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Food Fights

September 13, 2013

My Boring-Ass Life

Usually when you hear the words “food fight,” your mind instantly imagines a large gathering of people, probably in a cafeteria of some kind, gleefully throwing food at each other. It’s a fun and exciting scene, colourful and bright. When I think of the words “food fight I imagine my dinner table on certain nights; nights when I make certain foods that my son absolutely hates and will not eat.

When I was growing up, I was given food and I ate it. Attempts to not eat it were met with anger and frustration from my parents, mostly my dad, and I was made to sit there until I either ate it or they got fed up and let me go a long while later. There’s a picture in an album at my mom’s of me asleep at the table with an untouched bowl of chili in front of me. It’s adorable, but at the same time it makes a powerful point about my parent’s expectations for us around food. They grew up in a different time, and their parents knew what real hunger was thanks to the Great Depression. We’ve had a few lean times too, more than I’d care to admit, and sometimes I find myself falling into the same patterns as my parents when Gabe doesn’t want to eat what is put down in front of him.

Depression-era breadline courtesy of

He will. not. eat. chili or stew, even if he helps make it. I’m not the world’s best cook by any stretch of the imagination (my cooking is most often described as “fine” by my husband), but it’s not bad. Gabe should eat. But he wont. He “doesn’t like it,” and aside from telling me he doesn’t like some of the key ingredients, there’s no other reason. The one thing I figure is he’s put off by the mixed nature of those dishes, and/or maybe their textures. If we try to force him to eat by making him sit there or threaten other consequences, like early bedtime, he eventually dissolves into tears, huddling in a corner somewhere telling us we’re bad parents and we’re hurting his feelings (Gabe will be 7 in two weeks). Ryan gets frustrated and angry because money is tight and we literally don’t have the luxury of making special food for Gabe. I’m also frustrated, but I’m torn between my upbringing and respecting what he says and feels. The Ellen Satter Division of Responsibility says “Parents do the what, when and where of feeding, children do the how much and whether of eating.” I’m a big fan of this mode of thinking and I try to follow it as best I can so my kids don’t end up with a negative relationship with food but it doesn’t always work.

Any picky eaters in your house? Are you a picky eater? I’m open to constructive criticism and advice! Have a wonderful weekend.

19 Comments leave one →
  1. September 13, 2013 9:32 am

    going hungry for a dinner wont hurt him. dont cave and make a special meal for him. dont force him to eat it either. he wont get malnourished from a loss of one meal, and maybe there are parts of the meal (fruit, milk, the bread served with the soup or the crackers with the chili ect) he will eat.

    For my part i cook the meal, and we serve ourselves from what i have laid out in the kitchen the all eat together at the table. I have one picky eater that has really grown out of this phase by my persistence on this.

    • Elizabeth permalink
      September 13, 2013 10:23 am

      This is really good advice. Often children are not hungry but are expected to eat, as though eating is some sort of duty. Can one imagine children in a country where food is not wasted being fussy about their meals?

      When I hosted exchange students, someone’s advice was that teenagers could have three foods they refused to eat. I did this with my second exchange student since he started out trying to be fussy (not acceptable in our house), and it seemed to work well. I remembered the foods that bothered me when I was little, in particular peas and lima beans because I didn’t like their internal texture. (I love them both now, especially tiny little shell peas from our garden.)

    • Duckie permalink
      September 13, 2013 11:50 am

      I’m a mental health professional and this sort of thing is pretty much the best standard advice. Make the food available, they’ll eat it if they want or not. No pressure either way. Maybe have something basic around they will eat (bread, fruit, pb&j maybe(if old enough, they’d have to make the pb&j themselves)). Making special meals is definitely discouraged. Almost all people grow out of the phase eventually, and if they don’t there may be a good reason (instinct about an allergy, etc.).

  2. September 13, 2013 9:41 am

    In “Your Child’s Weight: Helping Without Harming,” Satter recommends putting a basket of bread and butter on the table so that even if the child won’t eat one thing, there will always be something he can have. I highly recommend that book, as it really goes into detail on her method.

    Our daughter Linny is a picky eater. She doesn’t like anything with “sauce” on it. She doesn’t like her foods mixed up. So, it can be a struggle sometimes. But we try to keep her personal preferences in mind. When we make pasta, we ask if she wants the sauce on top or on the side. It’s not a huge deal for us, but it gives her some control. She used to HATE pasta with sauce, but has come around to it. I think reducing the pressure is key. Amping up the pressure to eat undesirable food can backfire. Either it gives them negative attention, which kids still seem to enjoy, or else it over-emphasizes the importance of the food. My philosophy with these kinds of battles is “Is it worth it?” Sometimes I find that I just want my kids to do things a certain way because I”m the dad and that should be the only thing that matters. But I’ve found that when I only go to the mattresses over things that really matter or have an impact, then there’s less tension and stress in the house.

    I was a VERY picky eater as a child and my parents were constantly butting heads with me, like you said. The only thing it accomplished was fixing certain foods as “bad” for the bulk of my childhood and some of my adulthood. It was only in finding HAES that I began to re-explore some of those foods and found that I enjoyed them when prepared a certain way. It isn’t easy feeding kids without wanting to spank the tar out of them, but Satter has the best, most common sense approach out there.

    Good luck!


  3. Theresa permalink
    September 13, 2013 9:45 am

    Not much to contribute except that I like Erylin’s advice a lot.

  4. Nof permalink
    September 13, 2013 9:51 am

    I was a picky eater in childhood and remain so, though not as bad, in adulthood. I have a lot of issues with texture, but a lot of it seems to be in my head.

    I have noticed that many of the foods I continue to have strong aversions too–most notably milk and cooked vegetables–are ones that were constant fights in childhood. I will retch at a glass of milk, but have no problems once that milk is dumped over cereal or into tea or made into horchata. Steamed broccoli and raw broccoli are practically the same thing, but steamed broccoli (a battle) continues to be disgusting to me while raw broccoli (never a battle) I now love. These aversions are truly nothing to do with taste–it’s the oddest thing to taste something and acknowledge that you do enjoy it but that you also hate it and want to spit it out. Pretty sure they’re rebellious, emotional leftovers from back before I was allowed to cook for myself. I think Satter’s research touches on this phenomenon somewhere but I can’t recall.

    Another thing I have noticed is that I have to try something many times before I deem it a “good” food. I have heard this from others and Satter’s research talks about this, I think. Some people seem to be ‘cautious eaters’ or something. For example, the first time I tried both eggplant and zucchini I liked them, but could only take a bite of them. My body didn’t trust it yet (a valid evolutionary adaptation, if you think about it–it’s a new food, how does your body know it isn’t poisonous? Better to eat a bite and make sure it’s safe than eat it all and risk illness). Chili and mushrooms are now two of my favorite foods, but it took years of me only being willing to eat a spoonful or two before I truly embraced them.

    It’s definitely difficult when you can’t cook separate meals for every member of the family, but Ellyn Satter discourages that. She says rather that you should make sure there’s something at the table the child will eat–even just dinner rolls and butter, or fruit, or a vegetable–, and whether they eat the main course or not is up to them. Missing the main part of a meal won’t hurt a child, especially if they’ve got a snack coming later. Perhaps you could serve cornbread along with the chili, if your child eats that. He’ll have something to eat, and he can try the chili or not as pleases him.

    • September 13, 2013 11:23 am

      I can relate to what you say here about childhood aversions. In my case, I gagged at the sight of things like rare steak, chicken bones, turkey carcasses, etc. They looked like a dinner at Hannibal’s to me. Fortunately, my pediatrician told my parents not to sweat it, and I learned to eat around the meat. When I was 18, I went totally vegetarian, and 40 years later, I still am. I often think my aversion was meant to be for me, though I’m sure my parents who raised chickens and steers for meat had a hard time relating to it.

  5. JeninCanada permalink
    September 13, 2013 10:23 am

    Excellent advice, Erylin and Nof! We do have toast alongside the chili, or bread and butter with stew, so I know he’s eating *something* even if it’s not the main dish. Like Atchka said, sometimes that I’m The Mom is all I want to matter, but that’s not respecting Gabe. Eating part of it is better than having a fight and him eating none of it.

  6. September 13, 2013 11:16 am

    I have two verging-on-adult children who have made up their minds up to try new foods, at the ages of 21 and 18. Finally. They still have their favorites, of course, but their willingness to at least try new things makes the household less tense. I like that I can make a meal, and break bread with the entire family, but I think this was too long coming. I think they are finally figuring out that most of their peers have outgrown this behavior, and it makes them look juvenile. If I had it to do over again, I would stock just enough food for 3 – 4 days without a lot of junky alternatives in the house. And I would stick to my guns. That said, I think there are ways to give kids a little control, particularly with medley dishes. How about setting aside some of the ingredients before they are combined. Example: chili: ground beef, beans, tomatoes served separately on the plate. There’s a bit of a hassle factor, but with respect to cost and nutrition, it isn’t much different than your combined dish.

  7. September 13, 2013 1:24 pm

    At my house the rule was if you don’t eat what the family is having for dinner, you have to fix your own food. And if your picky eater is 7, that’s definitely not too young to fix simple things like a sandwich. It also has the side benefit of teaching skills that they’ll need as they grow up. With that said though, I never actually fixed my own dinner as a replacement for the family meal. Laziness won out over dislike every single time. 🙂

    Another strategy that I used when I was a nanny was to give the kids input on the dinner menu during the week. This can be “do you want stir fry tonight or chicken pot pie?” or with older ones sitting down and planning the actual week’s menu (which can lead to great discussions about nutrition).

    And sometimes kids refuse to eat something and tell you that they don’t like it when really they mean that they’re not hungry. Many kids go through phases where it feels like their stomach is a bottomless pit, and many kids also go through phases where it feels like a bird couldn’t live on the amount they’re eating.

  8. September 13, 2013 1:31 pm

    I don’t advertise or shill my own blog because its intent is to keep my writing chops well oiled while working on several memoirs I will eventually publish, but in my family, the kitchen table was a war zone. I’m including the link, to read or not, your choice.
    it is because of the dysfunction so intertwined with food, in my family, that I would not force or coerce anyone to eat anything. I would and have offered a simple and frugal alternative: a bowl of cereal, bread and butter, carrots with a kid friendly dip, like salad dressing, which the child can even get themselves while the rest of the family enjoys their meal peacefully.
    This is my dinner table story:

    • JeninCanada permalink
      September 13, 2013 9:27 pm

      I like the “Well, if you wont eat what I made, make your own” solution. I’ll give it a try next time there’s a battle brewing. 🙂 Thanks!

  9. September 13, 2013 9:11 pm

    As long as you’re sure there aren’t sensory issues involved, I agree with the advice that missing one meal is not going to hurt him.

    That said, if there might be sensory issues or texture problems, listen to him. Part of my being on the autistic spectrum is an extreme sensitivity to certain textures, to the point of expelling them, so to speak. One time I was at a family friend’s house for dinner, and she served pork and beans. I’m Jewish, so I couldn’t eat the pork, and beans are one of the textures that make me violently ill. She demanded I eat the beans before leaving the table – I was maybe 12 – and I refused and refused and refused and tried to explain my Asperger’s, until finally I ate about five beans. She looked satisfied with herself until I promptly was ill all over her tablecloth. Some foods just DO NOT COMPUTE with some people’s stomachs.

  10. Jackie permalink
    September 13, 2013 9:24 pm

    I dislike the notion that Gabe is being punished for something he cannot do. I think if a child is cowering in the corner in tears, they’re experiencing real terror. I don’t know what the answer is,

    • JeninCanada permalink
      September 14, 2013 6:26 pm

      To clarify, he’s not in ‘terror’, he’s not scared, he’s upset he’s not getting his way. He yells at us or wails because it’s just not FAIR that he has to eat what we give him.

  11. JeninCanada permalink
    September 13, 2013 9:26 pm

    Well, I’m not 100% sure it’s not a sensory thing. He IS somewhere on the autism spectrum so it’s possible that he’s just really put-off by squishy foods.

  12. September 13, 2013 10:48 pm

    I had a very abusive step dad who would make my brother and I stay at the table until we ate what was there, no mater how much we hated it. We were very poor and we were expected to eat anything that we were given (and most times we were so hungry we would). But many nights we were forced to sit and sit and sit until we “cleaned our plate” of food we couldn’t stand. The worst time was when I was about 10 or 11 my mom fixed sauerkraut, it was my first time having it, and I just couldn’t eat it. I gagged at every attempt and had to spit it out when I put it in my mouth. My gag reflexes would literally not allow me to swallow it. I don’t know if it was the sour taste or the texture or some combination of the two but I physically could not force myself to eat it.

    That bastard made me sit there until after 2 in the morning (not an exaggeration) on a school night until my mom put her foot down and told him to let me go to bed (standing up to him was something she rarely did). He said “fine”, but then smiled in a strange way. It wasn’t until the next morning when I got up that I figured out what the smile was about. There, sitting at my place at the table was the same plate of cold sauerkraut. He had put it in the fridge and then brought it out for me to eat for breakfast. While the rest of the family had their toast and cereal I had to eat last night’s sauerkraut. Somehow I managed to calm my gag reflex enough to eat 3 bites of it over the next 20 minutes, I cried the entire time. Thank goodness I was saved by needing to go to the bus stop.

    To this day I can’t eat sauerkraut and several other foods that I was forced to eat as a kid. I also developed some pretty disordered eating and a strange relationship with food. My advice to parents is – Please, even if you’re nice about it, don’t force your kids to eat stuff they don’t want. It will likely stay with them forever and might contribute to some messed up disordered eating when they are older.

  13. vesta44 permalink
    September 14, 2013 7:52 pm

    Oh man, do I ever remember food battles when I was a kid. One dish in particular that my mom made because my dad loved it was sick-making for me (and she insisted I eat at least 1/2 cup of it every time she made it). She called it breaded tomatoes (I called it shit-ass slimey tomatoes). She would take canned tomatoes, put them in a pot, add a cup of sugar, heat that up and then tear up slices of bread and add that to the mess. It was slimey and nasty tasting to me, and I gagged every time she made me eat it (and after dinner was over and I was supposed to be washing dishes, I was in the bathroom puking it all up). To this day, I refuse to have anything to do with breaded tomatoes, no matter who made them or how they made them (tomatoes in chili, goulash, and spaghetti are fine, as are raw tomatoes).

  14. September 17, 2013 12:01 am

    My dad (RIP) insisted that we have liver at least once a month. The two flavors I hate most in this world have to be liver and raw squash. I love cooked squash, but the only way I can tolerate liver is in liverwurst sausage, and that’s only once in a blue moon.
    I would sneak the liver under the table to the cat. The cat was happy. I was hungry. But hungry was preferable to eating liver!
    With my son, if he didn’t like what I made, I’d tell him that he could choose something else that was a non-dessert item to eat. If he ended up eating cereal or a microwave pizza for dinner, that was okay.

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