When she was little, her doctor gave me the single best piece of parenting advice I’ve ever gotten.
By all accounts my 7-year-old daughter should be a terribly picky eater. She’s a sensitive girl who shows all the signs of being a high-taster: She finds black pepper spicy, prefers bland foods, and will often complain of smells that I can barely detect. Some of her favorite foods include oatmeal, yogurt, mac and cheese (with nothing on it), and fresh fruit. The first time she had a sip of soda she said “Ew. it burns,” and didn’t go back.
And yet, spicy food aside, she’s a perfectly healthy and adventurous eater who also enjoys fresh vegetables, seafood, and dishes from far-flung places (like tripe tacos), and sushi. How did this happen?
Both my wife and I love to cook. We’re not professionals, but it’s a thing that we enjoy doing together, and so when we had our first child, making sure that she didn’t become a picky eater was important to us. When my daughter was young, we lived in Brooklyn, and when she was old enough to start eating, I raised the issue with her doctor: “How do we make sure that she doesn’t become a ‘hot dogs and chicken nuggets only’ kid?”
Her pediatrician gave me the single best piece of parenting advice I’ve ever gotten. It was part of the philosophy of the pediatric clinic’s founder, Michel Cohen, who also wrote it down in this book: “You choose what your daughter eats,” she said. “Let her choose how much.”
Too often, the doctor explained, we focus on making sure that our kids get enough to eat. We bend over backward trying to get them to clean their plates. We make their favorite foods—or worse, make two different dinners, one for us, and one just for them—and dread the moment that they turn up their noses and ask if they can go play, as it means that we’ve failed in our basic duty to feed our kids.
But the thing is, that has two different, and very bad effects. On the one hand, it tells them that they don’t know when they are hungry or full. If you’re constantly enjoining them to finish a plate of food, you’re asking them to distrust their own feelings of hunger or fullness. And on the other hand, it teaches them that if they push away the plate of green beans, you might break down and heat up some of those chicken fingers they prefer in a desperate attempt to get them to eat something.
“So relax,” our doctor said. “Make whatever you’re going to make for a meal, and give her some. If she doesn’t eat it, that’s fine—but don’t give her any other options. At the next meal, she’ll likely be hungry enough to eat.”
So we did this. And it wasn’t easy. The first time I put down a plate of food that she didn’t like (it was lentil soup) she pushed it away. I shrugged, and took it off the table, and she began to cry. So I put it back, and she cried harder.
She cried, and cried, but she refused to eat it. And I was sure that I was a terrible parent. But I remained steadfast. At the next meal, I gave her the same thing—leftovers. And you know what? She ate every bite.
Since then, we’ve been consistent. We make the food, and she eats what she wants, and tells us when she’s done. I don’t make a big deal out of it if she doesn’t eat anything, but she doesn’t get snacks after unless she’s eaten most of it.
And now, six years later, it’s not really a big deal. There’s stuff she loves that’s not super good for her, of course. But about 90 percent of the time she’s eating healthy foods, and she’s constantly surprising me by what she’s willing to try. And I don’t worry at all if she doesn’t finish a plate—she will the next time.