“Short-Order Cooks”… Gettin’ the Job Done!

Okay I better warn you now, this is a rant. It’s an “I’m fed up with this issue and I’m venting” rant and some folks might want to get upset or even take some of this personally.
So, before we get started here, just prepare yourself and don’t do that.  I’m not pointing fingers at anyone or their processes and I am not bashing people or telling anyone they are wrong.  People have to choose what works best for their families and that’s great for them.  This is my venting rant about an issue that bugs me when I am personally faced with it.  That’s all, so don’t get all crazy and whine at me about how I’m a big, fat meany and I should be more respectful. This isn’t about other people, it’s about me. Mmkay? Got your big girl pants on? Cool. Let’s go.
I read two articles today on children’s eating habits.  In general, when it comes to articles on parenting I feel sad for those who take offense to others’ lifestyles. Everyone does things a little bit differently and that’s okay.  I take offense only when others push their styles on me and tell me I’m wrong for not doing the same, so when articles are presented in a, “here this is what we did you might think it’s cool” tone, I LOVE them… but I loath the ones written wtih a “here’s why you should ONLY do this one thing that we do or you’re a bad mom”.
One article was awesome, posted in our mom group by a fantastic mama on the East Coast that I’ve got oodles of respect for. It explained how a lifestyle change created better eating habits for the whole family.  It was fantastic.  Then, I read another article I found on my own, doing a search for healthy toddler meals that basically told parents that if you are allowing your child to make the meal-time decisions and feeding them what you know they enjoy and will eat, you’re doing them a disservice and creating the building blocks of entitlement.  One phrase both articles had in common; “Don’t be a short-order cook”.  In other words, moms need to stay away from the mealtime trap of catering to their children and instead, just make them eat what the family eats, even if they don’t like it. Now, I think I get it- we’re talking about kids who can, but refuse to eat just because they’re being stubborn. That’s fine.  I totally get that, but not all issues are about a naughty, willful child and the advice never comes off as I think they intend.  I think what they WANT to say, is as the parent, you shouldn’t be running around catering to your child’s every whim and I agree with that.  The way this issue is always presented, implies that you are basically supposed to force them to eat what you put in front of them with the understanding that you made it, so they eat it, if they don’t like it- too bad. Suck it up and deal, shove it in your face and pretend you like it because “I’m the mom and my way goes” kind of attitude.

Ha… right.  I have heard this so many times and every time I can’t help but be both amused and offended, so while I had a second to vent, I figured I’d let it go and see what you all think.
This and many other articles like it, seem to imply that mothers who provide meals for their kids that they actually WANT to eat, even if they’re not what the mom makes for everyone else, are somehow spoiling their kids and I have to wonder… have these people ever had children? Or are these the same people who dump their kids into their barred boxes and close the door at 9pm even if the kid isn’t tired because they need to stick to “the schedule” and ME TIME is so important?  I figure, it’s gotta be one or the other, because I can’t think of any other explanation for it.  I mean, seriously- I read these articles that are all, “well, you just have to put your foot down and make sure they understand that they can’t have whatever they want and YOU are the boss, so they eat what you give them”.  …Really? I mean, come on, am I really supposed to be that invested in what I cooked that I can’t possibly manage a simple second dish for the child who doesn’t like what everyone else does?  Oh but that’s it, isn’t it??  This is all some kind of Victorian control issue at it’s heart, isn’t it?  Meal time is some kind of “teachable moment” where you get to enforce your authority, demanding a child force down a meal they don’t want to PLEASE YOU? Seriously, it’s NO WONDER people in this country have so many food issues!!  We are so hung up in how cooking a meal out of love and care makes us feel that to have it rejected is completely offensive and we DEMAND that the child force it down anyway.  Why? Because we say so.  Well, with toddlers and babies, that can actually be dangerous since food allergies often present as food aversions in young childhood… but we don’t care about that, right? We just care that our babies are scarfing up the dishes we made without argument.  Yay us, life is so easy.
Um…. no.  So, I MUST be the only mother of a toddler who would rather die than eat certain foods, then because in our case, no eating would happen at ALL if I didn’t make him what he was willing to eat.  If I followed these “easy standards” given in these articles and from moms I know, it should be a piece of cake, right? So basically… I MUST be doing something wrong.  That’s what your’e actually saying here, right?  I’m wrong because I am willing to feed him what he wants to eat and I’m not all hung up in the notion that my cooking preferences trump your hunger issue.  Do YOU ask your toddler what he wants to eat, or do you just make whatever makes you happy and expect them to eat it?  Would YOU always eat whatever someone put in front of you without asking if you were hungry for it?  Why do we not respect our children enough to think we aught to ask them?

Now, don’t get me wrong, here… I wish it were that easy to follow these directions and just magically make my kids eat what I put in front of them and maybe if it weren’t so hard to get food into his stomach I would be more inclined to go with this “do it or go to bed” scenario but the way things are now, I’m not going to demand my kid force down a meal even if they don’t like it or they go to bed hungry, just to satisfy my ego because I’M the mom and they aught to do whatever I say. First of all, he wouldn’t do it and he’d go 2 days without eating (yes, I’ve tested this). And second….that’s just a crappy thing to do and I’m sorry, but I’m not teaching that lesson to my kids.  I know moms who have to do that because they do have stubborn kids (who are older than mine) and it’s not about nutrition for them, it’s about following directions and that’s a TOTALLY different issue, so don’t jump on me about that.  That’s not what I’m talking about.  If it makes me a bad parent to allow my child to tell me what he’s in the mood for and then I’ll make it and he actually EATS, whatever, dude… guess I’m a bad parent. I suppose we’ll see in 20 years, won’t we?

Meal time is a war zone in my house.  It’s full of covert missions and sneak attacks, stonewalls and bombs that shatter bowls of carefully prepared meals all over my kitchen floor.  I assume many parents go through this, but when I read articles like the ones I read today, it does make me wonder if I’m doing something wrong because EVERYONE seems to say the same thing- “just do it and make them eat what you make and that’s that” sort of 1950’s follow my directions or go to bed hungry rule system.  Since I’ve been married, not a single thing has worked that way and in no way has my life EVER mirrored any of these black and white standards.

Our battle with food was not at all from the start.  It came completely out of left field and it blind-sided me.  It’s left me confused, sad, worried, scared, angry and frustrated almost on a daily basis because I KNOW I did everything right.  Whole grain, organic, no refined sugar, veggies first, no fruit until veggies were standard… be sure not to push, only give as much as they are interested in taking, never force, never make meal time a disciplinary action… and maybe that’s why things like this, (articles and advice that say to just MAKE them eat what you give them and it’s JUST THAT SIMPLE) seem like offensive finger shaking because honestly, if I could do that- I TOTALLY WOULD but life is just not like that in my house and to imply that it’s “sooooo easy” is absolutely laughable to the point where I assume anyone who says this has never had children.

I exclusively breastfed Liam until he was a year old.  The month of his 1st birthday was when we began experimenting with foods.  His first food was brown rice, steamed spinach and black beans, pureed in the “baby bullet” with a little garlic. I remember it well because I was thinking to myself how insane it was to expect him to eat it, but it was the leftovers from my lunch and I was curious if he’d like it and guess what- he LOVED it. Ate the whole thing and then wanted more. He ate that at least once a day after that, for nearly a year.  Then we tried steel cut oats with banana and cinnamon, no sugar. Then plain, baked sweet potato, no butter, sugar or salt. Then chicken breast, pureed and mixed with brown rice and garlic, sometimes with cut up, steamed broccoli or other veggies or tofu instead of chicken. He ate spinach, kale, cauliflower, chard, peas and some fruits (not many), cottage cheese and strawberries, applesauce and blueberries in oatmeal and watered down orange juice.  He wasn’t really into baby food, but he would eat the fancy space-food style bags of mixed veg & fruits when we were in the car or in a store during meal time.  I did give him SOME of the Gerber Graduates meals as he got older, but only when I was super busy or I knew I’d be away from home and I couldn’t give him something homemade and I began giving him some of the organic “stage 2’s and 3’s” with other things I’d made for dinner anyway.  If we ate pasta, it was whole-wheat and I bought him the bow-tie whole grain kind because it was a fun shape to mix with homemade sauce made with organic tomatoes and lots of good for you garlic and other fresh spices. He didn’t even know what refined sugar was until he was almost two (except his birthday cake, I did let him eat that) and the only times he was ever given tastes of anything remotely “bad for you” or sugary or overly salty, was at someone’s birthday or some family party when someone ELSE just haaaaaaaddddd to give him a taste because I was SUCH a mean mommy and it wasn’t fair that he didn’t get any.

Before so much experimenting with refined sugars and “fun” foods, he ate everything I gave him without question and tried anything.  I wonder if the experimentation with fun foods is what turned him off to my cooking, but I suppose I could speculate myself to death if I think about it too much.  The fact was, sometimes I gave him things he didn’t like but he always tried it at least and that was my only rule from day one – just try it, if you don’t like it, you don’t have to eat any more of it.  He was always wiling to try and he almost always liked it and it was awesome because he trusted me. He clearly trusted that if he said he didn’t like it, I wouldn’t make him eat the rest… and then somewhere along the way, for whatever unknown reason, he just stopped and refused foods that he’d always jumped up and down for and pushed it away, sat in his chair sobbing with a bowl full of something he’d always loved, refusing to even look at it, let alone touch it or taste it.

I got a little desperate at that point because he was slipping in his weight and he was already too skinny. I thought, well, he’s getting older, maybe his palate is maturing and he’s not liking this food anymore… so, I tried first, doctoring it up to make the dishes more interesting, flavorful. I added salt, sugar, honey, the junk peanut butter instead of the good for you kind, jelly instead of fresh fruit… Heck, I even put ice cream in his yogurt for a while!  When that didnt work, I tried new things he’d never had before, trying to change it up and give him some variety- I thought, well he does eat the same things a great deal, so maybe I need to get smarter and learn some new options that seemed fun.  I started making cookies with protein powder, cupcakes and pancakes with greek yogurt and protein powder, quinoa and oats blends with chocolate sauce or adding spirulina to his yogurt and covering it with strawberry jam to try and sneak in healthy whenever I could but most of the time, he wouldn’t eat it and if he did, he’d take one or two bites and throw the rest on the ground.  My last go-to guarantee was eggs and eventually that went out the door, too.

Fast forward a year to today, and every day is a battle to get calories into his tiny, underweight body. He has never been above the 20th percentile in his life and in the last year, it’s dropped to almost 15. There are only about 4 or 5 things he’ll eat and only if they’re prepared a certain way. Occasionally, I can get him to eat the crap food processed chicken sticks from the frozen food section and on an even rarer occasion, he will eat a string cheese stick, but he’s got to be in just the right mood. He won’t drink regular milk, breast milk from a cup or any of those healthy kid shake things, so they’re all out.  I still try, every day to give him something new or put something in front of him I think he will like. Occasionally he will take a few bites, sometimes not… I have to be okay with what I get and hope he’ll be hungry enough to at least eat some yogurt before he goes to bed.
He’s also not one of those kids who you can just say, “oh well, when they’re hungry they’ll eat”. Because he won’t. If he’s not eaten all afternoon and you put a bowl of chicken and rice in front of him, he’ll sit there in front of it for 3 hours and not touch it.  He’ll cry if you tell him he needs to eat it.  You can’t bribe him… I’ve tried.  And it’s not just me- it’s anyone.  My mom tried to get him to eat something and he wouldn’t do it for her and he won’t eat for the husband, either.
His doctor finally told me whatever you can get him to eat, in any way you can get it down, do it. It doesn’t matter what it is at this point, if he’ll eat it- go for it and don’t stop nursing because if that’s all he gets, that’s better than nothing. Get the calories into him however you have to do it. So, I gave up my health nut tendencies so he would eat SOMEthing but the funny thing was, he didn’t want junk food! I am proud of that, actually- and I told her the story of how well he ate in his first year and a half and she just shook her head, “sometimes kids do that for a few years, don’t worry, he’ll get back to the good stuff eventually” right now, I just needed to focus on calories and getting nutrients into him.  So I abandoned any illusions that I’d have a household that had one meal for the whole family and I know I have to do whatever I can to get him to eat. Which means… making him whatever he feels like eating.

He still nurses 4’ish times a day, so he’s getting SOME nutrients, but at 3 years old, he needs so much more than what I can give him and I can’t help but be a little offended at this whole “whatever the family eats is what he eats, don’t be a short order cook” crap.  We don’t get that luxury when we’re living in a 15th percentile environment and it’s a little frustrating when sentiments like these articles show up in my feed or people come over and see how we struggle with meal time and tell me in so many words that they think I’m being somehow lazy or that I’m wrong for making him what I know he’ll eat instead of forcing him to eat something I made for everyone.

I am a short-order cook for my 3 year old and it does not make me feel less powerful or less in control as a parent.  I take his cues and make him meals that I know he will eat so that he WILL eat.    I don’t get offended if he doesn’t like it, because… well, he’s three. I can’t get offended by the opinions of a three year old. That’s silly. If he randomly says, “mom I want pancakes” I will literally jump up and make some. Right then. I will toss some protein powder in them and use whole wheat flour, add a few pureed strawberries and finely chopped nuts or even a scoop of peanut butter and I’ll make him the best darn pancakes EVER and I do it fast so he doesn’t lose his interest in the idea before they’re done. I can be cool with that, but when people get this concerned look on their faces when they see me trying to figure out what he will eat or they make something that they assume I’m going to force him to swallow, I get a little put off and irritated.  I do just fine until articles like this show up and try to lump every child into a blanket statement of “eat what mom makes or you’re a bad kid”.  I get angry about it because not every kid is a cookie-cutter child and to tell parents they should just demand it or punish them sets parents up for this unrealistic, magical world of “Father Knows Best” and it completely ignores that we should be looking to our children to determine what is best for them.  Articles like this teach parents who don’t know any better that it’s standard and normal for kids to be forced to eat what they don’t want to please us, the parents. I have learned that for his health, I don’t get to do that, but in reality-  I wouldn’t do that even if I COULD do that because that’s not the kind of parent I want to be.

I’m not trying to spoil him or cater to his whims with some kind of unreasonable expectation that will teach him how everyone in his life will just bend to his will so he’ll become some sort of insane, entitled monster child.  This isn’t some kind of hippy, relaxed parenting, emotional, makin’ a mama’s boy, weak parenting notion, okay?
I just need the kid to eat. Period.
Now for those of you who have probably lost all respect for me at this point, I should probably say we aren’t entirely without rules, we do have a few…
1- You can eat what you want out of the available options.  Which means, would you like chicken, stir-fry or yogurt? No, cake is not on the list.
2- No sugar for mealtime. No cake, cookies, junk food of any kind. That’s not an option so don’t bring it up.  If it’s after 3pm, you can’t have it anyway unless it’s a special occasion.
3- If you ask for it, that’s what you get.  If you don’t eat it, it’ll go back in the fridge and you will eat it later.  Even if I make you something else instead, you will still have to eventually eat that thing you originally asked for because we can’t afford to waste food.

I guess my issue with all this is as he gets older, I want him to know that he is allowed to eat what he likes out of the available choices and if he doesn’t like what I make, that’s okay. He doesn’t have to and I will respect that.  Just like if he hates the color blue I won’t force him to wear a blue shirt just because I like it. I wouldn’t force a child to play with a toy they didn’t like just because I thought it was cool… so why would I do the same with something so deeply personal as what goes into our bodies?
Parents are so quick to judge each other because of our decisions to do or not do something that puts a kid “in their place” and I just have to wonder… why? Why is it so important to you that your child like what you like?  Why is it such a big deal to have to make them like your meal choice?  Why do you allow the choices of a toddler to offend you to the point where you are willing to punish them because they don’t like what you give them?  Are we really that egocentric of a culture?  Articles like the one I read today are proof that we are and that’s just sad.
The bottom line is, I will not do that to my kids.  Stop trying to make me feel like a crap parent because I don’t push my kid into decisions that I like when I know he doesn’t. Your finger-shaking won’t work on me because unlike you, I’m NOT that egocentric and I don’t need your approval to justify my parenting process.
So, take your smug, “I’m a better mom than you because I force my child to eat food he hates and he does it with a smile because he’s a good boy” crap and shove it, June Cleaver.
I’m a real parent, not a parent out of some 1950’s television show and I do what it takes to get the job done while respecting my child.

Don’t like it?

I really don’t care.

All ranting aside, I thought it would be a good idea to add a few medical reasons why children refuse certain foods and how it’s important that parents listen to their children’s needs through their aversions.

Possible causes of food aversion that shouldn’t demand compliance:

Sore Throat
Sore Ears
Stomach/Intestinal discomfort
Sensory issues including texture aversion
Negative association (last time they ate that food item, they were sick or something scary happened)
Color sensitivity (some kids are partial to colors and don’t like other colors- this translates to foods as well)
Too tired
Too hyper
Just not hungry
Bored of the same thing

Also, here are some related articles on food aversion/allergy/intolerance and behavior in toddlers you may find interesting:

Okay, rant over.  I truly hope you’re all still with me.  I was just telling a friend that this article will either empower her or offend her and I wasn’t sure which. I hope this, like all articles I’ve posted so far, teach you a few things, show you a few resources you might not have known were there and give you the power to know that maybe you’re not alone.  I hope that power strengthens your convictions in whatever it is you believe is best for your family.
Above all- do what YOU KNOW is right and have the courage to demand it.
That’s what it’s all about, mamas…

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1 Comment

  1. Thank you for putting into words what I feel!! People (including doctors and a nutritionist) have told me, “It’s just a stage. He’ll outgrow it.” or “He’ll eat if he’s hungry.” My son is 4 and has eating aversions. I finally found a doctor that understands! It has taken me 3 years of fighting to get him some help, and people can’t just put him in the same catagory as a “picky eater.” I also get tired of people saying, “oh, my child is like that. He only eats pizza, mac and cheese, and hamburgers.” If I could get my son to eat any of that I would at least have something to work with. It is not the same!!

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