December 20, 2005

Parent Tricks #1: Toddler Meals

By the time my son was three he was refusing to eat anything other than chicken nuggets, hot dogs and ice cream. This is not unusual, and I’ve seen and heard a number of parents struggle with this particular issue – including the parents of many of my son’s friends.

After a second-trimester miscarriage, a threat from my son’s pediatrician regarding his stubbornly low weight, and a particularly difficult food-related battle with him (he was throwing spaghetti across the kitchen and onto my parent's brand new pale blue carpet) I reached a state of depression and frustration in which I was seriously afraid that I was going to haul off and smack him.

His absolute power was corrupting absolutely.

That's when I knew that I had to take drastic action. I wasn’t going to let the toddler be in charge of our mealtimes and my sanity any more. As long as my kid was (hyper)active and happy, why should I care what other people thought of his little stick legs?

So I made a Family Rule: Everyone had to have at least a bite-sized portion of every dish in a given meal on our plate, and we had to finish everything on that plate if we were going to eat or drink anything except water before the next meal. And that included the long gap between dinner and breakfast.

We made no comment or faces if someone asked to be excused before he finished his plate, or if he refused to eat one of the items on that plate - that decision was entirely up to him. That meant there would be no juice, no fruit, nothing but water available until the next meal... but if we weren’t hungry enough to finish our dinner, then that was a reasonable option to take.

I did make one adjunct rule: we could each choose three food items that would be exempted from the first rule – we either would never cook those items or we would offer an alternate item for substitution. Our son chose liver, tuna, and (clever boy) ‘spicy’.

Was it easy? Well, not for a week or so. We spent a day in graduated tantrums; we endured another week or so of watching our child stagger dramatically through the kitchen with his cheeks sucked in, whimpering that he was staaaaaaarving. We cheerfully replied that the next meal was in X number of hours, and if he finished what was on his plate at that point he could have seconds of whatever he liked and snacks between meals. Would he like some water now?

And for that week he tested our resolve – I think he maybe ate two ounces of food altogether. But we stayed firm. If he was able to climb to the ceiling on a mountain he’d single-handedly constructed of my aunt’s basement furniture in less than 5 minutes, he obviously wasn’t starving to death.

(I do recommend starting this program during a week when you don’t plan to have visitors, particularly doting grandmothers and aunties. They tend to be convinced by these amateur theatrics that your child is going to either die or be permanently scarred, and shoot powerful guilt-inducing rays at you through their eyes.)

The upshot, though, is that after the rules were accepted as unchangeable, our kid became the world’s most adventurous eater. He’s had squid, raw oysters, skate (why is it that so many suspect foods come from the ocean?), all sorts of wild game, food from all over the world… any food that’s been offered, he’s been willing to try. And he likes most things. He’ll even eat tuna and ‘spicy’ now.

Still not real big on the liver, if it’s not in pâté form. I’m with him on that.

In the meantime, his friends are mostly resistant to eating new things, and many of them still have very limited diets. Sad. And a pain in the patoot to host at parties.

My point is that my kid has gained a lot (though not much weight) by being able to enjoy such a wide range of foodstuffs. We weren’t doing him any favors by allowing him to limit his own experience that way. Three year olds don’t have the experience to understand the ramifications of their decisions – that’s why they are raised by adults instead of by other three year olds.

Well, that and they need someone tall enough to reach the top shelves at Toys R Way 2 Expensive…


Blogger renee said...

I like that plan - food struggles with kids are so hard!

8:11 AM  
Blogger mE said...

Our lives were *so* much more peaceful after that!

My son is what the teachers like to call 'spirited' and what I like to call 'opinionated and stubborn as an Irish Mule'. Luckily he's always had an innate sense of Fairness, so as long as our explanations/rules made sense and he could see that it was applied evenhandedly, he would usually settle down and abide by it.

That mealtime rule and the 'Yes Trick' both made our lives so easy and peaceful that I became largely unaware of how difficult my child could be, until we had Parent/Teacher conferences.

I'd better do a bit on the Yes Trick! That'll be the next one (or maybe the one after the next, if I feel I have to do one on the Fabulous Susan or some other immediate Life Occurance).

9:56 AM  
Blogger Chris said...

Good for you! My friend Lisa's kids started out promisingly (eating very hot Thai food and enjoying it), but started to lose a little food flexibility when they started daycare. She's adopted a similar plan to yours, and swears by it.

6:04 PM  

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