A few weeks ago, I was talking to a neighbor with three kids under 4. (Insert shudder and grimace here.) She's a stay-at-home mom, feeling a bit isolated, and doesn't seem to be what my friend Nina calls a "natural mother." You know what I mean: Some moms seem to just "get" this parenting thing, and some seem to struggle a bit more. She's also very much a "book mom", meaning she usually consults parenting books rather than going with her instincts. (Don't get me wrong, I have all KINDS of parenting books. I just think that Mommy Instinct trumps so-called Expert Advice nine times out of ten.) She seems to panic about a number of issues that, to me, are fairly straight-forward.
Her latest crisis? Feeding her kids. She's changed the baby's formula three times in as many months. Her toddler won't eat vegetables, so she's bribing him with candy - one Skittle for each bite of vegetable. Her preschooler insists on eating only white foods, so she's making a lot of white pasta and mashed potatoes. And she's exhausted, worried, and sick of cooking three different dinners every night. She's resorted to begging her kids to "please, please just eat that for Mommy!" So, over a cup of coffee in my kitchen, she asked me how I handle dinner in my house. I'm not one to offer unsolicited advice, but hey, since she asked, Slacker Mom gave her an earful.
Now, keep in mind, one of my kids has severe food allergies (no eggs, milk, or tree nuts) and the other is a vegetarian (until I put chicken fries on the table). So I do have legitimate reasons for making a couple of different meal options each night. But...I don't. Dinner is what dinner is. I mean, I'm not cruel; if we're having pizza, I'll make one without cheese for my youngest. But she still eats pizza. I've been known to pick all the blueberries out of the blueberry yogurt ("I don't like the bits, Mommy!") And if I've made pot roast, my older daughter is free to grab a string cheese as a substitute protein. But this isn't a restaurant, and Slacker Mom's not a short-order cook. If you're hungry, you'll eat your dinner. And if you don't eat it, it will be waiting for you in the refrigerator, all wrapped up in shiny foil, so that when you complain about being starving in a half hour, I can pull it out, put it on the table, and say, "Here you go!" in my sweetest June Cleaver voice. Eat it, don't eat it, but that's all there is.
Unsurprisingly, my neighbor was appalled that I would offer my kids cold, already-rejected leftovers. "What if they don't eat at all? Don't you worry about nutrition?" she wanted to know. Uh, no, because I firmly believe that an otherwise-healthy child will NOT starve herself. Kids are the ultimate in sensible eaters: They eat when they're hungry, and they stop when they're full. And they'll learn to appreciate a wide variety of foods, the work that goes into creating a balanced meal, and the simple lesson of being thankful for what you've got on your plate. Yes, kids have their own tastes, but let's get real: My kids would eat donuts morning, noon, and night if I let them. Most kids don't ask for brown rice, grilled chicken, and steamed broccoli instead of birthday cake. Duh. But mine will eat it if that's what's there. (And, to be honest, you only have to do the foil-wrapped cold pasta thing once or twice before they get the message. They're not stupid.)
But Slacker Mom wasn't done yet. When she asked me about forcing the kids to eat foods that they "need" to eat, like vegetables, I gave her the old "you can't make them eat, sleep, or poop" line. And if you've got a strong-willed (or, without the euphemism, stubborn as a mule) child like I do, no amount of threats or bribes will make her finish her broccoli anyway. (My husband once went head-to-head with our youngest, telling her she couldn't get up from the table until she ate her brocoli. She sat in her booster seat for nearly an hour before I pulled rank and put her down for a nap. She was 14 months old.) Now, I don't do the Clean Plate Club of my grandparents' generation, and I never insist that the kids finish anything on their plates. But they must at least try everything that I serve them. Every. Single. Thing. I'm not going to lie to you - sometimes they gag and glare at me like I've tried to poison them. Sometimes they'll surprise themselves by liking something that "looks gross and smells grosser." But they'll try anything. Octopus, turnips, carambola, you name it. They'll try anything - because they have the "spit or swallow" option. If they don't like it, they are free to spit it into a napkin and throw it out. There is no forced swallowing, because we all know what that leads to - projectile vomiting and a reluctance to try anything new. Even my youngest, who still hates broccoli, tastes it twice a week - and promptly spits it out and says, "Nope! Maybe next week!"
As Mommy Anxieties go, few things seem to ratchet up the stress level like issues of feeding. It starts at birth and continues on into the toddler years. Breast or bottle? Hypoallergenic formula or good old Similac? BPA-free glass bottles or whatever your sister gave you when she weaned her kids five years ago? When to start solids, when to start table foods, when to let them start milk products - the rules are constantly changing. What I was told with my oldest is often different from what my sister is being told for her new baby. And what works for one kid might not work for the next.
But as they get older, they start to feed themselves, and we lose all control over what goes in (and what comes out, but that's another story altogether). You just can't force feed them. Some children are naturally more compliant, like my firstborn, who pretty much eats and does anything I ask of her. And some children, like my youngest and my niece, have minds of their own - which is a good thing as an adolescent, but infuriating when you want them to just eat a few green beans, dammit!
Meanwhile, don't think for one single second that our kids don't see our stress. Ever read the book Eat Your Peas? The mother wants her daughter to eat her peas so badly that she offers her dessert, a later bedtime, trips to the amusement park, and other increasingly ridiculous bribes. It's hilarious, and very tongue-in-cheek, but kids love it. They get it. They see the stakes, and they know how to work it. My niece lived on breakfast smoothies made with ice cream for weeks, because she'd refuse anything else. She just wasn't big on breakfast. My sister, desperate to get everyone out the door on time each morning, worried about her getting at least some calories and protein before daycare, so ice cream smoothies it was. My kids, upon hearing about their cousin's new breakfast routine, decided to go on breakfast strike. Slacker Mom let them go off to school hungry for a few days. Strike over, Mom victorious, Cheerios it is.
Slacker Mom Says...take the easy way out and just cook one meal already! There is nothing wrong with saying, "THIS is what's for dinner tonight. Take it or leave it." Unless it's their birthday, my kids don't get to choose what's on the menu - but they can choose whether or not to eat it. Maybe the "reward" for eating a good dinner is dessert. Maybe the compromise is "if you don't like dinner, you can eat cold cereal." Whatever works for you. The power struggle over dinner is not so much about the food, anyway; it's about control. Take away the power struggle, and kids will stop thinking it's a high stakes game, a way to assert their growing independence and take control over their lives. If they think we care REALLY A LOT, if they think our happiness is tied up in what or how much they eat, they'll push the boundaries and make an issue out of it. Give them control over their plates, and they're less likely to try to wrench control away from us.