I Do Not Cook Two Dinners: how we avoid mealtime battles

Kaitlin from More Like Mary wrote me asking about how we deal with toddlers' picky eating habits. I fired off a quick email back to her before I remembered the super-frustrating food allergy issues her family is dealing with. Our family does not have any allergies or food sensitivity issues. I don't know what that's like. But, like Kaitlin, I do make the majority of our food from scratch. I prefer that we eat unprocessed foods and we eat things in such large quantities now that it makes a big difference in our budget to avoid having to buy all that prepackaged stuff. So, hopefully, even though we're coming to the dinner table from different places, the things that work for us can still help her and you too.

With my first two kids, I viewed getting food into them as a battle. I was always concerned about whether they were getting enough food. I worried about them feeling hungry. I cajoled and bribed and threatened and begged at mealtimes.

But slowly, as I had more kids, I developed my general parenting strategy of not allowing myself to be strong armed by the unhappiness of small children. It took longer to begin applying that strategy to food, since here in our land of plenty we view food as something we must DO to our children. But eventually we stopped allowing whining and complaining and tears at mealtimes, just as we don't allow those things at other times. And boy, has it made our days more pleasant.

Reading the classics really changed my perspective on kids and eating. Jane Eyre, Little Women, Five Little Peppers, everything by Dickens . . . it's hard to read about children desperate for food, grateful to suck the oil off of some newspaper that used to hold fish n' chips, thrilled with mother's Sunday dinner of boiled tongue, and still have sympathy for a perfectly healthy four year old who turns his nose up at homecooked meals and says he'll only eat chicken nuggets.

Eventually, I just stopped believing all those parenting magazines that said I needed to feed my children six times per day and bring healthy snacks with us whenever we went out and serve them only bland foods, peeled and crustless, and, ideally, arranged into an appealing underwater scene or classic board game shape.

seriously? 1. This is a SNACK? 2. That looks like a lot of work. 3. What happened to the rest of that sandwich? Does it get tossed out? Or does mom get to eat whatever's not a whale for her "snack"?
don't play with your food kids. no wait, do.
I do make stuff like this for parties and feasts, but not for everyday. I just don't think it's a realistic approach to food, especially not for a big family.

So, without further ado, here's how we avoid mealtime battles:

1. Hunger is the best sauce.

Apparently this is a very old saying. Like, Socrates old. But the first I ever heard of it was in another book, the original The Adventures of Pinocchio (which is a fun read-aloud, by the way, and very different from the Disney-version). He turns his nose up at a meal offered to him as he's off on some crazy adventure, until he can't find anything else to eat for the next three days, happens back upon the same kind lady and finds that he really, really does want to eat what she's offered him.

As it turns out, my kids are NOT going to starve themselves as I used to believe. If my kids won't eat, it's because they're not hungry enough.

Just after reading Pinocchio we used Lent to cut out snacking between meals for all but the very youngest kids (under three) and it made a huge difference in what my kids were willing to eat at mealtimes.

Outside of Lent, if my kids are genuinely hungry, and have eaten the food that was offered at the previous meal, they can have a mid-morning or mid-afternoon snack of fruits or vegetables or cheese or nuts. If they turn their noses up at unprocessed snacks, they aren't actually hungry.

I pack a lunch for us if we'll be out over a mealtime, but other than that I do not bring food along for anyone but the baby. The rest of us can be a little hungry. We won't die.

2. Eating is its own reward.

I do not cook two dinners. My kids, all my kids, even the babies (we only rarely use baby food), eat what we are eating. If I'm making Thai or Indian food, I make sure to have a less adventurous curry available and some veggies and bread. But we all eat the curry, even the toddlers.

(Children who are sick do get special meals, but we have a whole set of rules that go along with being on a "sick day" so that that loophole doesn't get abused.)

My kids know that complaining about food or refusing to eat won't get them anything else, so they don't do it. And in our house, making unpleasant faces at or disparaging comments about the dinner mom made gets one immediately sent away from the table until you are ready to apologize and eat cheerfully.

But we do allow for free will. I understand that people have preferences about food. I have them myself. I also know that not liking a particular food doesn't mean you can't choose to eat it anyway, and that's what we recommend for our kids. If they "offer it up" for a particular intention, it makes for an excellent sacrifice that's easy for kids to do and understand. But we don't force our kids to do that.

They may choose not to eat what we're having, but then they don't get anything else to eat until our next meal. Even little kids. Our kids may choose to eat something they don't especially like, or they may choose not to eat it and have the naturally occurring consequence of that choice. Other consequences or punishments aren't necessary.

For babies, I offer them what we're having. If they're not hungry and don't want to eat that's fine, but I don't offer them anything else. We figure either you're hungry or you're not. We don't believe in "I'm not hungry for chicken." But I do offer a snack later if baby wasn't hungry at lunchtime.

If it's dinner, I just pack their food up with the rest of the leftovers. If it's a sandwich or something that wouldn't normally be saved and the child just isn't hungry at that time, I'll often put it in a baggie on the counter and that's the food that's available in the house for all kids until it gets eaten.

So, if it's a feast and we're having dessert, you don't get dessert if you didn't eat your meal. But not because I'm rewarding my children for eating their meal. Eating is its own reward. What you get for eating is: to not be hungry. In our house, if you don't eat dinner you don't get dessert because you've activated the 'no food until the next meal' policy.

I also don't let meals become a test of wills. I serve my little kids very small portions, and allow them to have seconds (of everything, not just the potatoes) if they're still hungry. And we set reasonable time limits for mealtimes. Once everyone else has finished, I'll give a five minute warning. Then mealtime is over. And you've either finished what's on your plate, or I take it and you don't get anything to eat until the next meal. And no complaining.

It's important to remember that in those toddler years the amount of food a particular child needs can vary wildly from day to day or week to week. If he's having a growth spurt he might spend a few days or weeks eating twice as much as he usually does. But then he'll spend the next few days or weeks genuinely not as hungry and not need as much food.

3. We've made adventurous eating part of our family culture.

We never let our kids think they're doing us a favor by eating. Eating is awesome. We're all lucky we get to do it.

We make a point of presenting new foods as a fun and exciting thing to do. Often, we try new international foods on vacations or in conjunction with a saint's feast day. So, our kids have a generally positive response to trying new things.

eating escargot in Portugal

For whatever reason, some of my kids have very odd favorite foods. Bobby (7) loves onions and Anita (4) loves mushrooms, tomatoes, and olives. Sometimes we let them bail the other kids out, by finishing up those items for them.

I know spicy food is a real sticking point for a lot of families. But my kids do eat spicy foods. I think the key is twofold. First, we don't tell the kids, "Oh, that's spicy, you won't like it." Because then they'd believe us. Second, we don't say, "That's not spicy" when a kid thinks something is spicy. What we do say is, "Tierneys like spicy food."

If one of the things we're having for dinner really is spicy, I only give the littlest kids the tiniest bit, but they do have to try it. Because Tierneys like spicy foods.

So, that's what we do. As usual, I just tell you guys what has worked for my family. If you've got something else that works for your family, please keep right on doing it with my blessing. But if, like I used to, you have little kids whose pickiness is creating problems in your family life, I hope that what works for us might work for you too.


And since it's Sunday, here's what I wore to Mass . . .

And, hey, I wore separates! I rarely wear separates becasue it's so much more work coming up with an outfit. Dresses are so easy. And I think getting the right proportions are trickier with separates when pregnant. But, I wanted to wear my birthday necklace again, so I built this whole outfit around it.

Shirt and Sweater: Target
Skirt: Ann Taylor Loft
Bump: 34 weeks
Necklace: Anthropologie
Belt: Coach
Shoes: Leopard Wedge Pumps bought from Amazon
with my Amazon Associates money, thanks guys!

Linking up with the good ladies at Fine Linen and Purple who are hosting yet another What I Wore Sunday. Head on over to check out what everyone else wore to Mass today!

Happy Sunday!