Our Eating Lives

Mean Parent Confessions: My Kids Eat What I Serve Or They Don’t Eat

Our Eating Lives features stories about how food, cooking, and eating have shaped who we are and how we live.
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What I’m about to say will remove me from the Hip Parent Club and place me firmly in the Old-Fashioned Parent Club along with dads who wear khaki shorts with white socks and sneakers and moms who require their children to say “yes, ma’am,” so prepare yourself to throw stones my way: my children eat what I prepare, or they don’t eat anything.

My reasons for this, like everything having to do with parenting, are personal: I don’t have the energy or the time to be a short order cook in my own home. I don’t want my kids to think they can customize the world to their liking by having a tantrum when something happens to not suit their whims. I don’t want them to eat only bread and cheese and bread and cheese (which is exactly what would happen if I let them pick their meals). Admittedly, there’s also a bit of My Parents Never Made More Than One Meal And I Had To Eat What Was In Front Of Me And I Turned Out Alright, Dammit, with a side of Because I’m The Parent And I Said So.

All those reasons play a big role in my mean mommyhood, but there’s also this big one: there is very little on this Earth that I find more irritating than a grown-up human being who is as picky as a child. Not just someone who is picky, but has high levels of pickiness combined with the demanding entitlement of a toddler. Being as picky as a child means someone’s gumming up the works at a restaurant, asking fifty million unnecessary questions about the chicken breast they want and making all those substitutions, dear Lord you are not in When Harry Met Sally. Being as picky as a child means that you’re That Person at the dinner party making the host run ragged trying to accommodate how you just don’t eat this or that and can’t be bothered to eat around it (pickiness in the face of someone who is literally and figuratively serving you being the height of rudeness to my Southern sensibilities).

Being as picky as a child–and I don’t mean just not liking some things and carrying on about your business, I’m talking pickiness that negatively affects other people–shows a weird dearth of open-mindedness, an “I like what I like and that’s all that I like” nose-in-the-air-tude that implies a lack of culinary adventuresomeness (similar to, ya know, a toddler’s).

doctor who gif

That got a bit out of hand.

MOVING ON. So, I place a really high value on raising my kids to not be a pain in the ass when taking in other people’s hospitality. To that end, dinner goes like this: I make a thing and serve the thing. The children are required to take one bite of the thing (I find this to be really important, especially since mine are young enough that any new food [which, when you're three, is still probably most of the foods] is frightening).* If they do not like the thing, they are free to get down and go on their merry way. There’s no after-dinner snacking because you’re hungry because you decided not to eat the thing. There’s no negotiation, there’s no mommy making other things.**

The results so far: who knows? They’re only three, they don’t know what they like. They’ll eat beans and quinoa and peas and goat cheese with no complaint, but won’t eat any sort of leafy green, red peppers, eggs that aren’t cooked the “right” way, chicken nuggets (what kid doesn’t like…whatever), or really any meat. They’ll chew on a raw onion with wild joy, then randomly decide that grapes are the Devil’s eyeballs. When they’re older and have developed more firm ideas about actually not liking something (as opposed to just trying and failing to exert their will, toddler-style, in any way they can), I’ll take those ideas into consideration when I make a meal.

But the best result of my mean-meanness is this: I only cook once per night and then I sit down on the couch, amen and hallelujah. And I hope I hope I hope that maybe it will mean that someday, when their adventures take them to the table of a stranger who is serving something unfamiliar, they’ll eat it with an open mind and an of-course-I’ll-have-some grateful attitude that they’ll owe JUST THE TEENIEST TINIEST BIT to their parents.

*The American Psychological Association and the USDA say it can take a kid nine to twelve times to accept a new food, which is why I always require them to take at least one bite.

**Since this is the internet and parenting is second only to politics in the rage it induces in the comments, let me go ahead and say these few things before someone else does: no, my children are not starving or even mildly unhealthy. No, refusing to cook separate meals for my children is not child abuse. No, I don’t think this is the only way to create adventurous eaters- it’s just what works for us right now. And no, I’m not talking about children/people who have allergies or any other medical or ethical dietary restrictions. Carry on.




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  • Sharon Pelletier

    My mother had the same policy. I vividly remember being so, so hungry at dinner because I had refused to eat my breakfast oatmeal at breakfast or when it was represented to me at lunch. I don’t think she cared about making us adventurous eaters as much as about saving time and not giving in to our genetic stubbornness – she was budget-cooking for seven kids, so there wasn’t much goat cheese or truffle oil going into her recipes. But I had to slowly grow out of hating relatively normal things like tomatoes, mushrooms, onions, which were in pretty much every casserole she dished up. And I’m a pretty adventurous eater now, so I don’t think that all that reheated oatmeal did any lasting damage to my psyche.

    But I will say (and apologies if this is a Food Riot argument that I’ve already missed) that I think kids are absolutely watching the way we eat. A lot of my food/health/weight issues today I can cheerfully blame on the food-as-treat / food-as-comfort mindset that I grew up with. Feeding our anxiety, boredom, etc. is pretty much the only emotional coping mechanism we were taught (other than good ol’ Protestant stocisim). I don’t remember portion control ever being discussed beyond even splitting, which had the opposite effect: I wanted to eat as much and as fast as possible to make sure I got seconds and thirds before my brothers did.

    • Amanda Nelson

      Oh I have SO MANY thoughts about not using food as an emotional crutch or as a solution to boredom. It’s difficult with toddlers (especially twins who aren’t great at verbalizing yet) when they’re frustrated and you KNOW KNOW KNOW you could just give them a snack to make them be quiet. I have to really focus to not do that, to teach them other ways to calm themselves down. But that’s not a crutch I want to hoist upon them.

      • Sharon Pelletier

        They will thank you someday. (Don’t even get me started on the snacking-reading co-dependence…Nothing wrong with me is my fault, hooray!)

    • Insatiable Booksluts

      Oh, I had this, too. My parents and grandmother handed out junk food like it was love from the time I was a baby. The only time the issue of moderation came up was in a demeaning tone, after I’d gained a ton of weight (well, DUH)–but then the same behaviors would continue with them, so they could continue with me, too.

  • locomotivesandroses

    The rule we had growing up was to eat/try the one meal my mother made, or we could have cereal. And we didn’t have “kid cereal” in my house. No negotiations. Kids won’t starve themselves.

  • Samantha Owens

    It’s weird, because my parents were never forceful about making me eat what I didn’t want. I grew up not liking several things, and now, the only things I don’t like are beans (which was somewhat of my one tried to force to me to eat food), and tomatoes, which is just not raw, and I think is partly because of oral allergy syndrome. I’ve tried raw heirlooms with salt on them and liked them, but my whole mouth was raw and itchy afterward and so I just stay away from them in general. Plus, they make sandwiches soggy.

    The most interesting thing to me, though, is I am a much more adventurous eater than my parents ever have been. We were part of a religion for a long time where we didn’t eat seafood or pork, and although now that my parents are no longer part of it they eat pork again, but still don’t touch seafood. I love shrimp and salmon the most, and they both look at me with eyebrows raised, but they’re happy I’m not afraid to try things, I suppose. Plus, when you live in the Napa Valley, you can’t really NOT try things. It’s a culinary mecca.

    • Amanda Nelson

      I also have issues with raw tomatoes, but only because they are Satan’s soggy minions.

      • Samantha Owens

        Yeah, texture was always a factor. Blech.

      • snarkygeek

        Me too, but I learned over the years I am just very particular about how they look. Mostly, raw tomatoes at my parents house are never appealing, but most of the time I will gladly put them on a sandwich or burger at a restaurant.

  • Loni

    This is exactly what I do. The only thing I’m certain that my daughter (4 1/2) doesn’t like is beef tortellini. Other than that, they have to try everything. Mommy only cooks once.

  • snarkygeek

    I’m glad you wrote this because I was thinking about this the other day. I don’t have kids… yet, but when I do I’m pretty much going to do the same thing. My parents and grandparents did it with me, and I’m glad they did because nowadays I am surrounded by several picky eaters at the office, and I just can’t stand their attitude, even about trying new things just once!

    • Insatiable Booksluts

      Pretty much this. Amanda’s plan is basically exactly what I want to do when I have kids.

  • Insatiable Booksluts

    I had to shake my head because I *KNOW* that the hysterical people who will think you’re doing wrong by your kids, even despite the disclaimer, are out there. Who will react as though you’re only serving your kids liver and gruel despite knowing that they won’t eat it, SO TAKE THAT, OFFSPRING! When, to me, it seems perfectly reasonable; you’re not a restaurant, they’re not paying customers, and this is the time that they need to learn to like different kinds of foods so that they don’t grow up being That Person who is suspicious of all vegetables and will only eat chicken with a mountain of melted cheese layered over it.

    • Amanda Nelson

      PRE-cisely. The world is shitty enough, there’s solace and fun to be had in being adventurous when it comes to food and I can’t stop wars or make other people not be assholes to them but I *can* make sure they enjoy food. *flounces*

  • http://theterribledesire.blogspot.com/ MegsGranger

    I, too, have little patience for picky adults. And I go so far out of my way not to BE a picky adult that I have, on more than one occasion, politely nibbled a meat thing that my mother-in-law made because she cannot seem to retain the knowledge that I’ve been a vegetarian since I was 8 years old. And perhaps that’s going beyond the call of duty, but I was raised in the South dammit.

    So you’ll hear no criticisms from me, madame. Well done and proceed as you will.

    • Amanda Nelson

      I HAVE ALSO DONE THAT. Very nice church people had me to dinner and made me a lovely mango chicken thing when I had been a vegetarian for like five years? So I ate all the mangos and maybe took a little bite of the chicken and just didn’t say anything because they took the time to marinate it and grill it and UGH, manners.

    • Samantha Owens

      I try not to be rude, too. Most people think it’s weird that I don’t like beans, of all things. My boyfriend’s mom made a casserole that had TONS of them in it. I mean tons. It smelled good otherwise, so I tried my best, but I felt SO bad that I could. not. finish it. Most of the time, it’s not a problem though. His brother also doesn’t like tomatoes (like me), so that’s never a problem. :P

  • Astone

    This strategy worked with my boyfriend-now-husband as well. His mom is a pain-in-the-rear picky eater and raised all 3 kids to be the same, if not worse. When I met him, my husband would not go near a vegetable (besides corn and raw carrots) and cheese and god-forbid, touching food. It really became a problem when I made lasagna and there was a thin layer of spinach in it. He asked what it was, I told him and then he spit it out and refused to eat any more. I cried. He finished it, making faces the whole time.
    We made a new rule that when I cooked, he had to try at least one bite of everything. Then, if he didn’t like it, there’s peanut butter and bread and he can make his own sandwich. A several years later, he buys spinach, kale, brussels sprouts, broccoli, and many other vegetables himself. We subscribe to a CSA and he eats random veggies from it that we have never heard of. He has even chastised his mom for being a “pathetic picky eater”.
    I say more power to you! It always amazes me when people tell me the list of things they don’t like. I have stuff I don’t like as well (onions) but if they are in something someone makes or serves, I make every effort to eat it, or eat around it. Sometimes you gotta suck it up.

  • OmarSultan

    I raised my son with the same one-bite rule. When he was a toddler, I was a single dad had neither time nor energy to cook two meals for two people. I did employ a carrot–eat something new and get a star, collect 5 stars and trade them in for something (toy, video, etc). Happy to say he is an adventurous teenager who has tried (and mostly liked) everything from uni to alligator gumbo to sweetbreads.

  • moimemoi

    I’m the picky eater at the restaurant you speak of. I ask a lot of questions and it’s because I have allergies. Yes, I ask a lot and have my food altered BUT I tip 40% my servers like me.

    In regards to my children we eat home a lot and they eat what they are given. They are not picky and should eat what we all eat to get them exposed to foods they might find “gross” or “disgusting”. 9 out of 10 times they eat it all. I cook very clean too. A lot from scratch because of my allergies.

    It’s not best to judge others who dine out and ask questions. You never know why and you never know if they tip well. Don’t assume.

    • Amanda Nelson

      Oh I don’t care if people at *other tables* are doing it, I only care when people I’m out with (acquaintances at someone else’s birthday party, for example) are doing it so everyone else in our party is held up. How would I even know what someone at another table is ordering? Unless I start eavesdropping… *considers*

      • moimemoi

        What if we were at a dinner together, you had just meg me through friends, and I was the one at the table? You wouldn’t know why and you’d consider me picky. It’s just the point we don’t know why others do what they do and it’s best to not pass judgment. I’m anti red meat and I’ve been known to pass on food at dinner parties. People understand. If they don’t they’re too sensitive. Not everyone is the same in regards to food. I’m not about catering to alls needs and wants but if something is served I can’t or won’t eat I eat all the other food offered.

        • Amanda Nelson

          Like I said in the post, it’s not being picky that’s irritating, it’s being picky with the combined attitude of entitlement and disregard for the people around you. People *should* understand if you have allergies, but at the same time, you’re not being rude or demanding about it. I’m specifically talking about people who are rude and demanding, in the same way that children can be, and it doesn’t sound like that’s you.

  • Scott Barker
  • Nanny

    I just came across this article through Facebook and let me tell you, it overjoys me to see that there are still mothers out there who are disciplining and trying to keep the next generation from being so entitled. I’ve been a nanny for the past eight years (I don’t have any kids of my own just yet) and I have become so angry over the way moms will let themselves become to stressed or drop every single thing just because their kids are throwing a huge fit because they want such and such toy or demand some kind of food THAT second or went to go to a certain place. Literally the moms give in constantly and it drives me crazy. Because of this I’ve had to quit two different families because I refuse to be treated that way and completely disrespected by children all day and for the mother to tell me it’s just “a part of growing up”. I watched her cook FOUR different meals every night after working her exhausting full time job every day just because her kids demanded separate things and would melt down all through dinner if it wasn’t exactly perfect. Did she send them to their rooms or discipline them? No, she would sit there and run around doing everything they demanded.
    Kudos to you for cooking one meal, my mom did the exact same thing and I wish everyone else in this day and age would do.
    Sorry for my rant, it’s just nice to know there are still moms out there who are trying to better the next generation and not make it unbearable to be around kids.

  • LatinGringas
  • shannonfla

    So not only did I grow up eating what my mom made (kids food? What’s that?), my mother does not eat vegetables. We tried calling her out on it a few times but got the old “I’m an adult and I eat what I eat” smack down. Ironically, I love most vegetables and I am a very adventurous eater! Beef/pig cheeks, crickets and mealworms (science museum employee during Bug Week), alligator (not very adventurous when you live in south FL) and looking forward to eating more food around the world. Except for haggis. NO!

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  • Ladylisa60

    What is wrong with kids saying yes ma’am as well, we give our kids there own way to often, and manners are just seen as mean? I can’t even see why parents would think eat this or eat nothing is mean its life and I can see the future Justin Bieber s in the making by all these other parents making their children think they are entitled, and I am sure those parents don’t stop there

    • Amanda Nelson

      Oh nothing, I make mine say yes ma’am and yes sir, too, but that’s a whole other post for a whole other website.

  • Rachel Earnest

    We’re going to try to institute this plan with our 8 yo son when he comes back from his mother’s house on Sunday. Eating has always been an issue and we have gone back and forth several times with different sets of rules or with us as short order cooks trying to figure out the best way for our family that will both keep us from going crazy and encourage him to eat new things. When we’ve tried this in the past, I’ve seen him sit at the table for hours with the threat of that dinner for breakfast hanging over his head just because he won’t try a different color of cheese. So, I was wondering if you have any tips for us this time around and if you guys (anyone who does this w their kids) would tell me what you do if they won’t try something?

  • KazaD

    Mine very, very rarely doesn’t eat something I’ve cooked – on those rare occasions where she simply can’t or won’t eat the main meal, she gets a choice of a sandwich or pot noodles (I know, I know, but we add healthy things to it) both of which, now that she is older, she has to make herself. I’ve never allowed her to get away with ‘I don’t like it’ when she hasn’t even tried it. If she tries it and honestly doesn’t like it, she gets the sandwich or pot noodles. Having said that, mine will pretty much eat anything, except kid meals, which she only ever tired once or twice – can’t say I blame her for not liking those!