Dietitians and nutrition educators who work with families guide parents to avoid food fights. We stress that “eat your peas or you’re grounded” type ultimatums are rarely the right response to a vegetable strike. Negative associations with mealtime in early childhood can lead to bigger problems down the road. Family time at the table is best kept positive, with encouragement to try new foods or flavors, but an “okay, maybe next time” when even a no-thank you helping is adamantly refused.
That said, you are not, nor should you be, a short-order cook, and your kitchen is not a restaurant. All parents, of course, want their kids to eat, so how do you find your footing when you’ve spent an hour creating a fabulous well-balanced lean protein, whole grain, vegetable-rich supper only to be met with a frown and request for buttered noodles?
For most of my life I’ve had little tolerance for picky eaters over the age of twelve. I mean seriously, even if it is not your favorite, whatever, it’s food, just eat it. Next meal you can have something tastier. And then I married a picky eater. OY! I won’t post the full list of foods my husband avoids so as not to embarrass him, but I assure you, it is long enough to be annoying. Sometimes I have that feeling of a frustrated parent and want to tell him to either eat what I’ve made or go to his room sans supper. But, we learned early on in our relationship that food is not worth fighting about – he is an adult and to his credit has tried many foods. At this point in his life, his tastes are not changing. Instead, I’ve made little tweaks to the way I cook so I can still enjoy what I like without alienating him from the meal.
The solution I have found will work for any family cooks who face a range of food aversions. Deconstructed cooking has helped to maintain mealtime calm. The more a dish is deconstructed, the easier it is to please everyone and avoid the dreaded food fight.
Some meals are easier than others: tacos, burritos, fajitas for instance are easy to serve as individual components. Seasoned chicken cooked in one pan, peppers and onions in another, an oven-warmed stack of corn tortillas, and separate bowls of beans, rice, salsa, cheese, avocado, cilantro, and lettuce make it easy for the vegetarians, the lactose intolerant, and the tomato adverse to each have a healthy, happy meal without any fuss. It dirties an extra pan or two, and thinking through recipes ahead to figure out how to separate components takes a few minutes, but if leaving a sauce or strong ingredient on the side or skipping a mixing step will keep the family peace then I, for one, am all for it.
Soups and casseroles are more challenging, but with a little creativity can usually be adjusted, and the “offending” ingredient added later at the table by those who eat everything (high five to my enthusiastic eaters!).
Back to the parents of those buttered noodles ONLY kids: Hang in there. Keep making and offering other delicious dishes, and set an example by dining together at the table. If the kids (or, ahem your husband) chooses to just eat the plain version of the main entrée sans sauce and seasoning, don’t be offended. Hey, more for you! And, everyone gets sick of buttered noodles eventually (right?).