Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Hamlet Would Approve

I just had to apologise to my son for deliberately pouring a glass of water over his head. What can I say? Mealtimes ain't easy around here, and I finally snapped.

This is how I thought food worked: you try to feed your kids reasonably nutritious food. If they really, really really won't eat the good stuff, you may have to face a situation where you (gasp!) have to feed them (gasp!) nothing but sausages and mashed potato, and, on the bad days, nothing but  (double gasp!) pizza or mac 'n' cheese.

Turns out I knew nothing. Nothing! I would be so happy if my children would eat pizza - they won't even lick it. I'd be dancing on the ceiling if they would eat mac 'n' cheese - they will eat pasta, and they will eat cheese, but they will not eat pasta and cheese together. Seriously, we are talking here about kids who won't eat chicken nuggets. Their eating (or lack of) is off-the-charts crazy. Except that crazy sort of implies fun, and this is not fun. They don't really eat anything. I'm pretty sure they just photosynthesise.

Here is the list of everything that my children will not eat: Ummmm... actually, there's no point typing that out. Basically, it's everything. Everything that does not appear on this next list. So, here is the very short and specific list of food my children will eat:  jam sandwiches cut into the shape of dinosaurs, pasta with butter, fish fingers, pancakes, blueberries (Pink only), frozen peas (ditto) cheese (both, but only 20% of the time) and apples (ditto).

Oh, and they will also eat cake. Or, as they say it, CAAAAAAAAAAKE. It's the only food they truly love - they are like this about cake. Sometimes, in the middle of a totally un-cake-related activity, Blue will turn his little face towards me and say, in a plaintive voice, "caaaaaaaake?" as if I might have just whipped up a three-layer sponge for him while his back was turned. I never have, just for the record.

Thing is - I love food. Love it! It's pretty much my favourite thing. What's not to like about food?  I love cooking almost as much as I love eating, and I was really looking forward to sharing that love with children. Ha, ha, ha. One of my friends recently said "I can't believe that you have such fussy eaters! You are really into cooking, and your kids are, like, the worst eaters I have ever seen!" Ummm, thanks, I think.

I actually did like whipping up the occasional three layered sponge, before I began to find the kitchen the most demoralising room in the house. Honestly, honestly - there is nothing much more depressing than making meal after meal after meal, day after day after day,  knowing that in thirty minutes time I'll be scraping it into the bin after they have said nooooooooooooooo and cried. Again.

If you've been there, you know the feeling. Unfortunately, many people who haven't been there seem to want to dish out advice about how to miraculously get my kids to eat. As if I haven't been trying, or aren't really interested enough to put some effort into making this situation better. Of course, it feels to me like I do nothing but try to make this situation better. And this means that,  whatever they are all primed to tell me, I already know it. I already know it! I'm sorry for sounding prickly about this - it's because, well, I am. It's just so hard to not be able to give my kids food effectively, you know? It's not like I don't care. So. Here is a (prickly) list of things I already know and do not need to be told about my children's eating:

Children object to texture more than taste
They will eat as much as they need and they won't starve themselves
Children need to taste a new food several times before they will accept it
I need to not make a big deal out of it, because they are picking up on my stress
If I was a better person, or at any rate more like the person giving me advice, my children would be snacking on jalapenos right now

And, my favourite: it's mostly mind games, and I shouldn't let it get to me

This is true, of course. I know it must be largely psychological mind games, because they will eat pretty much anything if the person feeding them is someone they don't know very well. Here's the thing, though: not letting something get to you is incredibly easy to say and incredibly hard to do.

 I know that the only way to survive the mind games is to just not make food a battleground. It's not a moral issue, it doesn't have to be a fight. The way we try to do this is following the Ellyn Satter approach of: my job is to decide what we eat and when we eat. The children get to decide if they eat and how much they eat. If they don't like what I serve out, they can eat plain bread but I will not short-order-cook. Neither will I wheedle or plead or emotionally blackmail or bribe or make food into an emotionally charged issue. So, we have an anti-mind-games plan. We even stick to the plan. We do not fight battles about food. Really, it shouldn't be getting to me at all.

What Ellyn Satter never says is that it's also my job not to lose my FREAKING MIND about faking being okay about all of this, and that's by far the hardest part. It's not a decision you make once; it's a constant drain. On a daily basis, 'not letting it get to me' actually looks a bit like this, and it usually starts at lunchtime:

12.15 choosing not to get mad that they push away their sandwiches (even though they are jam, in the shape of dinosaurs, of course) and ask for cake
12.25 choosing not to get mad that they ask for an apple and then don't eat it
12.26 choosing not to get mad that they won't drink any water because it's not in the right bottle, even though the only Blue-approved bottle has been discontinued and I can never buy more, ever again
12.28 choosing not to get mad that they didn't end up eating or drinking anything at all for lunch
12.32 choosing not to get mad that the table is still a disgusting mess despite the lack of eating

Many days, I feel like  choosing not to get mad about food is my full-time job. It sounds trivial, but it's not trivial. It uses up all my daily resources of willpower. , which is particularly hard when there is other stuff going on like sickness (hello, right now) or boundary-pushing (hello, most of this year).

They nap. They wake up. It continues. So:

17.01 choosing not to get mad that they are screaming for dinner, when they wouldn't be so  stupidly hungry if they had actually eaten their lunch
17.22 choosing not to get mad that Blue cries and says No peas! No peas! because he sees me getting the peas out of the freezer, even though I am only adding them to Pink's bowl, like I do every single day
17.43 choosing not to get mad that they don't actually eat anything once it's in front of them
17.44 choosing not to get mad when they ask for cake - again
17.45 choosing not to get mad when they suddenly start frantically shovelling their food in as soon as I take it away
17.45 and 30 seconds: choosing not to get mad when they abruptly stop and decide not to eat anything after all
17.46 choosing not to get mad that Blue wants water, then when I give him water, says 'NO WATER!' and then ten seconds later wants water again, then says 'NO WATER!' when I give it to him, then wants water again, then shoves the water away when I put it down

And that is why, at 17. 47, I picked up what remained in the cup of water and poured it over his head.  He looked at me, shocked and speechless, then said "Blue naughty!" and I said "Yes! You WERE!" and then I took him upstairs and changed his clothes and apologised for getting mad.

And I shouldn't have gotten that mad. Was it mature? No. Was it appropriate? No. Do I recommend it as a parenting strategy? Definitely not. Would my social worker approve? Again, no, no, no.

But, on the other hand: did it do him any lasting harm? No.

And was it a long-awaited, Shakespearean-tragedy-level cathartic experience?  Might as well be honest.



  1. I loved this post. I needed a laugh today. Next time you snap, you should video record it. ;)
    By the way, you're in for it if he reads this post when he's in his teens.

  2. I suspect that in decades to come, this will be a story they love to tell. My grandfather used to shout 'eat it or wear it' at dinner. And one day, an aunt found out he meant it. She got pasta, and she survived.

    And by the way, I am awed at your efforts to stay sane about food. I gave up long ago. Dinner here involves more negotiating that the Middle East peace process and I KNOW that is naughty of me.

  3. This is beautiful! Truly priceless.

    And he'll love this story when he's older!

  4. Wow, thanks for sharing all of that. It really is ALL incredibly hard and I give you so much credit for sharing your story so honestly. I hope you soon catch some relief! I was silently cheering for you when you gave him the water!

  5. Just a longtime lurker popping in to hopefully encourage you a tiny bit. I was a notoriously horrid eater when I was itty bitty ... when I got married, we had about five different people (old family friends who we hadn't seen for years) ask if I ever learned to eat anything.

    Anyway, I just wanted to say that I did eventually outgrow it, even though I went through long phases where I would literally ONLY eat oatmeal or cinnamon toast. Anyway, though, I did outgrow it and now have a relatively broad palate. I am still a bit picky, but life is easy now and I don't dread going somewhere new because of the food choices.

    It sounds like you are doing all the right things - they will pay off eventually!

  6. Hah. Don't get me started on the food issues. My girl will only eat from a very short list of "approved" foods. As she is my third child I know better than to argue. It is a losing battle. BTDT. I make what I know she will eat and everyone has a harmonious dinner. Eventually she too will outgrow this (perhaps when she is 20-ish) and will be none the worse for wear. I do admit to getting tired of being a short order cook but it's either that or arguing with her over dinner. And she--as you know-- is like a jack hammer and WILL NOT GIVE IN. Better I just give up and cook her damn pasta. Plain. With Butter. And Cheese. In the proper bowl, thank you.


  7. You did the right thing. Eat it or wear it was strictly enforced in our household. Said child would be plunked into the bathtub and the uneaten food would be dumped onto their head. It only had to happen once or twice, but it's made for great family retellings. And none of us were damaged. In fact, we learned pretty quickly where the lines were and never doubted our parents' love. Here's the thing: I think parents in the 70s were way smarter about most (not all, but most) things. Parents today are always worried they're going to do long-term damage to their kids. (I say this not as a parent but as a third grade teacher, so take my thoughts with a grain of salt.) I think the water on the head was good (and harmless) shock therapy that all kids need once in a while. Just like with non-human animals, the momma often nips gently at the babies to let them know when they are doing something they shouldn't be doing. The result? The babies are fine and know not to do that thing again or else get nipped again.

    You sound like a terrific mother. And your kids will probably grow up to be great chefs and everyone will marvel that they hated eating as children. :)

  8. Thank you for the laugh. I giggle just thinking of the shocked look on his face.

    Did you manage to vent your frustration without doing him any true harm? Yes!

    Toddlers - like schizophrenic crackheads whose sole job is to drive us MAD!

  9. Love it. My problem with this technique (and yes, I'm totally taking this as advice, lol) is that MY kids would probably like it and would then be begging me to dump their water on them at each meal and would start dumping their water on each other.

    Hang tough, momma!

  10. haha love this.

    my toddler doesn't eat much either, so i totally understand. mostly just fruit, cheddar cheese, and graham crackers. in very very small quantities.

  11. Oh boy. We don't have the boys home yet, but I frequently think about food issues. I KNOW that our menu here is nothing like what they're used to eating. I KNOW that initially we will have to feed them what they want. I KNOW the everyone will have advice for me. But I also KNOW that I freaking love fish tacos, pizza of any kind, quinoa with black beans, and any number of things my children might not want to eat. And that's what I don't know what to do about. I'll be returning here for more of your sage advice. :) Hang in there!

  12. I am not a stranger to water torture. JK. Social workers of the world, I am kidding.

  13. Oh claudia--this made me smile. I don't think there will be permanent damage :)
    Hang in there, I'm sorry they are making it so tough. One of my good friends told me that babies/toddlers don't play fair and it's so true isn't it?

  14. I laughed out loud at this--I'll bet it got his attention! Sorry it's been tough. Sounds like you're doing really well, though, even if it doesn't feel like it.

  15. Ok, confession time. Early on, one way T knew to get to me was to look at me with that "what are you going to do about it?" look and then proceed to pour his water all over the table. If I could get there fast enough, I could grab the cup before there was too much damage. But one day I snapped. He started to pour, I grabbed the cup and threw the remaining water in his face. That is not in ANY parenting book you will ever buy or get out of a library. I felt TERRIBLE for doing it. But he never poured his water onto the table again (and we do pour water on our heads during races). Whew, I'm so glad I'm not the only one.

  16. Not only do I think you did the right thing, I betcha that some of those boundaries don't get pushed for a while.

    I needed the giggle - and oh, Claudia, you're not the only mom who's snapped. EVERYONE does. And if the SW ever heard me growl at the Demie Diva, I'd be hosed. totally hosed.

  17. Oh, I can imagine how good it felt to pour that cup of water, and I am certain that he's none the worse for wear.

    My success with the Ellyn Satter method has only been due to years of practicing on other people's children. It's hard! In the end, what worked was that I looked at it as a competition. Who will win the stubbornness competition today? It's going to have to be me, and I'm going to win so many times they'll make me a giant trophy. (I may or may not be picturing a trophy in my mind while out-stubborning my child.)

    If you make it through the toddler years without losing your mind altogether, I will send you a trophy. Every time they start to get to you, just picture it in your mind. It's giant, and it's full of high quality chocolates, plus accompanied by a very nice bottle of champagne.

  18. Claudia we've all been there... Whether people will admit it or not. My daughter could live on rice with cheese and butter and it's been an uphill struggle to get her to eat a healthier variety. It's maddening some days.
    amy x

  19. Oh yes, the food thing. I was at a parent meeting at my son's school the other night, and the topic came up (some controversy regarding too much 'junky food' being used to celebrate birthdays). It AMAZED me the passion this stirred up. Mostly, though, it seemed like parents were all trying to out-do each other in terms of how "healthy" they claim THEIR kids eat. I came this close to punching the guy who (seriously) suggested we serve cut-up vegetables instead of cake for birthdays.

    But anyway. I get stressed out so much about my son not eating that great. Tons of guilt. Yet then stressed out about the stress and the guilt. Do I make a big deal and "force" him to eat better foods all the time or let him go hungry? Or do I just play it cool and not make a big deal and maybe he'll eat some decent things on his own eventually? Blah.

    I am impressed with the water-on-the-head, though. That was clever.

  20. You are a winner in my books just for the part about not wheedling or pleading or blackmailing or bribing. I have a relative who does all of those things and it drives me batshit crazy.

    And you are so right that it is hard to stick to all that without guilt and hurt feelings. Keep calm and.... ignore on? Something like that.

  21. Yes, the food battles. I have a 7 year old that will eat almost anything and has a peculiar love for non kid foods like red and yelow peppers, oysters and asparagus. Then I have a 4 year old that is pretty much your typical 4 year old eater - peas and carrots, cucumber etc. and the usual Mac and cheeses etc. and then I have a 4 year old who is a totally picky eater. Well he has sensory issues, so I guess it explains a lot. But dinner is often more Waterloo than anything else.

  22. Next time you need to put at the top of your posts - "do not read on your ipad if you're in a meeting" because I did and nearly choked trying not to laugh!

    LOVE the water throwing - you're my kind of gal :)

    I make mine pick up any food they throw - sometimes it takes sweet forever but I am not their maid!

    I know you hate me for having good eaters but even through the good eating, we've had weeks here and there (more sickness related) and those days nearly send me over the edge because I take it personally. Like you, I love cooking (well, I love food!!!) and when I lovingly prepare something and they don't want it.... I have found myself saying on the weekends "eat all your food and I'll give you two chips each" (! - I know, ME!)

    I also have a V who can get them to eat anything - I need to put a video camera out to see what she does.

    Just... big hugs to you.

  23. Your writing is splendid, I so enjoy it. I think I read somewhere that around this age, the tastebuds wake up. It's like they are over-stimulated and kids start hating things they used to love and not being able to tolerate new tastes. It lasts a while and then improves. My son was the most adventurous eater and then at your babes' age he stopped and became a nut about food. But then he came back to being a good eater. So there's hope! Right? Yes, there is, Claudia.

  24. A friend directed me here and I am so glad she did! I thought I was the lone mother has dumped water over her child's head, there was indecision (meaning I had been dumping out glasses of water for 5 minutes) about refrigerator vs tap water and I just couldn't take it anymore! All I could think about in that moment was that my life consisted of one small argument after another and I was very frustrated. I of course apologized. I am so glad you shared this story.

  25. Loved this post! It is hilarious reading about the insanity of picky eaters ... someone else's picky eater anyways :) I relate on many levels - especially on the utter exhaustion related to the 'choosing not to get mad' bit. How are we supposed to let this all go - now THAT would be welcome advice!

  26. Thanks for the morning laugh C! I was just saying to J the other day though that if our kid didn't eat it would make me crazy. (We have a dog who won't eat so I know, somewhat, the uber frustration involved.) Maybe you need to switch it all up and play crazy mind games and get angry and make it a big thing? You know, just to see what happens? ;)

  27. Oh I laughed out loud at the end of this post...C. I feel like you chronicled my daily life. Our #1 is completely like the twins. Even down to what we call, "the back and forth" "yes, I want water" and then "no, I don't". Whew! After the picky eating became worse over time, I resigned just let it be and if he only ate from his 5-8 item food list, then so be it. It drains so much energy from me daily also (you captured that well). However, I just found a book I am reading that is giving me some new insight and a little hope. It is called "What is eating your child" by Kelly Dorfman. We have just begun following a bit of her advice and are seeing tiny changes. I am going to keep following her plan while anticipating that if there is change it will be a longer process. I think you might be able to benefit from the book if you want to check it out. Hugs to you - this parenting thing is not for the faint of heart! Who knew the whole food/eating thing could be so darn hard!?

  28. Yes! Done that. It is naughty but it feels good. :)

  29. Oh I shouldn't laugh...sorry....but I have so been there!! If it's any consolation....our once 2 year old who would eat nothing, seriously, but cinnamon raisin bagels and who once cried so hard about het food she made herself throw up...now eats al ost anything..ger favorite meal is curry chicken....it really DOES pass...of course, she's almost 12.;)

  30. I want to use your strategy. Seriously, sometimes I wonder what will ever get them to realize we are not automatons? What I am taking home from this post is your choosing not to get mad. I feel like I by-pass choosing and just get mad. I have a choice. Going.to.try. Mealtimes are maddening.

  31. It's been a couple of days since I read this post, but I just wanted to come back and say that I have been remembering your words often. CHOOSING not to get mad or be annoyed. It is funny how you can hear something so many times, but for whatever reason, it only sticks when the right person says it. Guess you were the right person! :)

  32. This is EXACTLY how I used to feel about my 2yr old’s fussy eating (refusing to make food a battleground but struggling big time with pretending that it didn’t bother me), until I saw a documentary on ITV called ‘My Child Won’t Eat’. There was a 12 year old girl on that programme who had literally NEVER EATEN ANYTHING HER ENTIRE LIFE apart from chocolate, chocolate biscuits and Rice Krispies with melted chocolate on them. I’m not kidding.

    According to the programme she didn’t show any obvious signs of being unhealthy, and she certainly looked pretty normal (healthy even) on the film. From that day on I stopped stressing about my daughter’s fussy eating, and started seeing it as a normal stage most kids go through which won’t do her any lasting harm. I kind of paid lip service to that idea before, but now I really believe it – I mean someone surviving on nothing but chocolate for 12 years should technically be dead by now right? Where on earth is she getting all the nutrients & vitamins etc that our bodies supposedly need to function? She eats literally NOTHING with any nutritional value!

    I’m not saying that a diet of chocolate is a good idea, but clearly there is something not quite right with our understanding of our bodies’ needs if it’s possible for kids like that to survive. Maybe children’s stores of vitamins etc from their milk-drinking days are enough to see them through the fussy eating stage and calories are the only thing that really matters at that age? The views of the expert on the programme suggest as much.

    Anyway, hope your little ones get a bit more adventurous soon, or you manage to make peace with their faddy ways, one of the two!


Over to you!