I went to my twin group meeting the other day and there were lots of questions about feeding toddlers, not to mention all the posts on mommy boards and discussions with my girlfriends. We are all asking, "How do you get toddlers to eat?"
Short answer: I don't know.
Toddlers are fickle. We jokingly call one of my boys a fruitarian, stolen from the movie "Notting Hill." Hugh Grant goes on a series of blind dates and one of the women turns down food because she is a "fuitarian." When Hugh Grant asks what that is, she explains, "We believe that fruits and vegetables have feeling so we think cooking is cruel. We only eat things that have actually fallen off a tree or bush-- that are, in fact, dead already." We think O wants to eat more, but he isn't certain of the origins of his food. Did the milk fall on its own accord from the cow's udder? Did these apples fall willingly off an organic apple tree? So many questions need to be answered before he can dive in to lunch.
If you've been following my blog regarding schedules, you know that one of my first thoughts is what I as a mother and full-time caretaker am willing to do. What fits in with the rest of the family? Here is what I realized:
- I do not want to make individual meals for each of the family members, toddlers included.
- I do not want to eat chicken nuggets and macaroni and cheese every night.
- I want my kids to be familiar with and willing to try different foods.
My last thought before I drew up a game plan was the boys' health. Toddlers grow in spurts, where as the first year was a lot more constant growing. Sometimes they have bursts where they can't get enough food; sometimes they don't want any food. These guys aren't losing weight. They are growing normally. Their pediatrician is happy with their growth and I am thankful to have a pediatrician who supports my family feeding plan. I always discuss my decisions with the pediatrician before I "stick to something." To be specific about their weight, at their 12-month check-up they weighed 24 lbs 0.5 oz and 23 lbs 12.5 oz. At their 15-month check-up they weighed 24 lbs 10.5 oz and 24 lbs 15.5 oz. At their 18-month check-up they weighed 25 lbs 8 oz and 26 lbs 2 oz. They have their 2-year check-up coming soon, but they weigh roughly 27 lbs each, give or take.
After talking with my pediatrician, this is what I've decided: if they don't eat, they don't eat.
I'm going to quote from one of my favorite cookbooks, The Petit Appetit Cookbook: Easy Organic Recipes to Nurture Your Baby and Toddler by Lisa Barnes, pg 171:
If you provide different foods, some familiar and some unfamiliar, they are likely to eat something. If they do not eat any of the options, that is their choice. Nutritionists advise to let them wait until the next meal or snack time rather than prepare special foods. Do not allow the table to become a battleground, if possible. This is a test of wills-- yours and the child's. Some will push, beg, and whine to get what they want. Parents have to decide what kind of eating habits and dining atmosphere they want to develop.This wasn't much of a leap for us. We started the babies on a schedule when they were roughly 10 weeks old using Suzy Giordano's book 12 Hours by 12 Weeks: A Step by Step Plan for Baby Sleep Success. As babies transition from bottle feeding to spoon feeding to self feeding, the lines start blurring. Did they eat enough? Do they not like this food? And then you start considering to feed them in between mealtimes or give them a food you know they will like. A pattern forms and suddenly you have a toddler who knows that if he kicks and screams, you will take away the plate in front of him and give him a peanut butter and jelly with a mandarin orange. We find all sorts of reasons why our kids are "picky eaters" when most of the time it is because we cave to their demands.
Now, I really don't want you thinking my kids eat everything, because they do not. I understand kids can be strange about textures. Our "fruitarian" usually refuses to eat meat without trying it. Our other toddler devours meat and pasta and avoids anything green. Our four-year old will take a look at something and say it is "hot" or "spicy" or "what is this? I don't like it" without even trying it. We also have received a taste of peer pressure this year. This is our oldest's first year in preschool and he demands a half of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich-- cut in half, not folded in half-- in his lunch almost every day; he's also started avoiding crusts, a habit he has never had before preschool. All of our boys are strange about rice; I see them jab at it and decide the best way to go about eating it before giving up completely. When I try to spoon feed it to them, the toddlers scrape it off their tongues-- a charming practice to observe.
I also don't want you to think that I've laid down the gauntlet and, hell or high water, this is how it is. Every rule demands exceptions. With our oldest, his first two years were the exception. My husband was underway most of the time. I PCS'd twice by myself, not to mention staying with my parents for several months before moving to Hawaii-- alone, of course. He breastfed on demand. He slept in bed with me. I still remember my girlfriend catching me feeding him chocolate pudding for breakfast (a fact she has not forgotten). Most of the time, he and I just shared a plate for our meals. You do what you have to do. When we moved to North Carolina, things settled down. We were able to get into a functional rhythm and my husband was home every night. I transitioned our oldest from a "grazer" (eating when we were hungry, regardless of mealtimes) to a 3 meals a day with a snack schedule. It didn't happen overnight, but it did happen. Our family schedule has been steady since the babies were born. Though my husband's schedule is very busy and stressful, he is home every night. I can call him if I need reinforcements. We did not make exceptions to the feeding schedule during the babies' first year, even with family in town. The only time we allowed them to go off the schedule a bit was when they weren't feeling well. If they ate most of their bottle and needed more sooner, we conceded. Once they started solids, we became more fluid (I like that sentence). If we had family in town for the weekend and we wanted the babies happy, we let them eat banana puree for all their meals. If we were going out to eat at a restaurant and we wanted the kids happy, we let them snack on Cheerios. If the doctor was keeping us waiting longer than usual, I gave them a bag of baby food (Ella's Kitchen and Earth's Best were life savers). I will note that we did not let them go completely off schedule for days at a time. With the two of them, we made exceptions; we tried really hard not to let these become habits.
And now we have full-fledged toddlers. The babies are almost two! I wrote a blog post before about how hard it was to transition from worrying about premature babies and their food intake to just taking care of babies (read "Light at the end of the schedule"). So how do I feed them? What do I feed them? How do I make them eat? After all these disclaimers and back stories, here is what I do: I make what I want to cook. I highly recommend reading Bringing Up Bebe: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting by Pamela Druckerman. I love her mentality of raising children who fit into our family-- not centering our family entirely around the needs of baby.
When I cook meals for the family, I think about what my husband and I want to eat. I am not a good cook and rely entirely on recipes. I get most of my recipes out of Homemade: Irresistible Recipes for Every Occasion by Clodagh McKenna, The Pioneer Woman Cooks: Recipes from an Accidental Country Girl by Ree Drummond, and-- more recently-- Southern Living's cookbooks Feel Good Food and Big Book of Slow Cooking: 200 Fresh Wholesome Recipes-- Ready and Waiting. I'm also a huge fan of "Real Simple."
I always encourage the toddlers to try a bite-- never force it. I serve their plates with the familiar item and the unfamiliar item next to each other. If they eat a bite of the unfamiliar item, I let them have a second serving of the familiar. I always give them very small servings, about a large spoonful. Our pediatrician recommended this approach as it lets them feel that they can eat what it on their plate. Large servings are intimidating. Small servings are easier to tackle and they feel in control when they ask for more. If they do not have a bite of the unfamiliar item we ask, "All done?" if they nod yes, we get them down. If they say no and point to more of the familiar item, we encourage the bite of the unfamiliar item, "Try a bite for more green beans! Bite and green beans." Sometimes they actually understand this and will have a bite and motion for more of the familiar item-- in this case, green beans. Sometimes they are so possessed with wanting more green beans they won't try the unfamiliar item. Then we politely excuse and distract them. "Okay! Then all done! Look at the train table! Ooooh, trains! Woo woo!" I don't usually put the food on the table in front of the, but keep it on the kitchen counter. That way they don't have a bowl of cantaloupe distracting them when we are trying to get them to try the cranberry pork. Now, if they eat all the familiar item and all of the unfamiliar item, I let them have more of whatever they choose. If they want two or three more servings of either the familiar or unfamiliar item, I let them. I make each consecutive serving smaller than the previous (the first is a large spoonful, the second a spoonful, the third a small spoonful, etc).
As for our four-year old, we do have him try at least a bite of everything on his plate before he can be excused. This actually isn't much of a fight. Sometimes we have to remind him, but we do it nicely like, "Oh, silly you! You forgot to have a bite of your stir fry!" and he will laugh and say, "Oh, I forgot!" Sometimes he says, "I don't want a bite. I don't like it," to which I reply the ole' tried and true mom come back, "How do you know you don't like it if you didn't try it?" (Oldies but goldies.) No seconds until at least one bite was had of each item and I again do small portions, especially of an unknown item or of an item I know will be a problem, like rice. Even if I know there is something he won't like, I give him a portion-- albeit, a very small portion.
When I cook, though, I cook food I can get excited about. I don't cook food for the sole purpose of being something I know the kids will eat. That is a frustrating way to cook. Our toddlers randomly decide favorite dishes are out; for several weeks they wouldn't touch macaroni and cheese until one day they couldn't get enough of it. I cook food that I will make great leftovers for lunch the next day or something I've been wanting to try making. I cook to challenge myself in the kitchen. My next project is successfully poaching an egg (I tell you, I am not a good cook). The more I cook, the more I enjoy it. I'm so excited for Easter because I baked Clodagh McKenna's baked ricotta cake again this year; it is becoming a bit of an Easter tradition for us. This recipe is so simple, I mean, really simple yet rewarding. I buy the graham crackers at Trader Joe's-- of course-- for the added bonus of no hydrogenated oils (I want to try making my own soon).
While I always have boxes of Annie's shells and white cheddar macaroni and cheese (or, as we call them, chells and white sheddar), mix up family staples. I love this macaroni and cheese recipe from Southern Living's Feel Good Food, Baked Smokin' Macaroni and Cheese. Instead of crushed cereal, I use Trader Joe's bread crumbs. I also like using the pimiento mac and cheese option, but also adding 8 oz of coarsely chopped kielbasa-- delicious! A macaroni and cheese even parents can enjoy. Instead of plain oatmeal in the morning, make quinoa mixed with raspberry preserves, or-- a huge hit with the boys-- oat bran mixed with plain whole milk yogurt and raspberry preserves (yes, I have a thing for raspberry preserves!).
Here are a few other tips to get your kids excited about food:
- Don't tell your kids they don't like something. If our four-year old doesn't care for something, we say, "Oh, you didn't feel like trout today?" This does two things: 1. he feels like he has a choice and that his choice, today, was to not eat the fish 2. the next time you offer trout, he feels like he has the option to like it that day.
- Talk to them about food. This is a little beyond our toddlers, but I do it anyways. "Mmm! Momma loves sweet potatoes! They are so smooth and tasty. Can you taste the butter? Momma loves butter." With our four-year old, it is easier. He sees me chopping up peppers and asks what they are. I let him try one. "Does the orange bell pepper taste different than the red one?" I let him try the different cheese, "Which one do you like more, Gouda or cheddar?" What he loves the best is when I tell him stories about food, "When I was a little girl, Granny made me an egg on toast every time I spent the night at her house. I loved the warm egg on crunchy toast..."
- Involve the kids in cooking. Again, this is easier with the four-year old, but I do it with the toddlers as well. With our four-year old, I will often measure out ingredients and put them in little bowls (I am weird about germs and I'm not sure I want four-year old hands in my flour yet...). He made the sauce for Ree Drummond's Comfort Meatballs one day. I had everything out and he poured it in the big bowl and mixed it all up. Granted, they were spicy as all get-out because he was liberal with the Tabasco, but he wolfed them down proudly, "These meatballs are the best, Momma!" With the toddlers, I do simpler things. There is the obvious choice of letting them pretend to cook while you cook. They love doing this. I set a stool on the floor to be the stove top and they sizzle and bake away with pots and pans and wooden spoons. I also give them lunches they have to assemble, like cheese on crackers or apple slices dipped in peanut butter. I show them how to do it and they get so excited assembling and dipping and showing me what they've done before taking bites (or, in our fruitarian's case, assembling all the cheese crackers and lining them up on his high chair tray and not eating one of them).
- Eat with them. The boys are always willing to sit longer at the table-- thus eating more-- when I'm sitting with them. We chat and take bites of our food. They imitate me dipping. I encourage their eating. I hear so many fascinating stories from our preschooler when we sit together, about school or the dreams he had or what he wants to be when he grows up. The toddlers do peekaboo and happy food dances. It is really sweet to be able to eat together, even if it is just Momma and the boys.
Happy eating! :)