Why I Cater To My Kids

November 19, 2011 in Categories: by

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This may come to a surprise to you, but I decided that I would cater to my children’s likes and dislikes way back when I was still pregnant with my first.  Yes, that’s right.  With full knowledge that I would become a short order cook, I decided not to force my kids to eat foods they didn’t like.  “But, why???” you ask while being polite enough not to state your believe that I am utterly insane.  Let me try to explain…

I was close to my biggest when I got pregnant with my first, still battling a very dysfunctional relationship with food and eager to break the cycle for my children.  Growing up, my mom fed us a variety of fresh, whole foods, much of which we grew, picked and fished ourselves.  Our family discussed “balanced nutrition” and dessert was an occasional treat. We were not given other options if we didn’t like our meal and we had to sit at the table until we ate everything on our plates (due to budget rather than parenting philosophy).  So in my early teen years, when I had an income from babysitting, I began to buy my own junk food.  I can remember hiding my chocolate consumption because I knew my mom would be angry.  Certainly, I loved sugar (what kid doesn’t?!); but more than that, I had a desire for control over my food.  But these secret junk food binges evolved into some pretty messed up relationships: with chocolate, with cake, with ice cream, with cookies, heck even with protein bars.

So when I was trying to decide how I would be a mother, what things I would take that my mother did and what I would do differently, I decided that I would not make a big deal of food.  I read books and magazine articles that reinforced my instincts with advice like: “don’t force your kid to eat everything on their plate”, “just make sure there is one thing on the table that they like and gently encourage them to try the rest”, and “have a safe food that your kid is always allowed to request if they don’t like what everyone else is having”.  These ideas made perfect sense to me.  I hoped that THIS was how I would encourage my children to make healthy choices, to eat to satiety, to avoid the emotional dependence on food that I was still struggling with.

Many nights, as I battle to find something healthy (and not cheese and crackers!) for my oldest daughter to eat, I am jealous of those parents who have set up dinner rules so differently.  But even without my (perhaps misguided) philosophies on family dinner, I would have been forced into this leniency by my daughter’s poor weight gain in her first year. This last year has seen a big improvement in the variety of her staples, although many of them still contain grains.  And recently, I have been talking to her about nutrition and food intolerances and feeling better and feeling more energetic.  She is sortof on board with giving up grains… as long as I can find some good substitutes that she will like.  I wish that I had known about paleolithic nutrition way back when I started this adventure called motherhood. Then, I could have tried this relaxed approach to food within a paleo framework.  But, better late than never.  I feel confident that we will get there, that I can improve my daughter’s nutrition without suddenly becoming a dinnertime tyrant, and that I will break the cycle.


Hi Sarah. This post really resonated with me as I too grew up with similarly enforced eating habits. And I too reacted by going nuts with junk food. It’s only been recently that I’ve been capable of addressing this successfully in therapy at the age of 45. Your comment of desiring control over your food struck home with me also in a very visceral way. Control has always been an issue for me due to a lot of childhood issues.

I don’t have children myself, but I do think you’re doing the right thing. The less anxiety associated with food the better IMO.

Thank you! One of the hardest things about being a parent is that constant doubt about how my parenting choices will affect my children as they grow up. I like to say “the jury is still out” because it doesn’t really matter which battles I win or lose now so much as how that sets my child up for success or failure in the future. Sigh.

This is such a great post. Being a mom is no easy feat, and let’s face it, we’re so underpaid for this! I share custody of my children (9 yo twins) and they are 100% Paleo with me and 100% Standard Canadian Diet with my ex (I can’t deny that hurts, but what can you do?). My daughter said to me the other day “I could be healthier though because, think about it Mommy, the gluten from my other week” haha She also came home from school the other day and was literally preaching about how they shouldn’t be teaching us about “grains”. I guess my point is, the WHAT we feed our kids isn’t as vital as the messages and values that we portray around food.

I like all foods. I’d try anything. I have the most limited diet. My husband will not eat fruits or vegetables and he’s dairy intolerant. My oldest cannot have gluten, garlic or eggs and she does not like meat. I certainly feel like a short order cook! I really worry that our kids will be all messed up when it comes to food! Jeesh. I suspect we’ll all get through it!

I was adamant that I wouldn’t become a short order cook but with three autistic boys that’s exactly what I’ve had to embrace. And you know what – it really doesn’t matter! I still get loads of critisism for it, even tho’ its MY choice. Due to poor weight gain in two of my boys we eat a lot of pudding too – on the days when I can’t be bothered to offer a main choice the disliker gets to fill up on pudding. But pudding would be pretty healthy anyway …

My disliker eventually had to make their own dinner, glad to say both boys are very comfortable in the kitchen. So there is an upside 🙂

Thank you for this! I’ve actually been wanting to find this conversation for a while and have thought about writing you about my own struggles with this…i didnt think you’d have time to respond to my personal query so I haven’t but I’m happy to find this! I’ve been reading as much paleo parents/kids stuff as I can find…at 5 my daughter is still “underweight” and eats like a bird..loves meats as well as carbs..so I offer her the healthiest carbs I can get/make..(millet or sprouted wheat bread or sourdough gf crepes)…the idea of getting her off grains seems so unrealistic. And I’m not 100% on that myself anyway.(80/20) ..the question of putting “weight” on her with this low carb diet is an ironic challenge when most people pursuing this diet are looking to lose weight.. I am slender too..and avg to below on the BMI which is just fine with me! Like u i have allowed for some catering…its good to read what u said abouf that! And I’ve accepted that I have a “skinny kid” (her height is avg and she is super smart/happy/healthy)… but after reading some posts on your page recently about SIBO and AIP causing excessive weight loss…even tho she has no outward symptoms of inflammation, now lately I’ve started thinking more about a potential disorder and need for some more restriction?! Have u dealt with this type of questioning for your daughter or talked to other parents looking at this?

I think further restricting a diet in the absence of symptoms or a diagnosis is not a good idea. I think a better approach would be to focus on increasing variety and nutrition within a paleo template, especially increasing super nutrient-dense foods, like meat, organ meat, fish, healthy fats, vegetables and fruit. We worked really hard to get my daughter to eat meat, and it took a long time to become easy, but once it did, she really thickened up and is a much more robust child now. Here’s a recent post about that: http://www.thepaleomom.com/2013/11/like-meat-now-interview-6-year-old.html

Thanks! Its funny u mention the tern “paleo template” ..just today I was surfing around reading online and I came across a Chris kesser post calling for that distinction as a way of thinking about personalized diets based on Paleo nutritional principles…love it!

I also made the decision not to have battles over food at the table. My decisions were made as I sat at breakfast with last nights dinner sitting in front of me because I didn’t eat my dinner the night before. My only rule was to try the new foods. My children are now 24 and 34, and fairly healthy. The only down side that I can find is my refrigerator is always full of condiments. Lol 1 likes mayo,1 likes yellow mustard, one likes ranch, 1 likes ceasar, I like balsamic and on it goes. I dont care as long as they eat the salad.

Interesting perspective. I wouldn’t call you crazy just for doing meals differently. I’m sure things would be different here if my kid was really picky. I’ve said many times that I’m not a short order cook. I try to involve my kid in meal planning, and make things we all like but I have served lasts nights dinner for lunch or dinner again after it was barely touched. Food waste is a big peeve of mine.

Both my kids are really picky (2 girls, 5 and 1,5 years old), but my strategy at the dinner table is exactly the same as yours! I try to always have a safe and nourishing option for them to eat each meal, but sometimes they go hungry from the table. But that’s ok! I would NEVER force my kids to eat everything on the plate. I encourage them to try and praise them a lot when they do. If they don’t eat at dinner, I make them something I know they like AND that is healthy later in the evening instead. I just think about myself; What if someone put something on my plate (like the meat from a grown up sheep, or pickled beet) that I really despised, and then forced me to eat it! As an adult we would never accept someone doing this to us. I don’t think we should to it to our kids either, they are little people…not just kids. Eventually they will get less picky, and grow older and more adventurous in their food choices. I just think we need to keep on offering them a variety of healthy foods…. and wait. Love your blog Sarah!

i decided straight off – all foods that were ‘on the menu’ for dinner – including any DESSERT and sweet stuffs – was put out on the table. We all get a plate and we all eat what we like. Removing the entire idea that any food is a ‘treat’ or reward. Its all just available foods.

While I do agree that food should never be a source of friction in a family, I am also well aware that eating and food habits are well on their way to being established by age 6. Most young children go through phases of picky eating which, in my experience, correspond more closely with their emerging desire to control their little worlds than with a genuine dislike of any particular food. Forcing ANYTHING during those times, I believe, sets the stage for issues down the road. I will not be a short order cook, nor do I expect any of my children’s friends’ parents to be. Our children have the choice to eat what’s prepared or not; we don’t argue about it. But they do regularly see what comprises a healthy meal and have already (at 11 and 8) internalized the connection between food choices and the way they feel. And yes, we all enjoy chips and popcorn and other treats on occasion! Hopefully the idea of balance and trust in their ability to make choices that feel good and “right” for their bodies serve them well as they get older!

My older two (age 21 and 19) ate everything. No issues. No mealtime battles. Then along came my now four year old. A selective eater. Because of my older two, I in no way blame my parenting for his selective eating, even though I had a doctor tell me when he was two (and only eating yogurt and breast milk) to just “put noodles and butter in front of him, then he’ll eat.” What an insult. Anyway, I’ve been struggling with Auto Immune issues this past year or so. Gave up gluten in December of 2012. Eventually, this led down the road to an intolerance to soy and other grains. Did SCD last fall and then jumped fully into Paleo in December. After raising my older two kids as a animal-loving, tree-hugging vegetarian, sometimes vegan, I now have my 21-year old daughter on board with Paleo. She fought her college’s resident hall board to get out of her meal contract so that she could cook her own meals. Colleges are not Paleo friendly. My 19 year old is in college too now and he just wants to eat pancakes and canned soup, because it’s easy. Not much I can do about that. But my little one is a selective eater. He does eat cheese, kefir, and grains. Plus carrots, bananas, and pineapple. When he was three HE DECIDED (saw another kid eating this) to eat Mac and Cheese (essentially butter and noodles–go figure, and it didn’t make him any healthier or any less selective) and that is all he wants to eat. Low iron. Low Vit. D levels. And I would have to force him to eat meat and he wouldn’t eat it. He just gags on meat. He’s been in OT-based food therapy on and off for the past 2.5 years. I finally just quit that because I couldn’t bear to see our OT forcing him/bribing him to eat meat. I blogged about this on my blog at http://motherimperfect.wordpress.com/2014/01/19/upon-awaking-i-realize-im-done/
and then another mom and blogger commented on this post. She blogs at http://mealtimehostage.wordpress.com. Lots of what she has to say makes good sense. I am just sort of confused about whether my own personal obsession with food (first vegetarian, then vegan, then Paleo–my diet has never been easy and never mainstream) somehow works against my sons feeding issues. For now, I continue to make him his daily mac and cheese and watch his growth slip off the charts. Oh, I might add that I struggled from an eating disorder (first anorexia, then bulimia) in high school and college. Part of my therapists cognitive therapy with me had to do with de-programming all of my food rules. Basically, in my twenties I no longer binged. I just simply became an unhealthy vegetarian who at lots of sugar whenever she wanted. Sometimes my dinner was a can of 7-Up and a small bag of M&Ms. I often ate apple pie for breakfast. I could have cared less about nutrient density. And I lost all sorts of weight eating this way (weighed 110 for 10 years straight with no fluctuation). But it caught up with me in my thirties. I am convinced that the autoimmune began back then (so much joint pain) but I was able to mask it by becoming vegan, cutting out sugar and eating lots and lots of veggies. Still, post-pregnancy # 3, I began eating sugar again and last year (in my early 40s) the auto immune bottom fell out–notably this happened after I gave up gluten to help with the reemerging joint pain. Now, I sort of feel like I am back to all of these strict food rules. And I hope it doesn’t explode into an eating disorder. Long comment, but I add this last little bit because I believe that Mealtime Hostage’s take is that food rules destroy. To some extent, she’s right. But eating whatever I want is destroying my body and so I find it hard to walk the line between a restrictive diet and ever-looming eating disorder and dealing with a 4-year old who has a selective eating disorder.

Wow, I totally understand your perspective about being health conscious and waffling between all of the various “healthy” diets and trying to keep kids healthy, while not driving anyone crazy in the meanwhile It’s definitely a dance.

I am the 2-option mom: take it or leave it. Sometimes I wonder if I will cause issues because of it. Each family has to do what works for them. After having 2 kids over the other night who expected me to cater to them and when it wasn’t done “correctly,” refusing to eat what I prepared for them, I was glad I taught my son to eat what’s in front of him. He will graciously eat what is put in front of him at anyone’s house (he will not necessarily eat all of it) but he will be polite about it and not complain. (Of course, at home he’ll let me hear it but I am grateful for the manners he has.)

I was never restricted and grew up on a farm where my mom made awesome homemade meals three times a day. I still went nuts with the junk in my 20’s and am paying for it in my 30’s. I see what you are doing though. One of my children would get it and strive for healthier foods, the other would eat KD and freezies daily. Needless to say, he has to have some of his dinner daily even if he claims he doesn’t like it.

I have a very picky eater because of his special needs. I understand the catering to your kids though. I don’t think it’s a bad idea. For one thing, I want my kid to eat. We don’t have much of a schedule around here anyway, so if he will eat something, I will give it to him. I do make him eat a meal before he gets a treat though. It works well. Whatever you can do to get your kids to eat!

I grew up also being forced to eat what was on my plate or go hungry and I never developed any problems related to food, I think it’s a personality thing if you go on to develop issues, not saying it’s a ‘weak’ thing just everyone is affected differently. The problem with this letting kids choose is the next generation have some even more serious issues – I work with a lot of younger people and they seem to think they can also pick and choose what work they do or that we’re extremely privleged for them to have even turned up for work. None of them are grateful for anything. How about teaching kids just to be grateful to even have food to eat as there are millions in the world that don’t. And I certainly won’t be catering to my kids friends if they don’t like what I’ve cooked, will this be the end of the sleepover if kids go home complaining of hunger because they had no chocolate at my house?

This post hits it right on the nail. I worked for a nutrition program where we used the separation of duties when feeding young children- they decide if and how much to eat, I decide what and what time with an inclusion of a safe food and other strategies for good eating / feeding behavior. I must say that as parents, my husband and I feel like this strategy has worked for us as we have kids who are pretty good eaters. They all have foods they’ve not liked and foods they really enjoy but we’ve avoided ‘pickiness’ and ‘food jags’ for the most part. Now it’s just a matter of continuing to give them information as they grow into adulthood and make more and more food choices on their own.

Great perspective! My family is not eating paleo, but we have decided that now is not the time (LO is 2 1/2 yrs old) to fight over food. We could create a picky eater if we do. She is encouraged to try things, but not forced to eat what she won’t try. Perhaps, when she is older and we can have conversations about food, this will change 🙂 Most importantly, each family has to “pick their battles” – know your children & do what u think is best for them.
I have also had a very unhealthy relationship with food/junk food. I do not want to be party to creating this in my children!
Thanks for sharing!

Wow, this is a great idea. I too, have a daughter that to this day has a hard time gaining weight. My husband and I appreciate the idea of a paleo lifestyle. We do find it hard though to get our two little girls on board with it. My hope as we are trying to conceive our third and final child, is that by the time Junior comes around we will be back up to speed with at least an 80/20 paleo lifestyle. That being said, do you have any other advice on transitioning children to the paleo way of life? I like the idea of a “safe” food at each meal, but any other input would be greatly appreciated. Thank you and thank you for this article, it makes me feel better about my mothering techniques, knowing that I am not the only one that does this.

I don’t have time or energy to make more than 1 meal. 🙁 I don’t make my son eat everything, but he does have to have at least 1 bite of the veggies (sometimes he surprises me and eats all of them), and eat half of the meat I serve him. He is gluten free and dairy free, and if I let him, all he would want to eat is “Fake butter” bread. (Vegan butter substitute with GF bread). He also gets a fruit with dinner, and he gets to pick which one he wants (he always eats it). He is almost 4. Most of the time, he does ok. I do make food with things I know he doesn’t like, but I am teaching him to pick out the things he does like and eat that part of it. For instance we did roasted cauliflower and browned beef with onions for dinner last night. He also got a GF tortilla for his, and some applesauce. He ate the tortilla and applesauce (of course), doesn’t like onions, so I told him to push those aside and eat the meat that was left over. I only asked him to eat half of the meat, but he ended up eating it all. And even though he only had to have one bite of cauliflower, he ate 3.

We have a “try 3 bites” rule in our house. Basically, our child has to try 3 bites of each item on his plate before telling me he doesn’t like them. This has to happen every single time he eats, even if it’s an item of food he’s tried before that he says he doesn’t like. We do it this way because peoples tastes change, so what he didn’t like before, he may like now. This has been the case with caesar salad, sweet potato mash, and brussel sprouts. If he doesn’t like the items after his 3 bites, than he isn’t forced to eat anything else for supper…but he will have at least eaten about 1/3 of the food on his plate by trying the 3 bites, which will get him through to his bedtime snack which is usually something involving protein and fruit. I don’t like the idea of allowing my child to go to bed hungry, so I will never make him sit in front of his plate at the table until it is empty. I believe that is the way to create eating disorders and unhealthy relationships with food.

I grew up in a home where mom cooked 3 meals a day, but you ate what she cooked or went without. I am actually a pretty adventurous eater now, will try anything. I do the same thing at home now. I am Paleo-ish. I do still eat rice or organic corn at times and will do dairy products, though I don’t drink milk. It’s been a compromise, as my DH and 13 year old son are the skinny fat men, and I have not been able to change that in the past two years. If I don’t have something they want, DH will get in the car and go get it. So. That said, usually they will eat what I make, though they do go get ice cream and chips after dinner, or hot dogs on $.99 buns (horror). I will not be a short order cook- I work full time and then some, so if they want it, they have to fix it after dinner.

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