A few weeks ago, my husband spent the better part of two days working on an elaborate Latin American meal. He drove all over the DMV procuring the best ingredients from the best purveyors, jostled work calls while preparing fish stock, had things marinating and brining and bubbling away for nearly 48 hours. My son sat down to dinner that night, took one look at his plate, and started crying.
“I don’t WANT THAT!” he wept. The look on my husband’s face suggested he wanted to weep as well.
I was recounting this demoralizing tale over dinner with a few girlfriends who also have young children, and, after appropriate laughter and sympathy, one of them shared: “Well, only one of my children eats per night.” She went on to explain that she is committed to the philosophy that she will make one meal for the family each night, no ifs, and, or buts about it, but that her two children independently maintain long and unyielding lists of things they won’t eat — and that their respective catalogs have almost zero overlap. She sighed. “I just say, ‘This is what’s on the menu,’ and then watch as one child goes hungry each night.”
Is feeding young children always this challenging?
My husband and I find ourselves tumbling in and out of patterns of wild frustration and shrugging “oh, wells.” Mr. Magpie was a picky eater until college and now look at him — one of the most adventurous eaters and ambitious home cooks you will meet. Still, our resolution this year was to eat dinner with the children as often as possible. Dining is a highly-valued part of our adult lives, and we wanted to model that appreciation for our children, and include them in it. For us, dinner time is particularly sacrosanct. We unplug and focus on the food, on one another. We usually pour a glass of wine, turn on music, and open ourselves up. Up until the dawn of this year, we nearly always fed our children separately (earlier) because we valued this time so much for ourselves. Especially during the pandemic, dinner felt like the one sliver of the day that belonged to us alone and that consistently brought us joy in dark times. But with those days behind us and the children staying up later and being generally more aware and capable, we felt it was not only timely but in some sense ethical (as it pertains to our own values) to accommodate them in the ritual.
It has been a bumpy ride.
Some dinnertimes, we make wild eyes at one another as if to say: “Why are we doing this to ourselves?” These non-verbal exchanges usually come on the heels of sitting for an hour and a half while our children find two thousand excuses to avoid or defer ingesting the three bites of lamb, small mound of peas, and one fingerling potato on their respective plates. Or after we watch them spit out butter-poached lobster, or something much simpler — like the buttery, crispy, breaded fish sticks my husband prepared from scratch, attempting to appease their palates. (He served them with homemade tartar sauce for us, which would have been a bridge too far had we plated it for our children.) My son, who will happily eat Gorton’s freezer variety, spat these fancy fish sticks out on the table in defiance.
And yet. We’ve seen slow and incremental improvements in other ways. My daughter will at least try almost anything on her plate, and my son has gradually gotten better at sitting at the table without needing to be reminded: “BOTTOM IN THE SEAT” fourteen times. Even if I cannot say much about the impact of our shared dinnertimes on their nutrition, I have witnessed beautiful gains in other realms: we often learn about their days, share stories, and talk about food together. My children also take turns saying grace at the head of the meal, and this Catholic routine is deeply reassuring to me. I occasionally feel as though I am failing at “instilling the Catholic faith” at home, but at least we say grace daily together. In short, sometimes I feel that dinnertime together is less about what they actually eat and more about the rhetorical emphasis on community, on manners, on conversation, on prayer. So, net-net, not a full failure.
Still. There are days where I wonder if my son has eaten more than one bite of dinner for the past couple weeks. (Am I putting him to bed hungry too often? Am I being overly spartan?, she wonders at 1:43 a.m.)
We’ve done enough consulting on the subject to follow the general recommendations you’ve probably also heard about: 1) portion size can overwhelm children — we give them small portions (especially of new foods); 2) put something familiar on their plate — we serve them at least one thing we know they will like on their plate (actually, usually two, because — in addition to an “easy hit” side like rice, buttered noodles, edamame, etc, we always give them a serving of fruit at dinner, which they invariably eat, and usually before anything else); 3) do not dictate how much they eat. We do not force our children to clear or even eat anything at all on their plates, BUT! We do permit them something sweet after dinner if they’ve tried everything on their plates and “feel full.” (If you have young children, you probably intuit that the laxity and flabbiness of that last condition is problematic.)
The conversation usually runs like this:
My son: “I don’t WANT THAT.”
Me: “OK, that’s up to you.”
My son: “But can I have dessert?”
Me: “If you’re not hungry enough for dinner, you’re not hungry enough for dessert.”
My son: “But I’m not hungry for that.” [Enter infinity loop.]
My daughter, with the negotiation skills of seasoned litigator, will routinely press us on “how many bites” she needs to have in order to qualify for dessert. We tear out our hair telling her “until you’re full.” This usually becomes a competition as to how few bites she can get away with, at least with proteins and new vegetables (she is pretty good elsewhere), and sometimes I find myself telling her “eat your age in bites,” which is what my mother always told me. I don’t know any way around this! We are a dessert family; I am a baker and we love a post-dinner sweet treat. I really do not want to be a “do as I say, not as I do” type person either, hiding my own desserts, or eating desserts myself but not permitting her to enjoy them. Life is all about balance! Having struggled with an unhealthy relationship with food as a teen, I don’t want my children to think any food is “bad” or “indulgent” or what have you, so this is meaningful point for me.
All this to say —
I do not know how to get my children to eat full dinners.
I polled my Magpie readers and, if you’re hoping for a silver bullet like I was — there is none. The two heartening things I heard across the lot of replies had little to do with the actual mechanics of getting your kids to eat and more to do with muscling through their picky years:
“It gets better.”
“Don’t focus on what they eat in a given day. It’s more about what they eat over the course of several days. Some days it seems like they barely eat; other days, they eat a lot. It all balances out.”
That last one came like a hug. I do feel that my son will have a few good meals and then some sparse ones; he will eat when he is hungry.
Most of the others were either things we’ve tried with moderate to minimal success (usually owing to their implicit temporariness) or things we won’t try because they don’t fit our lifestyle/values system, but I will share them here in case they spark something for you:
“Don’t do an afternoon snack! And then just eat earlier.”
“Have them help. My kids will try almost anything if they’ve “made” it.”
“Feed them early. I would rather give dinner at 4:30 and a snack before bed.”
“Chick-Fil-A BBQ sauce. My son will dip anything into it!”
“Serve the meal in make-your-own format like tacos. Or throw in fun surprises like pancakes.”
“Provide the food but don’t dictate how much they eat. It gets better.”
“We use a spaceship plate and tell him he can fly it in the air when the food is gone.”
[Paraphrasing]: “Offer alternative seating arrangements to sitting at the formal dining table. Sometimes my children eat best sitting on the floor.”
I received so many notes from Magpies saying: “I’m right there with you,” so if you’re also on the struggle bus with this matter, know that it’s a packed one, and I’m sitting in the front seat.
Today, just repeating this to myself: It gets better. It gets better. It gets better.
+The early days of motherhood almost assuredly demand a withdrawal from your former life.
+Some of our favorite mealtime gear for little kids. Not that any of this “helps” over the long haul. I find cute things like fruit picks temporarily pique their interest but then it’s back to the same. Still, might as well like the aesthetics of the dinnerware you have in your drawers!
+Extremely tempted by this cardigan…only three left in my size…
+Love the lampshade options on this gorgeous table lamp.
+OMG how fun is this backyard sprinkler?! I’m seriously contemplating it.
+Love this under-$70 colorblocked sundress.
+Love these hot pink jeans.
+Just did a big shop at J. Crew for the kids and bought nearly everything at the bottom of this post.
+Everyone’s favorite swimsuit in a fun cerulean blue color.
+Chic everyday caftan dress for under $40. This is the kind of thing I live in all summer long.
+These decorative matchboxes would be a could gift to bundle with a candle.
+This silk maxi dress is spectacular. Can’t decide if I prefer in the pink or orange!
+I’ve been seeing these gorgeous paper plant sculptures in the homes of very chic ladies — love!
+Planning to treat myself to this box set of collected Mary Oliver poems.