Tuesday, October 2, 2012
My Plan for My Picky Eaters and Some Early Results
After reading and then gushing about French Kids Eat Everything by Karen Le Billon, I decided to give some of her ideas a try. However, before I tried specific ideas I needed to change a fundamental approach I have taken to feeding my kids. I needed to accept the idea that my kids don't have to (and don't necessarily deserve to) have a choice about what they eat. I'm a big choice giver, and as I implied in my last post, I generally think choices are very good things, but they haven't been helpful in teaching my kids to eat. At all. Changing the way I feed my children won't be easy for me or for them. I realize that changing my habits and helping my kids to change theirs won't be a week-long process. My plan is to try a French plan for 6 months, be firm but kind, and see how it goes. I expect a good bit of resistance and I hope for some small, but steady strides in the right direction.
That said, here are the specific changes I plan to incorporate (and in most cases have already begun incorporating) into the way I feed us.
1. Set the table. Believe it or not, I have never done this. What we usually do is call the kids in and tell them to get their plates, silverware, and cup and sit down. The purpose of this was to teach them to do for themselves. This is actually the perfect illustration of French food philosophy versus American food philosophy: Americans value autonomy while the French value, well, eating pleasurably. And sure enough when I started setting the table, things got more pleasurable almost immediately. Before, when we'd had our kids getting their own dishes, they would inevitably forget (or insist they didn't need something). Then right when we sat down for a meal, they would suddenly desperately need it. We would either have to get up to get it or they would be told to get up or get it. This wouldn't have mattered, except that it seemed to happen 10,000 times in a meal and the result was a constant buzz of bodies in the kitchen. We were never just sitting down and eating peacefully all together at the table; someone was ALWAYS up. It was irritating and stressful and somehow in trying to make the kids more independent they ended up seeming extremely needy.
Setting the table is the only thing I've tried that has brought immediate results. I set it with a tablecloth, plates, silverware, and cups. I also put serving dishes of food on the table. I'd always thought this was a ridiculous waste of later dishwasher space, and I know that a lot of people worried about their weight try not to do it. But when you have small children and don't like wasting food, you don't want to dish up a big serving. Yet if you dish up small servings, it means you--the maidservant--are getting up 70 times to get them more of whatever. Serving dishes, setting the table, even the table cloth (another thing I though was a little silly and labor intensive) were all so worth it. Everyone sat at the table and ate. When they needed more food, I dished it up to them. However, for me the big surprise was that not only were things more peaceful, I actually saved myself time and energy by setting the table and putting food on it. Ironically, taking 5 minutes to set the table saved me about 10-15 in getting up to get things. Even the derned table cloth proved helpful. It's my kids' job to clear the table. They always do a lousy job wiping it up, but they actually do a pretty good job taking off the table cloth and dumping any crumbs into the trash and then putting it away. Again, less time, effort, and sanity were lost in our clean up.
2. Serve an appetizer. Again this seemed like such a pain. But it isn't. I put a tiny bowl on their plates and give them a little something to get started. This has two purposes. First off, when I fed them something they liked (grapes, olives, apple sauce, etc.), it gave them a healthy start to their meal. That way, even if they ended up eating just a bit (or nothing), I knew they'd had a healthy something. Secondly, I could use this part of the meal to start with a very small portion of something unfamiliar--a soup, or a strange food, or even a salad. If it's really odd, I'm pretty lenient about how much they try (a bite, a lick, whatever--as long as there's some effort being made). This gives me a chance to have them try just a wee bit of something new. Afterwards, I try to have a fairly crowd-pleasing dinner. This has gotten mixed success. I've mostly done familiar, but healthy foods and that has gone well. When I've tried unusual things (even normal-kid-friendly foods, like pear sauce), it's not gone perfectly, but it hasn't been horrible either. Our big success was that one night, I gave them a "salad." This consisted of 2 bite-sized pieces of lettuce, one bite-sized piece of tomato, several olives (which they love) and a whole lot of Ranch dressing for dipping. Mark ate all of his without a fight. Small for some families; huge for me. Then he policed Elizabeth and made sure she ate all of hers. Then the next day he stole a tomato off of my salad at lunch. Just took it and ate it. After I awoke from my dead faint, I was very pleased. Then last night when we had a similar "salad" again for our appetizer, he ate his tomato and Elizabeth ate her tomato. And then she asked for me. That's a huge success for us, folks. Huge.
3. Dinner or nothing. You eat your dinner or you don't eat. I try to have a variety of foods on the table, including at least one thing that everybody likes. But I put a bit of everything on their plates, and everybody has to eat the small bits of the things I put on their plates or they don't get dessert or any other food for the evening. (Note: I do allow them to drink milk later on in the night, even if they didn't eat; this is a bit of fudging, but I think it's worth it.) This has been, naturally, the hardest thing to do and I've gotten the most resistance--a surprising amount actually (mostly from Mark). For example, last night, we had roast, roasted carrots, and mashed potatoes. Mark loves mashed potatoes, so he ate a heap of them, but he hates meat and carrots. I put a piece of both meat and carrot on his plate that were only a few millimeters big (no exaggeration) and I told him he could choose which to try (Did I mention the lowness of the bar?) if he wanted dessert (which that night was a trip to an ice cream parlor--huge treat). He could have easily wrapped either into his mashed potatoes and never even known it was there (super taster or not). He did not. He refused to try either. To his credit, he accepted his consequence without (much) whining. He went to the ice cream store and watched everyone else pick a flavor and then he sat there and didn't eat any (although Savannah and Emma each gave him a little taste of theirs). I'm not gonna lie: this type of thing is tough for me. But I think it's just the essential discipline that our eating training has been missing. I hope that next time, when faced with the choice, Mark will choose the millimeter of carrot and just eat it, but I'll never know if I never have the guts to withhold a privilege from the boy. Anyway, Mark continues to resist most unusual or new foods, regardless of the consequences. This bothers me and is hard for me. But I do hope that with time (and when he realizes he's hurting himself more than me) that he'll eventually begin to try new foods. I should say, too, that I'm working on not begging or guilting about food (i.e 'pleeease just try it' or 'you won't have any energy if you don't eat'). If he doesn't want to eat it, he doesn't have to. But he won't be getting dessert or other food. In this way, I'm trying to keep it so that food isn't some sort of emotional weapon being used.
4. If you complain, your plate is removed. Supposedly, this is what the French do with their young children. This is a big change for us and we're working up to it. People, I'm such an embarrassing pushover. I gave them a couple weeks to get used to the idea. When they would complain, I'd say, "If you do that in 2 weeks, you'll have your plate removed and not get any food, even the foods you like." And then this week, Elizabeth complained and got her plate removed, but after a few minutes we returned it, saying (and meaning) that this was to show her how it would feel and the next time it would happen for real. So I have yet to really muscle down on this one, but there has been less complaining, so I think it's beginning to work anyway. I expect we'll have a really rough night the first time someone actually loses a plate, but I think people will quickly learn not to complain.
5. Dessert right after dinner, and then no more food for the night. Due to extra-curriculars that call us from the table quickly after dinner, this has been logistically the hardest for me. Some nights, there just hasn't been time. However, when we've done it, I've realized the gloriousness of the idea. Dessert is sitting there, waiting to be served. The kids can see it as they wonder whether they should take those three required bites of food. It's been helpful (though Mark, with his will of steel, has still been a tough one to crack). Also, from a practical standpoint, it means one less mess for us. Before, we'd eat and clean up dinner and then the kids got dessert. No matter how mess-proof the dessert was, however, there would inevitably be a big mess left on the table, which would require a second clean up. Now there's just one cleanup and when all is done, the kitchen is closed. I love that. I should note that the French do not always serve the super sweet desserts we favor--sometimes it's fruit and yogurt (although in my remedial house, where I'm trying to change habits, we have had only sweet desserts; we'll get to the fruit as dessert stage later). I should also note that per the book, the French don't approach food as a reward. Dessert isn't a reward for eating your food, per se. But it's the food that naturally follows the main course and you can't skip that course and just move to your dessert. This is a small but mighty difference in their eating philosophy and one I'm seeking to master. If they don't eat their meals, they don't get dessert, but it's not looked on as a punishment--just as the natural result of skipping an important course of your food.
A few things we still need to work on:
1. Slowing down. We generally eat at 5:00 and at least half the time, Kip needs to be out the door for work at 5:25. Eating together even for 25 minutes is better than most average American families do, but it still feels rushed. We're trying to slow down, especially on the nights he doesn't have work. But habits are tough to break and I notice that even when we have the whole night to eat, the kids are done in 10 minutes and ready to leave the table. We're working to keep them there, even when they're done with their food, and to enjoy being together.
2. In the book Le Billon talked about how she needed to change her approach to how she talked about food. Before it had been slightly penal: 'eat this or else' (you won't get dessert; you'll be tired; you'll be hungry; you're hair will fall out; whatever). As she tried to change her children's eating she tried to change her own reactions to their reactions. Instead of saying, "You don't like it; why not, it's perfectly good food and I worked hard on it" she'd say, "You don't like it? That's because you haven't tried it enough times yet. Maybe next time." Or "That's okay, you'll like it when you get older." She called these "Smart Things to Say" as indeed they are. But I haven't mastered them yet. I'm still a little hurt when my kids don't eat/like my food and I'm still learning to step away from that. I need to come up with my own list of "Smart Things" and then work on saying them.
Posted by Jeanie at 1:20 PM