Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Ten meals

I mentioned in a previous post that my picky eaters make meal-planning a bit of a challenge. My kids are picky. At various ages and stages, some of them have been ridiculously picky. We had a white-food-itarian in the family for quite a while (white bread, pasta, butter, potatoes, rice, milk, not much else). Add to this the wrinkle that half of us are vegetarians, while one or two would happily live on meat alone, and family mealtime gets very complicated.

When I was a kid we were made to eat our veggies. It was considered rude and disobedient not to eat what you were served. But this approach just didn't sit right with me as a parent. It's been shown that most preschoolers and young school-aged kids do develop a degree of pickyness, and it's been suggested that this is hard-wired, and had a survival advantage in hunter-gatherer societies. Tribal children old enough to wander away from their caregivers, but not old enough to have learned which plants were dangerous, were well-served by aversions to unfamiliar foods. I also recognized that at least a couple of my kids had some pretty significant sensory sensitivities in other areas. Just as they found sock seams and shirt tags noxious and intolerable, maybe they experienced tomato sauce the same way? Who was I to judge?

I didn't want to do battle over meals. For a while I just made whatever I wanted and let the kids eat it or (more often) not, as was their desire. Eventually I just found this approach too demoralizing. Night after night, week after week, month after month, I'd cook yummy wholesome family meals and my kids would head to the kitchen for a piece of bread and butter or a bowl of cheerios. I no longer enjoyed cooking at all. At ALL.

Next I made an effort to provide a buffet arrangement, or two options for the entrée, purposely choosing at least one option that each child would likely eat. But this wasn't much better. It made for a kind of cooking I don't much like -- three- or four-pot cooking of several different menu items. Time-consuming and messy. And the kids seemed to change their preferences as quickly as I figured them out.

When we started our big kitchen renovation in 2005, we had a discussion about how to manage meals while without a kitchen. This was kind of a turning point. We came up with a rota of 7 meals that everyone agreed to eat, meals that could be cooked on a camp stove on the deck, and/or bulk-prepared and stored in the freezer. I was pleasantly surprised that we could agree on 7 meals. There was a certain amount of compromising involved. "Fine, we can do lasagna, but none of that carroty soup, then." That sort of thing. And the kids decided that everyone could name one Banned Meal, a meal they personally found so disgusting that no matter how many other family members wanted it included on the rota, it would not be. But just one banned meal per person.

In the two years since, we've loosely stuck to our program of compromise-based agreements, bans and a rota. Likes and dislikes have shifted, and we've discovered new meals. Sometimes we get tired of one and it quietly exits the rota for a few months. For the most part, the approach works. I can maintain the bare minimum of cooking motivation. The kids eat most of what they're served. No one is forced to eat stuff they hate. Because the food is, if not enjoyed by all, at least tolerated, a little more adventurousness is slowly evolving. The kids now understand that the cook has feelings and does not want to cook at all if diners make loud sighs and sulk off in search of cheerios.

I wish there were more variety. We only have about 10 meals on our rota. But this is the best solution we've found, and I can certainly live with it. Today Fiona ate a whole piece of tomato, and liked it.


  1. Your culinary evolution sounds much like mine. I was a terribly picky eater as a child because certain foods truly did repulse the point of gagging. I never wanted to do that to my kids, and as a result, we've gone through a transition much like yours. Do you find that your kids' tastes are expanding as they age? Alex has taken on a lot of new foods in the past year or so. He's read up on nutrition quite a bit, so I think that has a lot to do with it. Maddie, however, has recently become a very picky eater...*sigh*

  2. For more variety could you choose one day a week or every two weeks and cook what you would want? Let the kids fend for themselves for that one night? Every once in awhile Ken and I decide that we are not going to think about them for dinner - we will make enough for them and they can try it if they want - otherwise they fend for themselves. My kids are a pain - Will is close to being a "white fooditarian" too, and Emily is an "anything but white fooditarian" at times. He wants his potatoes, rice, and pasta (no sauce) she wants veggies and meat. I do know how frustrating it is . . .

  3. I found this very interesting (and the writing very GOOD!)

    You described my situation/experience here almost to a tee. No vegetarians, but a whole slug of likes and dislikes. I too used to make the kids eat what they were served, as you had to do as a child. And then I gave birth to the most stubborn of children. He would rather physically gag, refuse to eat anything and sit in his room all night if given the option. So I relaxed; what's it going to hurt if he doesn't eat with us? or if he eats only the meat and potatoes? or if he opts for an English muffin instead?

    It irritates my husband and of course some of the older kids are a bit perturbed, but meal time is easier now and both my son and I are happier.

    I still only cook one meal a night--they like it and eat it or dont. As older teens and young adults they can make an alternative for themselves. But I do have a repetoire of meals that I know tend to be winners here at home...and I try to stick with it for the most part. I also do not enjoy a well thoughout and cooked me walked away from.

  4. Wow!

    Our meals tend to revolve around about 6 different basic meals. So ten sounds like a wonderful number to me.

    We all have strong likes and dislikes at our house, and we don't always agree, either.

    I have noticed that N. is adding to his repetiore of foods he will try and foods he liked just lately.
    His sister did the same evolution just as she entered her teens, also.
    This may be part of the EEA in hunter-gatherer times, as you described, too.

    Bon apetite!


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