Food culture for children is strange and twisted, an ongoing battle for palates everywhere. It’s Us (parents) vs. Them (food companies), with Them winning in a rout. It’s a sad, disturbing reality to know that one of the biggest challenges I’m going to have to overcome is the never ending tidal wave of cartooned cereal boxes and “Kids Menus” at restaurants1.
The odds are stacked against Kathleen and me in this regard. First is the pervasive myth that children’s palates must be catered to as if they were from an alien world where the environment is too hostile to grow anything green. Second is my devastating broken relationship with food2, a neurosis so panic-inducing that I’m legitimately concerned about overcorrecting and poisoning my as-yet-unborn daughter’s mind.
The Myth of the Child’s Palate
I hate the fact that Kids’ Menus are a thing. It’s like restaurants are part of this massive conspiracy dedicated to turning people into the mobility scooter-dependent soda slurping fatwads from Wall-E. Grilled cheese, hamburgers, hot dogs, chicken nuggets, and french fries are ubiquitous, as if those are the only five things humans under the age of 12 are capable of digesting.
But we know, intellectually, that this is a modern– and largely American– phenomenon. For eons, children have eaten the food that their parents ate, and there are cities around the world right now where children have never seen a dinosaur-shaped chicken nugget, much less a Kids’ Menu at Applebee’s.
Somehow, we’ve been conditioned to believe that children will “grow out” of their beige-and-white-food-only phase. In reality, it’s our responsibility as parents to “teach” our children to eat healthful foods beginning from infancy, but this is becoming harder as time goes on. The truth is there is no such thing as kids food or a “child’s palate,” but these concepts are so ingrained in our kids’ behavior and in our culture’s approach to children’s food that it’s hard to come to terms with the fact that these are myths.
The natural resistance that toddlers have to eating new foods is a major barrier that bolsters this myth. It’s an understood early childhood development phenomenon: kids at this age are often powerless to control anything in their lives, and their tenuous grasp of language makes communication a challenge . One of the few things they have absolute control over is what goes in their mouths; it’s power and communication rolled up into the simple action of throwing broccoli food on the floor, and they exercise this tiny bit of power with aplomb.
But there’s more to it than that. Neophobia, the fear of unfamiliar things, is real in children. A child sees something new on her plate and reels in horror. The flavor is unfamiliar and causes her to spit it out onto the plate. But this can be managed3 by continually re-introducing the offending item over and over. It may take 10, 15, or more introductions, but eventually the new food becomes familiar and the child will eat it happily4.
Given how easy it is to get a child to eat something engorged with sugar and fat, it’s understandable why today’s parents acquiesce. It’s challenging to get children to eat healthy foods, and 21st Century parents love to complain about how busy they are, that their chaotic lives don’t leave them the time to prepare the proper nutritious meals our families needs. Except, bullshit. Unless you’re breaking your neck working to just barely keep a roof over your family’s head, you do have the time to build relationships with family and food around the dinner table. Those who don’t are making a conscious choice by prioritizing other things5. Fine if that’s your angle, but don’t complain about how busy you are, just admit that you value whatever it is you’re doing over this crucial component of family life.
There’s a long game to this, one that I am absolutely obsessed with. I don’t want Creature to eat Brussels sprouts because they are “healthy.” I want her to eat them because they are delicious. Building that association, that you should eat the food because you enjoy food, is our responsibility as a family. We want to feature the veggies as desirable dishes, and treat them as such rather than “hiding” the broccoli under a pile of cheese. Roasted Brussels sprouts tossed with kimchi. Kale salad with pickled onions and a homemade balsamic vinaigrette. Cauliflower and raisins with toasted walnuts in a honey-caper vinaigrette. These are versions of veggies that Kathleen and I eat all the time. And we will offer them to Creature repeatedly, insisting she only take a taste each time6. I expect Stanley will get his fair share of these as Creature rejects the brassicas over and over and over again. But eventually, she will reach for them, eat them, possibly even enjoy them. It will just take some time.
Everyone Else Wants You to Have a Fat Child
Fighting the food battle on the home front is one thing, but the external influences are impossible to control. Advertisers know now to play us like so many orchestral instruments, and children are basically wet concrete primed for cartoon tiger-rabbits to convince them that their particular variation of sugar-corn-garbage for kids is grrrrrrreat!
Schools pay lip service to nutrition, but the bureaucratic reality is they’re way more concerned with budget and scale than they are with actually delivering any sort of functional nutrition to our kids. A quick glance at the April 2016 Portland Public School Menu shows your typical Kids’ Menu style offerings: hamburgers/cheeseburgers, pizza, pancakes7, and, I swear this is true, Mozzarella-filled breadsticks8. If you haven’t built an environment for good eating habits in the home then good luck with getting your child to mindfully navigate the school lunchroom9.
The point is that if you’re not teaching and encouraging healthy relationships with food in your own home then nobody is going to do it. Schools, grocery stores, companies, restaurants, and even other families will not provide the path. It doesn’t necessarily mean these systems will undermine everything you’ve done to help your child love delicious, healthy foods, but children won’t eat good food just because it’s there; they have to want to eat it. Teaching them how to want it is the parents’ job.
Learning to Eat
Eating is a learned behavior. Think about the things we associate with “normal eating habits” that are just cultural trappings of our lives:
- How many times a day we eat10.
- Specific times at which we eat11.
- What foods are appropriate for which meal12
- Which utensils we eat with13
- How fast we consume our food
- What order we eat various foods in
Many people don’t realize is we all learn to like certain foods, too. While we are inclined toward sweetness, nobody is born liking cauliflower or tripe. If you say “I don’t like kale,” well then you’re probably right because you never bothered to learn to like it. Learning to like a food is not that much different than learning any other skill– it just takes practice. Turns out, almost everything is an “acquired taste.” We can all re-learn our relationships with food, but as adults it takes a bigger effort. I have 36 years of memories and associations with various foods that I am trying to undo.
I’m thinking about this now14, because the cultivation of an adult’s palate starts in infancy, and a person’s food preferences at age 2 will are largely the same by age 20. So, Creature will be a blank slate. We get to help her create good associations with food. As long as we don’t turn her against food by pushing it too hard15, we may be able encourage a great lifelong, guiltless, stress-free relationship with food of all kinds.
- I was raised with near unfettered access to said “cartooned cereal boxes,” and would often eat half a box of my favorites– Fruity and Cocoa Pebbles– for dessert.
- Currently undergoing a massive reconstruction project.
- Thankfully, neophobia is something most people will grow out of.
- Over the years I’ve seen a disheartening scenario play out numerous times: a small child reaches for something on the table to stuff in her mouth and the parent jerks the kid’s hand away and says, “No honey, you don’t like that.” They are actively discouraging the learning behavior that enables a person to develop new taste preferences.
- Included, but not limited to: career trajectory, health and fitness obsessions, social obligations, or extracurricular activities for parents and/or children.
- The further tactical details of how we’re going to foster good relationships with all kinds of food– including tasty treats and sweets– is TBD. But anybody who says, “You’ll be making grilled cheese on the regular. It’s only a matter of time,” has no idea how singularly obsessed with this I am. This, above all else, is my number one priority: healthy relationship with food. See what I mean by overcorrecting?
- Seriously PPS, what in the ever living fuck?
- This is to say nothing of the other bugbear in the lunchroom: the barter-based lunchroom economy. You can never be sure how much of your kid’s lunch was actually eaten by your own child, and how much was swapped out for some Oreos.
- Ever had tea in the UK?
- 6:00pm is normal dinner time in the US; in Spain, it’s 8:30pm
- Miso soup and nori are totally normal breakfast foods in Japan
- Chopsticks, anyone?
- Four months before Creature is born.
- Turns out the old parenting cliche of “No dessert until you finish your broccoli” is just about the worst tactic you can use to get your children to eat broccoli. All it accomplishes is teaching your child that broccoli is a chore and dessert is more desirable. Again: you don’t want your child to simply eat good food, you want her to like it.