One area of child-raising that seems to give parents a lot of grief is meal time. The big worry seems to be first getting them to eat and then to eat the right things. In fact, studies have shown that the two hardest areas for new parents to navigate are sleeping and eating. Personally, with as many kids as I had, I never had any trouble persuading them to finish their meal. In fact, my problem was the opposite--how to feed them enough. One of my sons was a legendary eater, even at the tender age of three years old. One night at dinner he passed me his plate and said, “Can I have sevenths?”
Someone once said there are no fat kids in a large family. Once a brave couple invited our whole family over for dinner. The wife wanted to make something that would feed a crowd so she roasted a turkey. When our kids went in the door and smelled the delicious aroma, they cried out in one voice, “Yay, meat!” How embarrassing.
I never had time to notice if one particular child was eating enough or not, but none of them were malnourished. I’ve had mothers say, “But they’ll starve if I don’t make sure they eat!” I don’t think so. If food is in front of them, they will eventually take what they want and need UNLESS you make a big power struggle out of it. Then meals become another manipulative orgy and great fun for the kids. In that case they actually might not eat enough just to prolong the game and their sense of power.
What you can do is always put good, nutritious food in front of them and then stay out of it. If they only take a little bit (and remember how small their stomachs are--the size of their two fists together) make sure it’s the best stuff. I know kids who drink bottles of juice, often full of sugar or corn syrup, all day long and then never eat a decent meal. Big surprise.
When little ones start on what is euphemistically called “solid” food, they may actually find finger foods more interesting because they can feed themselves. Maybe it’s a matter of control again. And remember, the way they eat today may not be the way they eat tomorrow. I’ve seen many babies who were great eaters slow down and seem to lose interest around age one. Then they might go through a growth spurt and take up the habit again later. I knew one little boy who only ate every other meal. When his mother realized this pattern, she relaxed and didn’t worry about it.
I had a friend, Carla, who had the right idea, even with her first baby when most of us take everything way too seriously. One lunchtime, after her toddler, Jeremy, fought and fussed at being fed, I saw her dump a bowl of applesauce upside down on his head. We watched, grateful for the silence, while he licked it off as it ran down the side of his face. “He always eats better that way,” she confided. For example, Jeremy liked peanut butter sandwiches, but he didn’t like to hold them in his hands. So Carla spread peanut butter on a piece of bread then stuck it to the front of his face. Without ever using his hands, Jeremy first ate a little hole in the middle over his mouth, then gradually ate the whole thing. It was the funniest thing to watch and it kept him occupied and entertained for a long time.
I once heard something that made a lot of sense to me: children are actually grazers rather than feasters. In other words, they do better “grazing” with several small meals throughout the day rather than “feasting” on only three main ones. Maybe you could have nutritious snacks, like raisins, cereal, cheese sticks, pieces of bananas or oranges, etc, out and available all the time. Then at meals give them only tiny, tiny amounts, like two peas and a teaspoon of casserole. Let them know they can always have more, but to be sociable, if for no other reason, they need to eat with the rest of the family.
Even If your children are bird-like eaters when little, they will probably make up for it later. You have no idea the amount of food teenage boys can consume. My son once said, “I’m just hungry all the time.” When one of them left home for college, our milk consumption went from ten gallons a week to just five gallons. So my advice is to calm down, avoid power struggles over food, and whatever phase they’re in, keep your cool and don’t let it bother you.