a mean Salt Baked Chicken. But she claims that her late mother-in-law was way much better and her only regret is, in her own words,"Darn…I wish I had written down her recipes."
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