Tuesday, April 9, 2013

You Gotta Feed the Monkey...

  As a woman that became a full-time professional salaried nanny at the age of 18, and worked as one for most of the 25+ years since, I've become acquainted with my fair share of picky eaters.

 The battle of the table is a hard one to win, and often one of the primary frustrations of new parents and nannies alike. There are few issues that can be both so silly and so worrisome at the same time; and table troubles can have a lasting impact on more than the way your children will eat as adults.

 What happens too often is that parents and other caretakers, in an effort to make sure the kids are reasonably nourished, become short order cooks in their own kitchens, slaving away for love at a job they would never, now, do for money. And it gets worse and worse, instead of better, as children get used to being literally catered to!

 Enough. It isn't healthy for any child to think that the world revolves around them-- and most children will eat at least some of the healthy food they see their parents and other adults actually eating.

 Don't give in to boxed organic junk food, 10-times-a-day snacking, and don't give in to the frantic need to make sure your child has eaten enough, if it means you are jumping up and cooking three meals in sequence several times per day. Aren't there better things you could all be doing? Here's how, tried and true, culled from decades of experience in creating, and correcting, poor eating habits.

1. Put out a small meal or snack with no more than three items, including one thing your kid/kids usually will eat. This goes for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and maybe one of two daily snacks-- though at snack time, the selection should be smaller- 1-2 foods.

2. Sit down and eat with them, even if you have to leave after a few minutes. This makes more of a difference than you know, if you're into the habit of flying around doing other things while your kids scramble your brain with requests for more, different, better. When I stopped using snack time as a chance to catch up on side work, like emptying the dishwasher, the kids ate better consistently, and we all felt ready for that next play session.

3. Get out of the meal zone fast, after serving one meal or snack only-- do not cater to different tastes too much, do not worry if the meal doesn't get eaten. Instead, have a healthy something or other packed in a bag that they don't know about; have them quickly help you clean up a bit and then get out of the house or at least the kitchen, and play or read with the kiddos. When the little darling that wouldn't eat their oatmeal is starved and moaning about it, offer them that piece of fruit or cheese chunk or red pepper strip that you have socked away, and if they're really hungry, they will eat it. if not, I assure, they aren't going to starve to death.

4. Realize that no change comes instantly, and healthy eating is a time investment that pays off long. So make it fun, by letting them help grow and prepare some of their own healthy foods. Make it interesting, by having frequent picnics in odd places and at odd times, like a snow picnic I shared with some kiddos in front of a museum one winter's day; or a castle feast in their own playroom, with pictures of jugglers and performing lions that we drew and colored first, then hung with painter's tape on the walls for atmosphere, along with some scarf "tapestries." Last of all, make it a habit by eating well, most of the time, yourself. If you don't know the difference between a treat and an everyday food, neither will they.

 Here are the NOTS-- and they do become knotty problems difficult to solve, if you're not careful to avoid these typical parental/grandparent pitfalls.

1. Don't ask your kids what they want to eat for most meals-- they're not supposed to be raising themselves, making their own food choices and incidentally, your food budget choices along with. That's your job-- you are the one with superior discretion, an understanding of good nutrition and its effects over time, and the master of your own time budget, too. It's okay to give them a chance to participate in meal planning once in a while, but not often.

2. When offering a choice of snacks or other foods, give only two options, and NEVER give a completely open choice** -- small children aren't capable of making that kind of wise choice, and will tend to become fussier, confused, and harder to please, merely because you have left a big, big decision to their tiny minds. Instead, give them one option they often enjoy, and one you hope they might enjoy, and have tried with mixed results. And make sure, after they haven't taken that particular choice, to offer it again regularly, but not so constantly that it draws resistance from being overdone.
That's a classic move from impatience. You have to be the one to be patient, it's not their job.

 And if you do the same for other choices, like toys, books, music and games, you will gradually find your kids becoming more easily satisfied and less fussy. Kids need boundaries to thrive and learn, and this is one often overlooked way of setting reasonable limits, a way that helps provide security for them, as they absorb the comfort of knowing that you are in charge. That's what they really want and need, so give it to them, and let them get on with the real business of childhood-- learning and having fun, instead of making all the important decisions they are not yet prepared for.

3. Don't offer treats on a daily basis-- that means fruit rollups, Pirate Booty, and crackers, as well as candy and soda and cupcakes. These are junk foods, and shouldn't be part of your kids' daily diets. It doesn't matter if the corn was grown by monks and hasn't been near a chemical, it's still cheesy popcorn, it's still junk, just slightly healthier junk. A half PB& J made with fruit spread at least has some protein, and high-quality carbs if made on whole-grained bread. Fresh fruit, or a handful of dried, makes a reasonable serving of natural sugars, whereas fruit leathers give far more sugar per serving, and less fiber, than say, half a peeled apple or a 1/3 cup of melon chunks. They're less filling, too, leading to the need for more, more, more. Real food satisfies in more than one way-- junk satisfies taste buds only, while dulling them to the nuances of good, fresh food.

 Let's talk nuts and bolts, now, real foods for real kids. From the very beginning, offer wholesome whole grains, fresh fruit and veggies, chunks of plain soft tofu, (prepared gently and without seasoning or toppings. Cooked oatmeal or other whole grains should be a standard breakfast, with small amounts of natural sweetener like molasses, agave or real maple syrup, along with wholesome toppings. Soup or sandwiches make good breakfasts too; don't get fooled by advertisers that sweetened cold cereal is the best morning fuel. Lunches can be anything from a cold veggie plate, with hummus or spinach dip, to cooked rice and beans, to blended soups or smoothies and some fresh muffins or bread, or pasta salads. Try to offer some protein, some quality carb and some fresh veg or fruit (or both) at each meal. Nut milks, for those not allergic, make a great starting point for a quick soup or smoothie, and they have enough nutrition and heft on their own to be a substantial part of a child's meal.

Here's a few things you can make for snacks or small meals, that please kids and seem treaty when they aren't: artfully carved veg like tomato roses, carrot curls, hearts and other shapes carved from cuke or pepper sides; savory whole-wheat biscotti or biscuits (with cheese, sun-dried tomato snips, or pine nuts for more interest), fruit salads that have a little veg in them (like carrot shreds, tiny cubes of seeded tomato or cuke or zucchini), and nut butters with grated apple on pita triangles.

 By the time your child is one and a half at the latest, they should start to eat what you eat for dinner, minus overly spicy, or choky, fibrous foods. Get a food mill and use it when needed, to mash up what you're having into a digestible offering. Then keep a variety of fresh fruits, vegetables and cheese, bean dips or yogurt handy for snacks to fill in the cracks.

 Kids will often eat something raw, like pepper strips, that they won't eat cooked. Or sometimes, it's the other way around! Our perception of snack food doesn't have to be theirs-- be more creative and watch them eat healthier without issue. Stir fry or lightly sauté veggies with a tiny pinch of salt and offer at room temp. Throw the cherry tomatoes you'd thought they eat raw into a pan just long enough to soften slightly. And don't be afraid to gloss cooked veggies at dinner with a little butter and/or honey-- after decades of experimentation, I've found that it's better to get kids eating veg with a little fat than not eating them at all. My mother got us to ADORE cauliflower, broccoli, carrots, spinach-- all by serving them cooked tender-crisp and dotting them with a little butter and salt. To this day, I prefer vegetables to sweets.

 For years, I followed parent rules and gave children plain cooked broccoli, and watched them reject it-- parents have reason to be concerned about fat consumption, but the little bit of interest fat adds to veg, isn't where to cut it out of. When I started cooking vegetables at work the way I'd had them in childhood, lo and behold, more kids started eating more veg more easily. Besides, small children really do need fat for brain development, among other things; a severely low-fat diet doesn't produce healthy kids. Cut out the sugar, which they truly don't need.

 Well, aside from the notes below, this is probably enough to get most parents feeling a little insecure and defensive-- but please, don't be. We all make mistakes feeding kids, we all mean well, and we can all make changes for the better. Be patient, with yourself and them, and don't forget that kids are easily distracted-- use it! When they fuss about their meal, tell a joke and then pass the peas. Take them away from the table and do something else for a while. But don't make deals, don't serve them dessert instead of good food, and don't let yourself become a full-time chef in your own home.

 Peace, and a peaceful mealtime to you, Mari

 A young friend  of mine, enjoying brekkie.

**This goes double for restaurant meals-- You should look at the menu, choose two things, and offer the kids the choice, before the server comes to take your order, not while she's there.

 Not adhering to this simple rule is one of the primary sins of annoyance parents commit in restaurants, that drives servers and other patrons insane and practically guarantees bad service for everyone. A side benefit of limiting menu choices is, your family becomes welcome at all restaurants you patronize, because the employees know you're not going to waste their time asking little Johnny what he wants to eat and then arguing with him, while the rest of their customers are waiting and hungry. It's good childcare and good restaurant etiquette.

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