DISCLAIMER: Wearing a superhero cape at mealtime is sure to create laughter and enjoyment, but it will not guarantee your child will eat his vegetables.
I think all parents should wear a superhero cape at mealtime. For real. We deserve it. No matter how well your child eats, mealtime is almost always a battle. Sweet potatoes get thrown on the floor; broccoli gets snubbed (or rubbed into hair); milk gets tossed on the floor … and this happens three times a day! I am told this battle ends eventually (thank god!) but it will surely get replaced with something else. (After all, parenthood is just one long duel between Batman and Joker, right?). Which is why I say, if you can’t beat em, join em. Translation: wear your capes, mamas. My essay could end there.
But it won’t, since I’m verbose and love to write. I also love food. I love eating it and learning about it — how it’s prepared, how other cultures eat it, prepare it, etc. Which is why I recently sent out a survey asking moms about their children’s eating habits. I was hoping to determine whether there was a correlation between picky eating and if a mothers breastfed and/or made their own baby food. My motivation was self-driven, I suppose: I was curious why all three of my children had become crazy good eaters. (Either I had hit the jackpot [most likely] or did something to nurture this habit [maybe]; and since I breastfed each one of them [exposing them to diverse flavors] and made all of their baby food, I started to wonder whether these factors had influenced my kids’ adventurous palettes in any way.)
Well, 62 mamas took my 10-question survey. Of those 62, 48% said their children were “sometimes” picky, 37% said their children were “not picky”, and only 15% said that their kids were “definitely” picky.
Now, I wish I could go back and further define what “sometimes” means, but since I wasn’t trying to solve the WHO’s first-world obesity problem when I wrote my survey, let’s just assume that “sometimes” means Johnny mostly eats his vegetables, aside from the normal, “I’m gonna gag on the broccoli you made tonight when two days ago I loved it,” comedy routine. It’s therefore safe to assume that most of the women surveyed generally have pretty good eaters.
What about breastfeeding and homemade baby food then?
An astonishing 99% (!) of the women surveyed said they breastfed their children (for 6 months or longer), and 87% said they “always” or “sometimes” made their children’s baby food. Raise your Broccoli Capes mamas — there seems to be a trend between “good eating” and breastfeeding / making baby food! Other research states the same.
A study published in the American Dietetic Association followed 129 infants through their preschool years to determine whether breastfeeding for 6 months and introducing solids after 6 months had any effect on food neophobia (complete avoidance of certain foods) or picky eating. Here is what they found:
- Children who were breastfed exclusively for 6 months had lower odds of developing a preference for specific food-preparation methods by 78%, food rejection by 81%, and food neophobia by 75%.
- Children who were introduced to complementary foods before 6 months of age had 2.5 times higher odds of developing food neophobia and limited variety of foods. (Shim JE, Kim J, Mathai RA, 2011).
Similarly, Jason Lam (2015) from the Internal Medicine and Pediatrics Department of Western Michigan University provides a similar finding on breastfeeding: mothers who drank carrot juice during the last trimester of pregnancy enjoyed carrot-flavored cereals more than infants whose mothers did not drink carrot juice or eat carrots.
Interesting. I guess that explains why all three of my kids love carrots!
Lam doesn’t stop there. He complicates the message by also suggesting that genetics might contribute to pickiness as well:
- Babies and children may reject bitter foods due to a protective mechanism since most bitter compounds are toxic. Hence, neophobia may be an evolutionary protective mechanism, serving to protect children from ingesting potentially toxic substances. These innate food preferences may become barriers for acceptance of certain food.
He also states that how parents eat will almost always affect how their children eat.
Ok. So it’s nature AND nurture. A combination of genetics AND exposure to flavors via breastmilk and solids and the environment one grows up in. Sounds inexplicably impossible to fight and control right? And what does that mean for parents who have picky older children? Are they doomed to serving crustless PB&J or Lunchables forever simply because their children weren’t breastfed? Absolutely not.
For me, this research means power. It says that we have more control than we think we do (despite what our little Jokers would have us believe). Because in the end, a parent’s love (re: “nurture”) is the ultimate weapon, isn’t it? It can calm sibling rivalry, provide armor against peer pressure, and it also can help establish healthy eating habits. Our job is to lovingly guide them toward healthy living, and we should do so when they’re the most impressionable, because…
A whopping 67% of the mamas surveyed said they noticed picky trends happening between the ages of 3-5. A time when, yes, your child is asserting her independence more, but it also means she’s watching YOU more acutely. She’s watching what you eat, how you eat, what you say about food, etc. It’s therefore SUPER important to be the mirror for our children.
Now, I’m not suggesting we all eat macrobiotic diets and milk our own cows (although whole milk is like a slice of heaven); nor do I think that eating one’s feelings in a bowl of popcorn is something to frown upon (because I do it ok? Don’t judge.) But I do think it’s essential to teach our kids the nature of “moderation”.
We live in a gluttonous society, where more can be cheaper and bigger can be better. The Super Size Me phenomenon is an American one, and unless we want our children, and our children’s children, to contribute to childhood obesity and diabetes, we need to teach them that french fries are a special treat (especially when dipped in Wendy’s frostys – yum!) and that tomatoes (when picked from the vine and eaten like apples) are also divine. Food moderation can thus become the platform for other “moderation” lessons too (i.e., screen-time, work/play, etc). And the only way for parents to achieve this is for us to do it ourselves: our children must see healthy behaviors modeled for them, otherwise they’ll look to society at large for guidance instead.
So once we start practicing food moderation ourselves, here are some other helpful ways to impact your child’s food environment (that have worked for me):
(1) LEMON & SALT. No, not to squirt in your child’s eyes when he throws your gourmet food on the floor for the thirtieth time, but for the vegetables. (Come on, mama. I’m not that cruel.) A little lemon and salt goes a looooong way, believe me, and your kids will LOVE it when you let them squeeze the lemon and put the salt on top of their cucumbers!
(2) BE FIRM. Just because you wear a superhero cape doesn’t mean you should fly back to the kitchen every time your nemesis demands it. Research states that a child must try a new food 8-15 times (!) before they gain acceptance of it (Carruth BR, Ziegler PJ, Gordon A, Barr SI., 2004). That’s 12 times more than what current suggestions recommend. In our house, mushrooms are never taken out. They are constantly put in my middle child’s stirfry (even though she HATES them), and we have a strict “no thank you bite” policy: she has to try the mushrooms every time they’re presented, with the hope that one day she’ll like them. (I remind her of my own disdain for avocados while growing up and that eventually I learned to love them.) It’s your call on how you handle the 8-15 bites, just stand your ground. Kids can smell ambivilence a broccoli spear away.
(3) OFFER TWO CHOICES. Would you like cucumbers OR carrots? Do you want hummus OR ranch? If they say Option C, as my cheeky kids often do (which is almost always “crackers”) then politely tell them that Option A and B are all there is and that Option C can come after they have eaten A or B. Then walk away. Your kids will choose one of your options if they’re hungry enough. And for those of you with spirited children (*points finger at self*), when their tummies start rumbling, they will come around to those cucumbers. I promise. They just might hold out longer. Providing options for your children give them power, but it also lets them know you’re the ultimate Superhero in the house.
(4) SMOOTHIES. Sneak in those veggies via liquid-form. My personal favorite is a medley of frozen berries, kale/spinach, and almond milk. (You can buy the frozen fruits and veggies at Costco for $9 a bag!). If you have a juicer, then juice those veggies into the “Green Hornet”: 2 green apples, 1 pear, 2 stalks celery, and 1/2 cucumber. (Score!)
(5) PEANUT BUTTER BALLS. If your child refuses to eat meat, make these delicious peanut butter balls with your kids! SO tasty and so fun to make. (Substitute the chocolate chips for raisins and they’ll be none the wiser.)
(6) MAKE FOOD FUN! Above all, this is a MUST. Create Veggie Man (shown below) and make a felt Superhero Banana cape for your daughter, AND wear one yourself! Fight defiance with a smile and your nemesis might pick another battle instead (like refusing to wear shoes). And if they don’t, then at least you’ll be having fun.
P.S. I do NOT think Veggie Man should make an appearance every single day. No one has time for that! He’s just a good example of how you can make veggie eating fun WHEN you have the time. Capes, on the other hand, well, you all know how I feel about that.
In the end, remember you’re a Superhero — NOT Supermom. (Supermoms are illogical; we all know Batman is real.) Be yourself, stand firm, and continue to love your kids through the food drama. And remember to give yourself grace in between too, because you’re doing it mama! You’re loving and learning and fighting the good Broccoli fight…….and you’ve got the cape to prove it.