Sunday, March 11, 2012

Particular, not picky

I'm going to have to revise my statement about having two picky-eater kids. I have one picky eater. And I have one particular eater.

What's the difference, you ask?
You can't call a girl who eats asparagus picky. Especially when she asks for seconds.

She's still not an easy creature to feed, but wow is this blogging thing working! I told her about the blog and as she's such a people person, she wants the people who read this to see her in a positive light (so anyone local--if you run into us, praise her to the stars. I swear, she will glow. And maybe even eat some zucchini).

Since I started the blog she has:

  • Eaten chocolate with raisins in it (and yes, previously she would not have eaten the chocolate because the raisins made it toxic.)
  • Small tastes of salsa, guacamole and sour cream at a Mexican restaurant.
  • Tried asparagus with no fuss. Asked for more. Asked for us to buy more at the store. Had it for dinner tonight and again asked for seconds. (!!!)
  • Ate a small portion of peas with butter.
  • Ate pasta and alfredo sauce with peas in it, though there was a little griping since I was sticking something not-so-welcome into one of her favorite foods. That seems pretty understandable.
  • Ate cooked carrots and pronounced them "ok."
  • Tried homemade mushroom soup (and didn't spit it out, maybe even sort of liked it. I'll make it again soon and we'll see.) 
  • Tried a piece of pizza with mushrooms on it.
  • Tried a leaf of baby red swiss chard with no complaint.
  • Ate some salmon and asked if we could have it again (and told the boy, "it tastes like chicken.")
For the record, the boy is also aware of this blog though he doesn't care as much about what anonymous readers think. He does, however, care about what his friends and his friends families might think if he was at their house and wouldn't eat their food.  Since we started he:
  • Ate half a serving of broccoli (there was some loud noise about finishing it. I'll try again though I don't think he'll be happy about it).
  • Tasted a small piece of asparagus (and hated it, but no noise)
  • Lots of (mild) salsa at the Mexican restaurant.
  • Has tried carrots in four different formats: carrot sticks, raw carrot ribbons, sauteed carrot pennies, and baby carrots. Still not a fan. But the ribbons went down the easiest.
  • Tried a leaf of baby red swiss chard with no complaint
  • Tried the salmon without fussing, though I'm not sure he's ready to be served an entire portion of it for dinner yet.
What's up next?
  • I'm going to buy some mild salsa and make some Mexican food this week and see if we can reproduce the Mexican restaurant success (I don't expect him to eat my homemade salsa since it is pretty spicy. Maybe this summer, if they are eating it regularly, I'll make a mild batch for the kids.)
  • Whole steamed artichokes. I know, not exactly a food they are going to be served everywhere, but I think the novelty of eating a large thistle and copious quantities of melted butter might just do the trick.
  • Roasted cauliflower. I love it. I can't imagine anyone not loving it. Of course, I might get a little surprise in this matter. If so, more for me!
I still haven't figured out a way to improve their fruit consumption... maybe we'll give smoothies another try and see if they can tolerate tiny strawberry seeds in a drink (it failed before, but it has been a while since I tried).

A boring lunch is a good lunch

Here's one thing that it took me a long time to wrap my brain around:

My kids want their lunches to be boring.

Familiarity=speed. They have twenty minutes for lunch. Variety is not appreciated by the food-suspicious--it takes time to look it all over and choose what to eat and that is time that they aren't eating.  The thought of the same lunch everyday is a nightmare for me, but not for them. It took me a long time to accept this and I kept trying to pack "interesting" lunches which they would bring home entirely uneaten.

But even with the same foods packed every day*, there were days when they still weren't eating lunch. Maybe this wouldn't be a big deal for some kids, but both my kids are thin and their moods plummet precipitously along with their blood sugar (which I totally relate to: Brian refers to it as the emergence of the Kate-monster when I need to be fed as in "Someone throw the Kate-monster some food!") Some kids can not eat and still have a decent day.  Mine can't. (And the pediatrician will scold me about the boy's weight because yes, there have been times when the lines on his height and weight charts were going in dramatically different directions. And he wasn't getting shorter...)

So I've come up with a sort of system that seems to be working and who knows, some facet of it just might work for you, too.

  • I pack 5 things in their lunch box (at least 2 of which are fruits or vegetables) and they they have to eat 3 of them. The choice factor was really important, even though I've noticed that they usually eat the same 3 items. 
  • It has to be quick to eat and pack in the calories. 
  • The understanding is that they have to eat the 2 remaining items as soon as they are home from school. That way there is no "forgetting" to have a snack (since the boy's disinterest in food continues at home), or the girl snacking on less healthy stuff. You only get popcorn if the lunch box is empty.
  • When the boy was younger and we first started this we had to institute a reward system to get his attention: if he ate three of the five things in his lunchbox then he got a sticker on a chart. If he got five stickers in a week then he got some predetermined reward: a small lego kit ($5 or so) or something like that. If he didn't get all 5 then no reward (I didn't let him roll over stickers from one week to the next--I wanted him to eat his lunch *every* *single* *day*.) Of course I had to do this with the girl too, who is picky, and thin, but not skinny.  I phased out the weekly rewards after the first year. Now, we have an understanding about dessert: finish 3 out of 5 things and you get a treat in your lunch the following day. Eat all 5 items at school and you get 2 treats (this has happened maybe 2 times for the boy and 10 for the girl). This seems to work even though the boy often doesn't eat the treat. 
  • When we started the 3 out of 5 items deal, I also put note in their lunch boxes reminding them of our "deal" and sometimes mentioning the reward.  I had to do this for almost a year when we first started. Now I hardly ever do.
Here's the list from which the 5 are chosen (G is food the girl eats, B is food the boy eats):

  • cheese stick (B)
  • yogurt tube (G)
  • fruit leathers (a small container packed with Trader Joe's Ends and Pieces; stock up when you see them because they aren't always available) (B and G)
  • raisins (B)
  • baby carrots (G)
  • apple sauce (B and G though not the same brand)
  • small chunks of watermelon (G)
  • an apple (have you seen this trick for cutting up and apple and keeping it from browning? I think this woman is brilliant! My kids want their apples sliced but of course they reject them when they have oxidized so this is a perfect solution. And it looks kind of cool.) (B and G)
  • a mini peanut-butter and honey sandwich (G)
  • a granola bar (B) 
  • a container of homemade granola (G)
  • a small container of roasted and salted pecans, pistachios or sunflower seeds (G)
  • cheese and crackers (B)
  • high protein banana chocolate chip muffin (recipe here) (B and G)
  • a thermos of whole milk (B and G)

*We don't eat school hot lunch. This isn't snobbery on my part (though the menu looks depressingly like the hot lunches we got back when I was in elementary school just with whole wheat buns substituted for the white ones). I'd be happy to pay once a week even if the food is crap if they'd actually eat it. But I'm not paying $2.50 for a meal where my kid only eats one food listed for the day. Not a good use of $ and they need to eat in order to not be completely crabby by the end of the school day.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Goal #1: Lower the Drama

I've been trying to think of what would constitute success in this venture.

On the most fundamental level I want to lower the drama around food. Some of this doesn't have to do with the food itself, but with the behaviors expressed when a perceived undesirable food appears in front of the picky eater.

They've improved from the days when "Gross! Get that off my plate!" was bellowed at the top of their lungs, but that doesn't mean the stress of eating with them is gone. It's just different. Now there's usually some whining to start with, followed by (boy) getting up and pacing the room and being asked repeatedly to return to the table, sometimes followed by more whining with the occasional explosion or tiny sampling of unfamiliar food followed by extremely dramatic response. The girl is (usually) quieter and she tends to try the wait-it-out principle. She knows that her dad and I will often finish eating before her, get up and start cleaning up the kitchen so she can clear her plate and quickly scrape the offending items in the trash without anyone noticing

Except sometimes we do notice. And then she is doubly mad that she was served food she perceived as undesirable and that she got caught.

Here's what I'd like:
When confronted by an unfamiliar food, they will (calmly) agree to try one bite. They will give it a chance (the boy in particular sometimes psyches himself out so much that I don't think he actually tastes the new food). If they don't like it they will (calmly) tell me. And if it is, say, the only vegetable on their plate they will suggest an alternative and get it for themselves. If it's the main course, they will offer to make themselves peanut butter toast or a bean and cheese quesadilla--something fast and easy that I consider a healthy alternative. 

My hope is that even if they don't enjoy the food I cook, they won't ruin my enjoyment of it by emitting a toxic behavior fog into the atmosphere of the dining room or by expecting me to drop my fork and go be a short order cook.

They'd still be picky, but that doesn't mean they'd be unpleasant to be around when eating. And that would go a long way to improving dinner-time at our house.

The Texture Issue

One thing that continually surprises me is the boy's sensitivity to the textures of foods. There are plenty of times when I've come up with something that I think he'll be able to tolerate flavor-wise and color-wise (bordering on bland and beige) and it has been rejected based on texture. One prime example: red lentil soup.

I love this soup (recipe below). It is easy, it is fast, it is tasty and it is one of the recipes I turn to when I haven't been to the grocery store and need to cook from the pantry. The only fresh-ish thing it really requires is a lemon and you could get away with a little sherry vinegar if you didn't have one. It also doesn't have anything green in it that might set off the visual alarms of many picky eaters. The girl will eat it sometimes, though not in large quantities. To me, the red lentils are particularly nice because they break down more than their green, brown or black counterparts so the soup is almost creamy with no pureeing required. But my perception and the boy's perception of the texture of this soup are miles apart.

I've tried to serve it to him multiple times and (multiple times) he has run to the trash can to spit it out. It's not like he has this reaction to all members of the legume family: refried beans are a staple of his diet. He occasionally tolerates baked beans and whole pintos. But he says that the texture of this soup is like sand in his mouth.

This has also been a limiting factor with both kids with fruit. Neither of them can stand the way tiny seeds feel when they are crunched between your teeth so they have rejected strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, blueberries and kiwi for this reason.  Pears are also too "gritty." And they don't like slippery textures (what they call "slimy") so that eliminates bananas, ripe peaches, plums and nectarines.  I might try them on some under-ripe stone fruits once summer rolls around.

What textures are problems for your picky eater?

After the "sand" description you might be reluctant to try the lentil soup, but it's fast and easy and worth a shot. Maybe it'll fly under the texture-radar of your picky eater.

Easy Middle Eastern Style Red Lentil Soup

1 medium yellow onion chopped
3-5 cloves of garlic, minced or pressed
1 T olive oil
1 carrot, grated (optional)
1 T tomato paste (optional)
1 and 1/2 C red lentils (NOT brown)
7 C water
1 t salt
fresh ground pepper
1 T ground cumin
**Juice of 1-2 lemons (depending on the intensity of your sour-pleasure center)

In a big pot, saute the onion and garlic in the olive oil until the onion is soft. Add the tomato paste and grated carrot (if using), lentils, water, salt, pepper and cumin and bring to a boil. Then reduce heat and simmer for at least 40 minutes (more is fine--if you are going to simmer for a LONG time then put a lid on the pot so all the water doesn't evaporate). Just before serving add half the lemon juice (at least one lemon's worth) and then taste to see if you want any more lemon juice, salt or pepper.

**If you don't have any fresh lemons in the house, bottled lemon juice or a little sherry vinegar will suffice.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Starting small

No recipes today. My first task is to get the kids to expand their "acceptable" fruits and vegetables to what their sibling eats. Since that's a small list for both kids this won't take long.

Boy eats:
plain lettuce
red grapes (occasionally)
clementines (occasionally)
cooked frozen peas
dried apricots
dried apples

Girl eats: 
plain lettuce
red grapes (occasionally)
red grapefruit (occasionally)
clementines (occasionally)
cooked broccoli
raw carrots

Today they are going to switch and eat two of the fruits or vegetables that their sibling eats. The boy will try raw carrots and cooked broccoli. The girl will try raisins and cooked peas.

If this works then each will have increased their acceptable fruit and vegetable options by about 25%, particularly if you cull from the above list the ones they only occasionally (ie not reliably) eat. And just as importantly it will reduce some of the short-order-cook-feel that I sometimes have. I know it isn't a big outlay of labor to put a handful of carrots on one plate and a handful of raisins on another but it's the principal that makes me crazy: they start to expect people to cater to their particular likes and dislikes so that nothing that they are just so-so about ever lands on their plate.

Not bad for the first day. Girl ate raisins, no fuss. Boy gagged on carrot sticks, but then ate some carrot ribbons (long thin strips made with a vegetable peeler). In the coming week we'll try shredded carrots and maybe super thin carrot pennies since I think the slightly woody texture of the carrot stick was what turned him off. Dinner was ok--she ate the peas, he ate only the dark green tops of the broccoli but wouldn't eat the stems and he did get a little dramatic. But he did it.

Mission Statement

I've got a new mission and I am finally determined to pursue it.

I am going to ease my two picky kids toward some degree of normalcy in the food realm.

I've joked for years that their pickiness is my punishment for being overly fixated on food. I've attempted to face this down in bursts but then would fall back to old patterns. I've had massive temper tantrums in the kitchen and at the dining room table when they defeat me with their stubbornness. (I always thought no one was more stubborn than me. Turns out that they not only inherited it from me but have amplified it with their own distinct and strong personalities.)

Why do I think I might have a chance this time when they have defeated me in past attempt? Well, they are getting older (9 and 11). And that means that they are getting (a little) more logical. And recently they have shown small signs of adaptation: they both tried salsa when they were at a Mexican restaurant. They both will eat a little plain lettuce (we started with iceberg, that gateway-lettuce, but now they'll eat romaine and Boston and green leaf, too.) And there are a couple of other individual specific reasons too:

The boy like to travel. Loves it, in fact. I bluntly stated to him that there are places in the world which I won't take him until he starts eating more foods because I don't plan to go to, say, Spain, and have his eating habits be a restriction on our movements. [Not that I have the $ to take him to Spain--he doesn't need to know this. And much as I'd love to, a trip to Thailand or India or China isn't in the works for any of us, so we're talking about mainly different European and Latin American types of dishes.]  I described to him some of the cool places I've been and then told him that while what they regularly eat may be unfamiliar, it is something that a person with a flexible attitude can adapt to. This seemed to get through to him.

The girl likes people. And I told her if you want to spend time with people and not annoy the crap out of them, you need to eat what is available. Friends aren't going to invite you to stay to dinner if you won't try what is on offer. It doesn't mean you have to love it. It doesn't mean you have to eat a lot of it. But it does mean that you can't get distressed when it is something unfamiliar and that you need to broaden your repertoire of "safe" foods so that there is a likelihood that you will encounter at least one of them.

Things I'm willing to do:

  1. Keep it mild. I love spicy food and don't plan on giving it up, but I can make spicy sauces on the side or add spice at the end after serving them.
  2. Make a good amount of the new stuff side-dishes so they don't have to freak out at everything on their plates. Since I've recently gone low-meat, and they are decidedly pro-meat this isn't too hard. I don't mind making a turkey burger or plain chicken breast for them so long as the big pile of roasted fennel, sweet potatoes, carrots and potatoes that I make for my own main dish is a small-portion side dish to them.
  3. Add the unfamiliar to the familiar. Like putting a small amount of salsa and sour cream on their quesidillas and expecting them to tolerate its appearance.

I am going to try and document things that worked both to share with other people who may be in the same predicament as I'm in* and to keep track and use this blog as a crutch for my lousy memory. If you are faced with a picky eater of your own, I hope you'll join me and make this a group effort to ease the picky eaters of the world toward a place where they don't drive the rest of us bat-shit crazy.

*I realize that when you've met one picky eater you've picky eater and we all have different definitions of picky. I actually heard one parent describe her child as picky when he wouldn't eat kohlrabi. Ha!