How do I get my children to eat? Burger Bootcamp


Every summer our family escapes the hot, sticky South and migrates north to my family’s lake house in the cool climate of New Hampshire. I am from the North (born in Boston), so we see a lot of family and have also made some great friends there over the years. Inevitably when you spend lots of time with people, comments on parenting seem to emerge. I have found a common conversation thread to be what one’s kids will and will not eat. When it comes to our family, we have a combination of dietary needs and very diverse tastes – it ends up being a bit more complicated than “let’s cook some spaghetti and make a salad.” Comments are sure to come, especially from those raised in prior generations who just have a very different frame of reference on the matter. “The restaurant is open for business!” when one kid turns up his nose at part of a mean. Or, “Your husband is so picky, why do you allow that?”

I have noticed one brilliant tactic in getting your kids to try something new: send them to someone else’s house with the same age children. Usually my children will freely eat food as served when they are at someone else’s house; the battle of wills is gone. Let’s call it the “Friend Effect.” For example: the visible presence of spices had, for years, triggered my children into believing the food I had prepared was infested with disease or some sort of poison. If spices could be seen, my children would not eat the food without us rinsing it off. “Mom please wash off the green and black things?” And I would, of course oblige – I’m more concerned about getting the nutrition into their bodies than I am pausing my meal to walk over to the kitchen sink. Offending foods included but were not limited to: grilled chicken, pasta, vegetables, and crackers. One day after I had had surgery, a gracious friend who has two children of ages similar to ours, had all three of our kids over for dinner. They had pasta with “Greek seasoning” (green and black spices). My children came home asking for “Greek seasoning.” I had no idea what in the world they were talking about since, I knew they didn’t like green and black things. I quickly texted my friend, and sure enough it was a spice blend you could get at the grocery store. Of course I ran straight out to get it – there was no way we were going to miss out on an acceptable step forward for our squad’s ability to get passed being uber-picky. And now, I am happy to report, I am no longer washing spices off of their food. Why the Friend Effect is not effective when we are present probably says a lot about their mindset (there is some truth to that “restaurant” comment somewhere down deep in their minds), but again … we’re going for outcomes at this point. Root causes can be dealt with over time.

The next tactic we are instating is burger boot camp. Every summer we have hamburgers on Monday nights at a local bar & grill. They are huge, freshly-ground grilled-to-order burgers that come with a plate of fries … all for $5. This has become a non-negotiable, a religion of sorts: Sunday church, Monday five dollar burgers. Unfortunately, every one of those Monday nights all summer long two of our three children are under scrutiny for ordering off the kids menu: cheese pizza for one, and chicken fingers and fries for the other. Hence, the introduction of burger boot camp for the 2017-2018 school year. By next summer they will be eating burgers. This is not military style desensitization. We are starting them small with tiny little burgers and a big bun. Each week we are increasing the burger size ever so slightly. Since veggie burgers and turkey burgers are also an option, we will introduce those too! So far burger boot camp is going well and the complaints are minimal.

I wish I could say we have had similar success with spaghetti bolognese. “Meat sauce” might be the dirtiest word in certain corners of our household these days. Two of the three times we have served it, one of our boys has sat at the table staring at the one teensy bite of meat sauce we have put on his plate, and so far, we’re 50/50 with him gagging and running to the potty to choke-hurl. My husband and I are standing in solidarity on this one and not giving up. I have always left it separate, so at least they would eat the noodles, but my new tactic (I will let you know how it goes) is mixing in a little sauce with a little noodle and they have to eat that one bite before they get the stuff they like. We have friends who do the “no thank you bite” and other friends that have a three bite rule. The three bite rule worked for my oldest; she eats just about anything now. They theory behind it is they can eat one bite say they don’t like it, after the second they probably get to “it’s not horrible,” and by the third they are like ok maybe I like it and maybe I will eat more.

I remember as a child thinking broccoli and peas were not horrible, but I had to stand by my principles that I said I did not like them once, so every time they came up in the rotation it was time to pitch a fit and hide them in the silk plant table arrangement when they all went to watch TV and left me at the table. Now I do eat peas and broccoli and I sit with my children when they are in protest.

There is a part of me that thinks: pick your battles and don’t worry about it, they won’t hate common foods forever. But then I glance over at my husband and my resolve is cemented once again. He was even more stubborn than I was and he remembers his parents only standing their ground on a few things (one of which was grilled chicken and he still eats it today). On the other foods however (the list is too long to cover), they just let him not eat those things and to this day he has not gained a taste for them. Now he is the drill sergeant for burger boot camp and other foods, hopefully we will not continue the great tradition of family pickiness.

Standing firm with children is hard: you don’t want them to struggle, you don’t want to have to go through the strife. But the alternative (not standing firm) may in fact cement an attitude of mushiness in them. When the trials of life happen, and they always do, they need a bit of resolve to do what is not just comfortable. We want our children to stand firm on some things, the things that matter! Yet also be able to go with the flow on things that don’t really matter but will connect them to others, and food is one of those things when you’re adulting. We want them to be able to have dinner with friends someday and be able to eat someone else’s cooking without the awkwardness and possibilities of offending the host, because they won’t eat soup and that is what was served. These are important social skills for our children. Not just being “Southern” and not daring to offend. But rather to be able to have food as such a non-issue that they can concentrate on the people they are with and building those relationships.

Food is such a connector, and so is coffee (you know I love my coffee). In our family we have had many hard times. One of the ways people have tried to love on us through our hard times was bringing meals. Over time the list goes so long of what our family can’t eat or don’t eat, we were reluctant to accept meals. Not only is that saying no thank you to people blessing us, it is also preventing the blessing that the giver will receive from giving. Continuing the important work of training our children to eat what they are served 1) all the way 2) right away and 3) with a joyful heart (forever thankful for that phrase and all its wisdom, Ginger Plowman!) I consider to be important work for healthy connected children that can grow into healthy connected adults.

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