Tag Archives: picky eater

Want kids to eat better?
Stop calling them “picky eaters.”

Spend even a few minutes online and you’ll find blogs devoted to sneaky vegetables, artful bento boxes and countless other tricks to make kids eat spinach. Turn on the news, pick up a paper, check Facebook, and you can’t escape talk of school food, Happy Meal toys and the travesty of chocolate milk.

Spear me the labels

Everyone is working double-time to fix years of government-subsidized and heavily advertised junk food, in school and out. The effort to combat childhood obesity has become urgent and epic. But for all the good work, all the good intentions, nothing will change unless, along with the food and the system, we also change our expectations of what children will and won’t eat. Unless we recognize that there’s an insidious undercurrent sabotaging kids with two little words: “picky eater.”

It goes like this: Kids are picky eaters. They won’t eat food that’s green, brown or good for them. They are strong-willed little creatures who cannot be swayed. We must give up, give in, and feed them nothing but juice, crackers and neon mac and cheese.

Other things in a child’s life take time — learning to read, tie a shoe, ride a bike — and to that, parents say OK. But when it comes to food? When a child refuses something new? When a drive-thru or children’s menu is the quickest path to appeasement? That’s when parents throw up their hands and cry picky. Or, worse yet, tell a child she won’t like something before she even tastes it.

“Picky eater” has become a crutch and an excuse to fall back on easy, so-called “kid foods,” the notorious standards that everyone laments but too few seem willing to forgo. And there you have the setup for a head-banging self-fulfilling prophecy.

Young children go on strikes (refusing certain foods) and jags (eating only certain foods). Older kids have the added influence of marketing and friends. And all kids — and adults — have foods they just don’t like (whether at all or just right now). And, yes, sometimes it takes finessing to get children to embrace good food. But that starts with educating kids, not labeling them.

Language is important. Labels are dangerous. And when we label our kids, we diminish our expectations of them and make obstacles seem insurmountable. We also minimize the very real challenges faced by children who do have serious food allergies or sensory issues. Those kids aren’t “picky eaters,” either. They have legitimate underlying causes for their food aversions, and labeling just adds to the stress.

Think about this: The reason we even have Happy Meals and Lunchables and bland, non-nutritive school lunches is not because that’s all kids will eat. It’s because that’s the kind of food adults think kids will eat. And it’s the kind of food that manufacturers and marketers can produce and sell at a huge mark-up. In the race to homogenize food and maximize profit, we lost respect for kids’ palates. And for kids.

So now we can’t just fix the food. We also have to nix the labels.

Soon after starting Spoonfed last March, I wrote a post called “Let’s ban the phrase ‘picky eater.'” I’ve been on a mission ever since to encourage folks to rethink the labeling habit. This latest piece was published last week as a guest post for Mrs. Q’s Fed Up With Lunch.

This post is linked into Real Food Wednesdays and Fight Back Fridays.

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Stealth veggies: Yes or no?

Last week, out with friends at a new restaurant (a place I wrote about here), my 6-year-old ordered chocolate mousse for dessert. Actually, chocolate avocado mousse. But my daughter didn’t know that. She’s a beginning reader and “avocado” is not yet in her repertoire (though “chocolate” is), so I let her order the mousse without mentioning its secret green ingredient.    

Sneaky greens?

Tess has a fickle relationship with avocado. One minute she proclaims guacamole her favorite food or inhales avocado-laced veg sushi. The next she scrunches her nose and declares anything remotely avocado-ish “gross.” Lately it’s been more the latter than the former. Would it have been fortunate if the mere mention of avocado had turned her off the idea of dessert altogether? OK, sure. But scratchmade chocolate mousse is a beautiful thing. Plus, I got to do this:    

Me: “Guess what? There’s something else in that mousse besides chocolate. Something green. Can you believe it?”    

Tess: Stops licking spoon. Looks at me suspiciously. “Green?”    

Me: “Yes, green! It’s actually avocado! Isn’t it cool that you can put avocado in chocolate mousse?”    

Tess: Pauses. Stares at bowl. Resumes licking spoon.    

So maybe all she cared about was the chocolate. But the thing is that I wanted her to know there was avocado in her mousse. I think it’s important that kids know what’s in their food, and that’s especially true when it’s an ingredient they’ve previously waffled on (or not liked at all). I was reminded of this because a fellow blogger, Naveen over at Little Stomaks, posted a Chef Boyardee commercial that blatantly advocates for hiding vegetables. (The commercial also claims that Chef Boyardee is “secretly nutritious.” What now?)     

As I commented there, I’m not a fan of the stealth vegetable (or, in this case, stealth fruit, since technically avocado is a fruit). Sure, put spinach in your brownies or carrots in your pasta sauce, but don’t hide that fact. Tell your kids what’s in their food so they can learn to love vegetables on their merits. Otherwise you send the message that vegetables are something to be endured instead of enjoyed. (You also enable that dreaded picky eater business.)    

But what do you think? Is there really harm in hiding veggies? Can that hinder a child’s ability to appreciate new foods? Or is it no big deal? And, really, do real-life kids ever hate vegetables as much as TV kids?    

On that note, I’ll leave you with one of the Chef Boyardee commercials. Separate from the example Little Stomaks posted, there’s a new series on the company’s website. Here’s the one that annoys me the most:    

A note about videos: Spoonfed has turned into video central lately. We’ve had 11-year-old Birke Baehr’s amazing speech, news about vanishing bees and a discussion about junk food as heroin. And of course a little love from Jamie Oliver. It’s feeling a little like YouTube lately, which is fun for awhile, but I wouldn’t want to make a habit of it. So not to worry. Video-free posts on the way.  

And a note about Jamie Oliver: The Guardian has a terrific article this week about JO, his critics and his crusade for better school food. It’s long, but well worth the read. Candid, salty, spot-on. Love him or hate him (and, frankly, I don’t get the haters), we’d all be better off if more people cared even half as much about what we feed our kids. 

This post is linked into Real Food Wednesdays, Fight Back Fridays, Vegetarian Foodie Fridays and Wholesome Whole Foods.

Digiprove sealCopyright protected by Digiprove © 2010 Christina Le Beau

The assault (and insult) of children’s menus

One of our favorite local restaurants lists grilled cheese on both its regular menu and its children’s menu. Same price. Same bread options (wheat, rye, sourdough). But where the regular menu touts “aged” cheddar, the kiddie version offers “mild” cheddar.
The first time I noticed this, I asked the server about the difference, thinking “mild” meant “processed.” That is the kiddie default, after all: American cheese on white bread. (So score one for our local eatery — not a white slice in sight.)
No, I was told, they’re exactly the same. Actual cheddar cheese.
Good, right? Except why the different wording? It’s hardly a serious infraction. And very possibly it wasn’t even on purpose. But it does show, in a small way, how restaurants view children: “Aged” cheddar = sophisticated = something kids won’t eat. “Mild” cheddar = bland = kid food.

Kiddie menu staple

There’s more. Like the “chocolate or white?” that follows a milk order. (Last I checked, milk from a cow is white. It’s not white milk. It’s milk.) And the immediate offer of crackers to placate the little darlings, even though they’re capable of waiting for their meal like the other humans at the table. And, of course, the ubiquitous chicken fingers and fries. Kid dining defined.

I’ve always thought of children’s menus as a modern invention, right next to Ronald McDonald and TV dinners and other 1950s-60s industrial-food conveniences marketed as ways to ease up on the little lady. But in fact children’s menus have been around since at least the 1930s and likely back to the turn of the century. And if I came across one of those today, I’d call it quaint and frame it.
So it’s not the concept of a children’s menu that bothers me. It’s the content. If a restaurant wants to offer half-size (and half-price) portions of adult meals, terrific. And some do, even if they don’t publicize it. But the standard kids’ menu is a roster of cheap, processed junk: not only fried chicken bits, but also hot dogs, day-glo mac and cheese, and pizza-flavored cardboard. Which is why restaurants can offer deals on those items that they can’t (or won’t) on the regular menu.
What’s most offensive, though, is not that restaurants are trying to make a buck. It’s that they offer this stuff because, you know, that’s what kids eat. Why else do you find chicken fingers and boxed mac and cheese even in ethnic eateries and upscale restaurants with otherwise adventurous fare?
One New York City restaurateur — Nicola Marzovilla, of I Trulli — caused a stir this week when he was profiled in the New York Times for his views on children’s menus, which he refuses to offer, calling them “dumbed down” and “the death of civilization.”
But even as I was shouting out a big amen, I knew, as I read that, how unusual Marzovilla is. And it called to mind another New York Times story from three years ago, in which writer David Kamp described his transformation from appreciating children’s menus to hating them. In that piece, memorably headlined, “Don’t Point That Menu at My Child, Please,” Kamp wrote: “The standard children’s menu is regressive, encouraging children (and their misguided parents) to believe that there is a rigidly delineated ‘kids’ cuisine’ that exists entirely apart from grown-up cuisine.”
It’s true. Most restaurants treat kids like picky eaters with miraculously absent taste buds. It’s also true that somebody is ordering this stuff for their kids, or restaurants wouldn’t keep selling it. But plenty of us aren’t. Or at least most of the time we aren’t. My 6-year-old has been eating in all kinds of restaurants since her highchair days, and while she’s had more grilled cheese and pizza than I’d like to admit (though rarely off the children’s menu), she’s mostly eaten what we eat. To her, the children’s menu is something on which to color and play tic-tac-toe.
And, for now, anyway, a lesson in what not to eat.
How do you feel about children’s menus? Love them, tolerate them, want to ball them up and throw them in the deep-fryer? Tell me what you think.
With this post, I’m participating in Real Food Wednesdays, Fight Back Fridays, Food Revolution Fridays and Vegetarian Foodie Fridays. Check out the links for other posts about real food.

Digiprove sealCopyright protected by Digiprove © 2010 Christina Le Beau

Let’s ban the phrase “picky eater”

It goes like this: Kids are picky eaters. They won’t eat food that’s green, brown or good for them. They are strong-willed little creatures who cannot be swayed. We must give up, give in, and feed them nothing but juice, crackers and white-bread sandwiches with the crusts cut off.

Sigh. Is anyone else as tired of the term “picky eater” as I am?

To be clear: I understand that many children have serious food allergies or sensory issues that make them painfully averse to certain foods. But that’s something else entirely. And even then, I’d argue that calling them “picky eaters” diminishes these children’s very real challenges.

It’s a phrase that has been overused to the point of cliche, becoming a catch-all and crutch whenever a child refuses something new or a parent is too tired to argue (been there) or when a fast-food stop or children’s menu is the quickest path to appeasement. Food manufacturers and cookbook publishers have gotten rich persuading parents to sate kids’ picky appetites by feeding them vitamin-fortified junk or hiding spinach in their brownies.

But I just can’t get on board with that. Real, whole foods (not jacked-up semblances) are the best source of nutrients. And if you want to put veggies in your baked goods, go for it. Maybe even hold off on the truth if you really think your kid will balk at tasting it. But then fess up and point out why spinach is a good thing even when it’s not in a brownie.

Young children go on strikes (refusing certain foods) and jags (eating only certain foods). Older kids have the added influence of marketing and friends. And all kids — and adults — have foods they just don’t like. I get that. I also understand that it sometimes takes finessing to get kids to embrace good food. But that starts with educating kids, not labeling them “picky” and throwing up our hands.

To that end, I’d like to highlight a few cooking/eating resources that I think get it right:

  • Food with Kid Appeal, a blog written by Jenna Pepper, a mother of two, is spot-on in its message that kids should be taught how food affects their bodies. Jenna offers really good, low-fuss recipes, but her real strength is the companion advice that relates each recipe’s ingredients to how kids grow and develop. This mushroom post is a great example. (Though how ironic that when I went to check these links, I saw she’d just written a post about… picky eaters. At least it’s about “recovering” picky eaters.) 

  • This Eat Real round-up from Liz Snyder, a mom and food activist, is one of the smartest and most useful pieces I’ve seen on raising healthy eaters. I’m not sure how active or updated the rest of her site is, but this list is timeless. It’s long, but worth the read.

  • Everyone talks about how letting kids help in the kitchen will turn them into lifelong foodies. Sounds great, but we all know the reality can be messy and frustrating. That’s why I like this short post from Jamie Martin at Steady Mom. (One tip: When baking, give your child her own bowl and small amounts of each ingredient. Genius.)

  • Speaking of cooking, ChopChop, a new magazine founded by cookbook author Sally Sampson, packages healthy recipes and food facts in an appealing, readable quarterly aimed at kids ages 5-12. I have a few quibbles, notably the recommendation to use canola oil (which is almost always genetically modified and not nearly as healthful as olive oil, which the magazine also suggests), and the emphasis on skim milk (junk food, not saturated fat, is the problem). But the debut issue also features an interview with Orren Fox, the young chicken farmer I mentioned in a post last month. (It helps that Orren is interviewed by Susan Orlean, one of my favorite writers, and apparently a chicken farmer herself.) Overall the magazine is a great resource sending the right message: Kids will eat real food. 

What do you think about this picky-eater business? Time to retire that tired phrase? Any other resources to recommend?

With this post, I’m participating in Real Food Wednesdays and Fight Back Fridays, where bloggers come together to post links on topics related to eating and learning about real food.

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