"What can be done to convince young children to eat healthy foods?"
For centuries this question has stymied philosophers - the ones with children, anyway. Yet today we are no closer to a definitive answer, as the received wisdom of generations seems to boil down to, "Um, I don't know, maybe make choo-choo noises while you slip a forkful into their mouths?"
In my house we have three preschool-age children who exhibit varying levels of disdain for the food my wife and I put in front of them. These days my 3-year-old most consistently disapproves of anything new that appears on his plate. Not wanting to appear inflexible, however, he does generously suggest that we replace the offensive fare we've offered in favor of a stack of pancakes. He does this at every meal.
When this picky behavior first emerged, I had some success in persuading him to at least taste of new foods, typically by smiling and offering an enthusiastic, "Just try it - I promise you'll like it!" Sadly, I lost any food-related credibility I had established after the incident my children now refer to only as "Lima Bean-gate."
As a result, my son is now instantly suspicious of any unfamiliar food, even desserts. Narrowing his eyes, he shifts his gaze between his plate and me, like a character in a spy novel wondering what his food might be laced with. "Come on," I exclaim in frustration, "It's good. It's chocolate pudding, for crying out loud. I'm not trying to poison you!"
Despite these mealtime frustrations, my wife and I refuse to force our kids to eat anything. We both recall with horror countless childhood hours spent glumly staring at meals that we suspected came directly out of our parents' copies of "The Joy of Cooking (Meals Your Children Will Hate)." Having been instructed that I couldn't leave the table before my food was all gone, I always honored the letter - if not the spirit - of the law. Thousands of years from now, archaeologists sifting through the rubble of my mother's house will likely conclude that late 20th-century Americans shored up their homes by filling every baseboard crack with pieces of overcooked, rubberized meat.
When coercion didn't work, another popular tactic was applying guilt. "Eat your dinner - there are starving children in Africa," we were told. Of course my sister and I always responded enthusiastically, squealing, "Oh goody! Another mealtime lecture on the harmful effects of an unstable global economic system, unseasonably low levels of rainfall and other factors leading to the tragic malnutrition afflicting sub-Saharan Africa!" Concerned, thoughtful children that we were, we readily suggested boxing up our meals for immediate shipment to the hardest-hit areas.
Surprisingly, my mother never took us up on these acts of selflessness, which was just as well. "You're right, Mom," I would say, imagining a village of hungry African children clambering to open a shipment of food, expecting rice or grains, only to be confronted with a Corningware flower print dish filled with my mother's green bean casserole. "Those kids have suffered enough already."
Many parents today, weary of fighting these mealtime battles, just give in and just let kids choose their own menus. These parents serve an important societal function - namely, making the rest of us feel better about our own halfhearted parenting. Because while I might in rare instances allow a cereal into my home that lists "sugar," "high fructose corn syrup" and "more sugar" as the three primary ingredients, I can still take pride in knowing that I draw the line at feeding my children a breakfast consisting of, say, a bowl of Doritos swimming in Yoo Hoo.
Advertisers are, naturally, all too eager to help parents rationalize making these nutritional concessions. That's why you might see an ad referring to a cereal consisting of miniature marshmallows with cookie dough centers as "part of this complete breakfast." Look at the ad a little more closely, however, and you'll notice that the cereal bowl is surrounded by a large glass of orange juice, a plate of fresh fruit, a dozen multivitamins and a bushel of Brussels sprouts (not pictured) while the breakfasting child appears to be running on a treadmill. By this standard, what wouldn't qualify as part of a "complete breakfast?" A Twinkie? Cheetos? A pack of Marlboros?
Now, as a result of my children's adamant refusal to try new foods, I have fallen back on that most shopworn of parental strategies, reverse psychology. "If you don't want it, that just means more for me," I'll say, popping the spurned carrots, asparagus, peas or broccoli into my mouth, hoping they'll stop me, which they never do.
Ah well, at least someone in our household is eating healthy.