I follow 5 rules to raise good eaters…or at least pretty good eaters. Oh, we have plenty of negotiating at our dinner tables, don’t be misled. The frequent negotiations, occasional whining, rare tears. But still – it’s tolerable.
…and follow these 5 rules to raise a good eater (with hopefully little drama).
*Absolutely no guarantees, mind you!
1. This is dinner. Eat it or not.
Your call. But: no drama, li’l llama. If you don’t want it, you can leave the table. But you’re not sitting here and complaining and pushing food around and whining and negotiating how many more minuscule bites you have to eat. Either eat your dinner or not. (We don’t do clean plate, we require 80%, give or take.) But if you leave the table, no dessert.
2. At least 3 bites.
A new food that’s scary? You don’t have to eat it all. But if you want dessert, you must have three bites – one to feel, one to taste, one to decide. No negotiations.
3. No snacking after 4:30 pm.
If they’ve worn you down and you’re already sipping a cocktail and making dinner, and you KNOW they really are starving, then: fine – let them snack on broccoli or cucumbers or carrots. If they’re REALLY hungry (as opposed to bored) they’ll eat. And they may always gobble all the veggies they want. But no snacking after 4:30.
4. First the “anytime” foods, then “sometime” foods
Earn the good stuff. This is our parenting mantra. Like Michelle Obama said, “There are sometimes foods and there are anytime foods. But you gotta earn the sometimes foods by first eating the anytime foods.”
First apple, then more crackers; first dinner, then dessert; first twenty minutes of quiet time, then ten minutes of screen time; first daddy’s beer then I’ll chase you around the house.
But especially for food: anytime foods then sometimes foods.
5. Half the plate should be vegetables.
May the culinary gods bless my kids’ doctor for sharing this rule. I get to throw her under the bus as I shrug my shoulders and say to my kids, “Sorry. Not my rule. It was the doctor’s. Half the plate has to be vegetables.” Hell, we almost NEVER make that. But it’s a good thing to aim for. We all know we’d be better off gobbling half a plate of vegetables.
(Oh, here’s an extra tip…but I avoided having an even-numbered list…”5 rules to raise good eaters” sounds better than “6 rules…”, doesn’t it?
Have your kids help in the kitchen.
Ask them/cajole them/require them to give a hand in food prep. It’ll make them more invested in the experience of eating. Let them experiment with using knives. Heck, they gotta learn sometime. Order one of these for young kids, but even so, let them know/understand/respect sharp knives, too.
I’ve written a variation on this theme, before, but it’s the greatest hope I have for my kids.
“Daddy? You be ‘Anna’ and I’m going to run away from you with my cape and you say, ‘No, Elsa! Don’t go!’ Ok?”
Even Colton, who’s words are limited to “pee-pee” and “nana” gets into it. When he sees anything Frozen, he shouts “Anna!”
As already discussed, our household is ruled by Frozen. (Actually, Thomas the Train still rules, but there’s a lot of Disney princessifying going on.)
Frozen thrills Ellison. He plays all the rolls: Kristoff,
Sven and (especially) the sisters. I’ve gotten good at fashioning
dresses out of old swaddlers (blankets, not Pampers.)
The other day I figured, “Eh, he hasn’t watched it in two weeks. Why
not?” As we waited for the movie to load on my computer, Ellison jumped
on the bed shouting, “Hooray! Hooray! I’m so excited to watch Frozen!”
He shouts “hooray” sans irony. I mean, who talks like that? It’s so…earnest, so…“Barney” dialogue.
After a recent snowstorm, we built “Olafs” in our backyard with some play-date friends, a boy (age 5) and his sister (age 3).
When Ellison started singing, “Do you want to build a snowman?” the boy said, “I hate Frozen. It’s all about love. And I hate love.”
“Wow. That’s…specific,” I sputtered.
His little sister said, “Yeah. I don’t like it, either.”
“Oh,” Ellison said; then (matter-of-factly) added, “I like it!”
It was as if they’d said “my name begins with R” and he said “Oh. Well, my name begins with E.”
And in that moment, I felt a desperate need to stop time, grab Ellison, and say, “Buddy, you go ahead and LOVE Frozen with all your heart, just as you do, now. It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks.”
Their mother rolled their eyes saying, “Whatever. They were both dancing around in Frozen dresses, this morning. Peer pressure. It’s no longer cool for him to like the movie. And his sister’s just following.”
“Already?” I thought. “At five years old social acceptance looms?”
I hate that.
I’ve spouted lessons for my son in this blog. But above all, I wish
most for him to hold on forever to that innocence where he loves what he
loves. If he’s thrilled with Frozen or football or fungi, I’ll be elated to talk about it.
How I wish he could live divorced from anyone else’s opinion.
Watching his captivated face as he’s engrossed/scared/delighted watching
Frozen warms my heart.
Eventually, I know he’ll follow crowds.
I know he’ll say to me, “Daddy, don’t hug me so much,”
or “Daddy, it’s not cool to sing,”
or “Daddy? Can you drop me off at the corner? I can walk the rest of the way myself.”
But I wish it wouldn’t happen soon.
Son, just hold on to whatever makes you feel joy and free and light
and inspired. And if whatever inflames your passion is something that
isn’t cool for the outside world, I promise you: it’s safe in our house.
So act out Frozen or play football or become bizarrely obsessed with fungi.
Your passion and interests are always safe with me.
I know you’ll be influenced by others far too soon.
It was our “Day Out With Thomas”, when a rail-riding, full-size
“Thomas the Train” visits sleepy train stations with operable train
In our case, the Essex, CT, train station attaches some coaches to a
locomotive, followed by Thomas, and makes a 20-minute trip to the local
dump, and then back to the station.
Last year, our trip was idyllic. Ellison bounced along to the songs
during the ride, thrilled at hugging a dressed-up “Sir Topham Hat” and
riding a jankety fair rides dotting the parking lot.
This year’s day out started out euphorically. For the entirety of our
fifteen minute drive, Ellison chanted, “I want to ride Thomas!” The
cuteness drove me crazy.
At the station entrance, he skipped and chanted, “I’m so excited to see Thomas! Hooray!”
I love it when he talks like he’s reading a “Dick and Jane” book.
Colton was equal parts confused and excited.
We cheered Thomas’ arrival from the previous trip to the dump.
As we proceeded toward the boarding area, Ellison noticed a table
sponsored by PBS displaying swag and a gift basket of Thomas toys.
Ellison walked up and asked, “Can I have that?”
The PBS woman said, “It’s not for sale, sweetie, but your daddy can register to win it. Would you like a PBS pen, instead?”
“No, thank you,” he politely responded…sneeringly.
I gave my spam email and a fake address to the PBS rep woman.
As we turned to board Thomas, I saw tears streaming down Ellison’s face.
“What’s wrong, buddy?” I ask.
“I wanted the Thomas basket.”
You must be kidding. I didn’t expect to be one of those parents with one of those kids crying during this supposedly idyllic day.
Also, Ellison didn’t usually begin tantrum tears silently. Usually his hands go to his wide-open mouth and his cry is deafening.
I knelt down and said, “Buddy, that basket wasn’t for sale. I’m going
to try to win it for you. But now is the exciting part. We’re gonna
Ellison whimpered and walked with fogged glasses (which adorably happens every time he cries).
We rode on Thomas for the 20 minutes in each direction to and from
the dump. The first five minutes are deafening: kids screaming and
parents frantically shouting to smile for pictures. It’s mayhem.
And then the passengers just stare at swamps and the back of
dilapidated houses located near the railroad tracks. The return ride is
Ellison sulked the entire time.
After disembarking from the train, I suggested we visit Sir Topham
Hat (some poor sot forced to dress in a stifling plush costume.)
I forgot that meant walking through a massive Thomas pop-up toy store.
Ellison’s head almost exploded as we entered the store. He sprinted
frantically around the displays grabbing and pointing. None of this
happened last year when he had no concept of acquisition.
Apparently capitalism ruined my son over the last year.
I was suddenly re-living my childhood with my mom. During our summer
road trips, my number one destination was gift shops. I’d beg her to buy
absolutely anything: toys, books, doilies, figurines, ashtrays. Didn’t
matter what. Acquisition was the name of my game. I’d hurry us through
museums, memorials and monuments to GET TO THE GIFT STORE. I’d present
crap as “educational” to help my case. Usually I came up empty-handed.
Mom was no impulse buyer.
Eighty-seven years later, I’m watching my son act like the Tasmanian Devil and asking myself, “What would Mom do?”
During the next few hours of bartering with Ellison, I looked around:
were ANY of the other parents having fun? Was I the only adult
infuriated with Thomas? Why have I become so bitter?
And then Ellison peed his pants. Again.
More tears, more internal rage.
Gavin: he’s 3. Give him a break. You need to be better about stopping to make him pee every 30 minutes.
Thomas soured me on any fairs. They’re chock-full of ways to make kids cry.
I should have managed expectations better. Do I say, “You can buy one
treat?” I suppose so. But why must I feel obligated to buy something,
anyway? Must I check asceticism at the door?
My mom never bought me shit from things like Thomas or county fairs
or street fairs or Disneyland. Because of that, I loathed festivals like
“Taste of Colorado”
or “Lakewood on Parade”. I was a diabetic in a candy store. But I
didn’t throw tantrums, cuz I expected nothing. I just wondered why we
bothered attending. Mom liked the free concerts. But Julio Iglesias was
not interesting to me as a 9-year-old (nor is he now.)
Back to my kids: how on EARTH do you manage DisneyWorld/Land/Hell? Seriously…tell me your secrets.
The day would have been more fun if we’d just gone to a lake and thrown sticks in the water.
We did exactly that later in the afternoon. And it was bliss.
When we sat down for dinner, Ellison was starving and shoveled kale
salad and asparagus into his mouth. (I know. Roll your eyes, now.) I
asked, “Has it been a good day, Buddy?”
A conversation I had with myself while waiting in January sub-freezing temperatures for two hours to spend about five minutes in an art exhibit so I could feel cultural and be able to Insta-brag. I had some real epiphanies about parenting and art…mainly: Art changes everyday life.
And even when it’s fleeting and temporary, that’s OK.
Thus: my misery in collective, cultural experience:
9:40? not bad. I’m probably about the 100th in line. But did any of these surrounding tourists drop off kids at school, this morning?
Surely that chalked sign on the sidewalk can’t be accurate: “90 minute wait from this point.” Yeah, right. It can’t seriously take that long to see this artist. Wait, what is this exhibit, again?
I know. But this is art and it’s fleeting. Maybe we should go all 19th-century?
I kinda think you shouldn’t photograph churches or sunsets. Photos never do it justice.
Um, 1986 called. It wants its photographic pretension back. Are you kidding me? This is why we’re here! Pretension! Shouldn’t we be too good for Instagram?
I suppose. This kinda thing drives me crazy, though. Reminds me of my
mom. She drug me around to museums and always took 6 hours to read
every panel about harbor seal genus or random Dutch painters who weren’t
even in the same epoch as Von Gogh. It was awful. I hated museums.
But you remember going, right?
And were you the most worldly 4th grader having schlepped through the Air and Space Museum for six hours?
Um, maybe? Was it worth it? Wouldn’t I still have been smart’ish without suffering through four hours in an art museum that no 10-year-old could care about?
(Hint: Art changes everyday life. Is that enough?)
They’d remember it like you remember suffering through the Air and Space Museum.
Is that why we do this? We bring on the sadist and the masochistic cultural suffering to brag we were there and hope our kids will have a faint memory of having done it…just so we all get social ladder points for saying, “I was there.”
Couldn’t we just see it in a book? Instead of waiting for 2 hours in 27 degree weather? How long’s it been? An hour?
I can’t feel my feet and my coffee’s gone.
Luckily it’s not snowing.
So then we will get inside and just video the entire thing and our
pictures of ourselves will be in mirrors with our own reflections. How’s
that an artistic experience?
I’m not sure.
Shouldn’t it be a pure artistic experience? Something zen-like?
Like through the eyes of kids?
Right. Un-besmirched by technology.
Sure. It’s the 21st century. But, I dunno. You’ll have recorded it.
Will I ever watch the video again? Sure as shit no one else wants to watch it.
What’s a “pure” artistic experience, anyway? Who can quantify that?
Does it matter?
I suppose just being silent with the art.
Sure. Silence is golden. But we’re limited to 30 seconds in this exhibit. It’s not like you can commune with any of this polk-a-dot nonsense.
How do you ever achieve zen –like appreciation of anything? A sunset, a church, a piece of art?
I dunno. Just…try to enjoy it.
Has it been an hour, yet?
Twenty three minutes.
Ohmigod. I’m really questioning this.
It’ll be great. Just…enjoy the moment.
I mean, shit. It’s just polk-a-dots. Are you supposed to get greater meaning out of life from polk-a-dots?
And tiny, repetitive eyeballs painted by a funky 90 year-old woman.
Right. That. Is that really art?
Well, it’s silly. And whimsical. And that’s fun, isn’t it? In the age of…
See? Don’t we need more colorful eyeballs and polkadots to take us out of our every day?
I guess that could be enough.
Sometimes it just needs to be. Smile at the polkadots, even with your phone in your hand. Enjoy it.
Yeah, I suppose even Van Gogh would say that.
Eh, probably not. He’d have already become pretentious and over-analytical.
But for the rest of us…just…enjoy it.
I’ll try. Makes sense.
How long, now?
Why am I sweating so badly in my pits? Always in the cold, if I just stand here, my pits are over-active. Are they confused?
I can’t answer that for you.
So this’ll be worth it?
Sure it will. You’ll remember the suffering, you’ll remember the polkadots, and you’ll remember how you smiled through it.
Art changes everyday life
That should be enough.
It has to be.
And we can brag “we were there.”
And that’s the point of art?
Sometimes. Why not? A memorable blip on our generally boring existence?
My mother was an inordinately thorough tourist and, I admit, when it comes to culturing my kiddos, this apple didn’t fall far from its tree.
But with my mom, it could be 6pm and we’d have been in a museum for the previous five hours and my mom would still be reading Every. Single. Panel in Every. Single. Exhibit.
After which, Mom would’ve remembered our AAA guide book’s recommendation and suggested, “Oh, that house where some obscure author slept one time in 1957 is just 16 more blocks away.” So we’d keep going.
She’d drag my whiny ass everywhere. And I do remember complaining; like…the entire time.
I swore I’d never be the same.
I feel empowered by walking out of a museum within 90 minutes because, let’s face it…nobody has that kind of attention span. Or hip-flexor strength. Or stamina in their shoulders to hold a backpack of fruit snacks and water bottles while staring at dinosaurs/paintings/historical re-enactments for four hours. (Even when that backpack is the best/coolest diaper bag for dads.)
But folks…I did it, today. Culturing my kiddos became my #1 mission…to their extreme annoyance and boredom.
I’m in London with my partner (after two months solo in NYC). But he’s still working all the time as his two Broadway shows are prepping for opening nights on the West End. So it’s still just me and the kids.
Except, again: we’re in London. Totally foreign city to me. No clue how to navigate with kids. Ugh. Pray for me with a charming accent.
So today we went to the British Museum. We saw mummies. Lots of mummies. Mummified adults the size of my 5yo, mummified cats, a mummified alligator, a mummified eel (wtf?) The kids were horrified/fascinated/traumatized. But mostly bored.
Seriously – we saw one mummy and my 3yo says, “I’m bored. Let’s go home.” Admittedly, he might’ve been overwhelmed by the 3,000 students mobbing the room of 3,000 year-old mummies. But really, I think he was like, “Nothing to TOUCH in this museum? This place blows.”
But we were in the GD British Museum. We weren’t gonna leave without seeing some more priceless stolen treasures. (I kept saying “And the British stole that, and the British stole this, and that…” Curiously, neither of them asked “why?” or “but stealing is bad, Daddy.” They just begged to leave and didn’t demonstrate a modicum of moral rectitude.)
We continued. “Hey look, kids – a 3-story tall statue of Buddha!”
“Daddy? Can we go to the cake pop store? (Read: Starbucks)”
“Shut up and look at this amazing stolen Roman thingy.”
“Daddy, my stomach feels angry that we are here. Can we go?”
“Are you gonna throw up? Look at that sarcophagus.”
“No. I mean, yes, I’ll throw up. If we stay here.”
“Can it, kid. Look at these stolen friezes from ancient Greece.”
And then: The Rosetta Stone. I mean – the translator that opened humankind to a trove of another rich civilization. Kids, this is one of the most important archaeological finds in all human history!
I mean…the ROSETTA STONE. This is bare minimum for culturing my kiddos!
Okay, okay. So they’re only 5 and 3. I should cut ’em a break. But we’re in the BRITISH MUSEUM for stolen’s sake!
“Look guys! Sphinxes and obelisks and some old stolen temple, oh my!”
“Daddy? Can we buy a present?”
“No. Look at this medieval…metal thingy.” (I’m boring myself, by this point.)
“I hate it, here, Daddy. There’s nothing to do but look at stuff.”
“Right, but you’re growing smarter by the second. I just know it. You’ll pass that test to get into the G&T program and I’ll never have to worry about you being dumb. I’ll just worry about you being a drug dealer at Ivy league schools. And that’s preferable to you being stupid.”
“Daddy, don’t say stupid.”
And then, it happened. We stumbled into a room of pilloried splendor that even my kids couldn’t avert their eyes. They were transfixed, they were enlightened, they were stimulated. My nagging and dragging had been worth it. They were changed beings from near-toddlers to almost-tweens. Such magic a little T&A can do…even for little American, uncultured troglodytes.
For ten titillating and hilarious minutes, butts, boobs and penises made us all giggle and thrilled my kids. They were finally engaged and curious.
But after those ten minutes (make it six), and they were back to…”Daddy, this is boring. I wanna go.”
And we did. We’d been there an hour. Pretty good compromise, if I do say so, myself.
On this Martin Luther King, Jr Day, and after a conversation I had with some narrow minds over the holidays, I’m venturing into discussing race with my toddler. I’ll make it as digestible and relatable with 3 short lessons.
Or make that 3 1/2.
Have empathy for people who feel down-trodden
Don’t condemn an entire population for the actions of a few.
Racial issues are more about socio-economics than skin color.
Except it IS about skin color, so realize that and fix it.
So here’s a 3-part conversation (that I *might* have imagined) with my 3yo:
Part 1: Empathy for those feeling harassed and down-trodden
Son, if I were a perfect (or just better) daddy, I’d address all your tears with “I understand you’re frustrated that your brother stole your train. But you can’t body-slam him to the floor.” I admit I often roll my eyes and give YOU time-outs for your “brutality”.
But he took my train!
That’s right buddy. He was the aggressor. Doesn’t it make you mad that I gave YOU the time out? But, wait.
Can I have a cheese stick?
Okay, here. So back to this: you know how I’m always telling you to take your shoes off, and wash your hands? I tell friends you’re a demanding emperor. But really I’m the tyrant barking orders at you all day long. And sometimes you say, “No, Daddy! You’re not going to tell me to share my trains!”
Daddy! Sometimes I don’t want to share.
I get that, buddy. (Speed this up, pops. Make discussing race with my toddler a meaningful experience…) And when you tell me not to watch you as you’re hiding behind the couch to intentionally poop your pants, isn’t that frustrating? Doesn’t it make you angry to have anyone look at you suspiciously? Like you’ve done something wrong? (Pooping isn’t wrong, son.)
See? It’s frustrating to feel constantly harassed or have your stuff taken. And imagine having people stare at you suspiciously all day long. That would be sad.
You’re allowed to be frustrated. You deserve to speak out.
When you see people of all skin colors protesting in the streets, it’s because they’re frustrated that someone took their things or looks at them suspiciously or treats them unfairly.
I hope you might ask why they’re marching. Their feelings are important. Just like yours are.
(You still can’t tackle your brother or avoid washing your hands. In New York you wash your hands before going to the bathroom.)
Part 2: Don’t stigmatize an entire population
Son, sometimes you say “I don’t like kids at school!” And why is that?
That’s why(*) that boy pushes me and always takes Percy**.
But that’s just the actions of one little boy. It’s not the actions of everyone. See? You can’t blame everyone for the actions of one. Like, buddy, when you say ‘I don’t like green food’ but it’s really that you don’t like peas, right?
No! I don’t want peas for lunch!
Right. But you can’t stigmatize*** an entire group because of one thing. It goes for vegetables and people. Do you understand?
What do you think?
Um. I don’t know.
Okay. Well, we will not lump things together in this house. You don’t say ‘those people’, you don’t say, ‘I don’t like greens’ and you don’t…
Part 3. Don’t condemn an entire population for the actions of a few.
Son, racial issues are very often socioeconomic issues.
I’m glad you asked. (High five, pop. Discussing race with my toddler has already expanded into the socioeconomic factors and he is INTO it.) Poor people are often driven to make some bad choices to survive in our country. But they aren’t making bad decisions because of their skin color, rather it’s because they want to have what you have: food, warmth, a few toys. It’s not because of skin color, it’s because of money. You understand?
But because of the actions of a few desperate people, an entire population is found guilty. And that’s wrong.
Daddy? Can we play trains, now?
(You’re losing him! You’re losing him, pops!) One second, buddy. I’m on a roll. Here’s part 3 ½: The system is stacked against poor people. Some kids don’t do well in school, but it’s not because of their skin color. It’s because of a whole host of reasons: they have underfunded schools, they didn’t eat breakfast, no one read to them like I read to you.
Daddy? Can you stop talking? Pleeease?
Buddy, I just need to finish this one point: I said it’s not about skin color and yet it IS about skin color, because in our country many people are afraid, so very, very afraid of anything that’s “other”. And that “other” is a different skin color. And because of their fear, they hate.
Daddy? (He over-dramatically rolls his eyes with annoyance at me.)
And hate always comes from fear.
So anyway, buddy, some people hate people with different colors just because of their color. So they’re treated differently and not given privileges and not respected. And some kids drop out of school because they don’t have support at their house to strive for greater academic achievement, but that doesn’t have to do with their skin color.
Some parents can’t give successful tools to their kids, but that’s unrelated to their skin color. They never had those tools in the first place (because other people were afraid of them and hated them), and because they weren’t born into a lucky position with support and resources (and a different skin color), this vicious cycle of racism and socioeconomic disparity cycles through several generations. It started with fear of “otherness” and skin color and then it becomes about economics. But they’re people just like you and me.
He walks away from me. I pursue.
Buddy, you cannot make blank statements about groups of people and you cannot discount how people feel. But you can empathize and ask why and you can seek to understand the world through their eyes.
Daddy? Stop talking. You play with green trains. I don’t like them. They’re green. I want the purple trains.
And you can always talk with me and ask questions about these topics. Because discussing race with my toddler is something we should do. A lot.
Give me my train.
I’m glad we had this discussion.
* My son says “that’s why” in place of “because”. I hope he never changes.
** Percy = Friend of Thomas.
*** You don’t know what stigmatize means? What are they TEACHING you at that preschool?