I have to say, I find one of the greatest insults to our attempts at proper childhood nutrition (both as parents, as someone who attempts to guide others on a path for proper nutrition) is the Child Menu at restaurants. Who are you, restaurant X, to tell me that my child only likes and so should choose from chicken nuggets, pizza or a burger? Who are you to tell me that my child wants to drink juice or soda? Who are you to undermine my attempts to get my child to enjoy the foods that I cook? Who are you to tell me that the only fruit my kid like to eat is applesauce (which isn’t a veg, first of all, and second of all, as he has teeth, I would like something he can actually sink his teeth into)? Who are you to tell my kids it's okay to have different options than what the rest of us are enjoying? Who are you to tell my kid that waffles with ice cream is a entree option and not a dessert? As a menu planner for a restaurant, I kinda feel like I would be ashamed of giving only these options.
Why am I suddenly so offended? It's not sudden, really. And it isn’t just restaurants’ kids’ menus; there are a few things that we do as parents that really complicate our lives: we let our kids NOT eat the food we cook for them; we let them turn us into short-order chefs, cooking them a different menu because they turn their nose up at an item or three we are cooking for our own meal; we let them turn their noses up at veggie options that they don’t like after one taste; we take the path of least resistance just so we can have a minute or two of peace at the dinner table. Except, in the end, we end up kicking ourselves in the keister because our kids end up with a palate that is whittled down to three or four favorite foods, and unwilling to try anything new. Our children are not only self-limiting the flavors, textures, and foods that they are willing to include, they are also limiting their intake of vitamins and nutrients. Of course they want to eat foods that are sweet. Of course they want to eat foods that are salty or crunchy or sugary. Of course they are going to want to drink sweet drinks or eat sugary concoctions. Candy bars and chips are way more appealing to the juvenile (okay, and adult) taste buds than are fruits and veggies ... unless you teach yourself how amazing these same fruits and veggies can be.
Veggies, whole grains and other foods that have a strong flavor (e.g. broccoli, squash, or Brussels sprouts) do themselves a disservice by being strongly flavored. Did you know that a person has to try a new flavor even up to 20 or more times before they grow to like it. As a parent, sometimes the frustration of THAT face AGAIN with the spoonful of pureed broccoli is enough to just make us give up. I know. I still remember trying to get my youngest to just keep the darn green beans in his mouth already. It did not go well. But no matter how often I saw the exact same amount of green puree come back out as what I had just put in, I kept at it. Eventually, he must have missed a drop or two in his attempt to push it all right back out and - lo and behold! - he liked it. And asked for more. Now, green beans and their various cousins are his favorite veggie. Same thing happened with avocado. And Indian Food. And stews. And fish. And ... he’s our picky eater, and it is so frustrating to see the food I worked to create just SIT there getting cold and goopy.
Children (and big people) are mulishly stubborn about so many good-for-you habits, including eating veggies and whole grains. Of course they want the chicken nugget: it's tan (a typically approved of food color), it's salty and often crunchy, it's also a bit bland so no in-your-face flavors to contend with, and it's chicken which is the most unexciting of proteins. Easy peasy. Except that there are so many other flavorful options on the menu (both in restaurants and at home). Good-for-you habits sound hard until you do them regularly: is it hard to brush your teeth for 2 minutes, or do some form of exercise for 30 minutes each day, or drink enough water to stay hydrated? No. It just sounds like something awful because you SHOULD do it ... it has to be more fun to do the things that you aren’t supposed to do, right? (I’m confusing myself, but I think you know what I mean.). If it is taboo than it must be fun. Except that oftentimes things are taboo because they are actually not good for you. Eating too much sodium? Not good for you. Drinking too much sugar? Not good for you. Eating too much processed food? Not good for you. Sure. All of these things might taste good initially, but they will also make you feel blah, have no energy, be bad for your digestion, and leave you dehydrated. Likely, your skin will also look poorly. You won’t sleep well. You will be crabby and uncooperative because you won’t feel well or energetic. Need I go on?
It's not just eating out in restaurants where this is a problem. It's at home, too: do you really want your kids to grow up thinking that they can only enjoy 5 foods (hotdogs, hamburgers, cheese pizza, waffles, or nuggets)? Do you really want them to sate their thirst with non-naturally occurring beverages? Do you really want to cook a different food for them every meal they are at home? Of course not. And, honestly, YOU shouldn’t be the only one doing the cooking. Get your kids into the kitchen. Include them in meal planning and prep. Enlist them for clean-up. Tow them along for grocery shopping. Talk to them about what is on their plates and why it is yummy. Or not. It’s okay to not like a food; it’s not okay to not try it. If they give it an honest go, and they really can’t stand it, it’s okay to have that opinion, too.
I would dare suggest: don't let that what-would-you-like-instead moment arise. Don't give your kids the option of having options. They eat what you eat. You know what, my friends? Your kids are not going to starve if they miss a meal or two. They are not going to stop growing, or become malnourished. Instead, they will discover new flavors and textures, and may even happen upon a new food-love. They will learn that not every meal needs to include a nugget, and not all drinks are bubbly. They will expand their palate of preferred foods, and gain hugely from the nutrients they consume. They will learn to listen to their tummies when they are full, and they will understand a connection between meal-family-conversation. They might even contribute to the decision-making process when it comes time to meal plan for the following week.