It’s getting kids to eat what parents serve that causes so many problems.

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DINA ROSE, PhD is a sociologist, parent educator and feeding expert empowering parents to raise kids who eat right.
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Wednesday
Sep302009

How Cottage Cheese Changed My Life

Cottage cheese gets a bad rap.  It has the misfortune of being thought of as a diet food (and a pretty awful one at that).  But let me tell you how it changed my life.

My daughter likes cottage cheese.  She doesn’t LOVE it, would never choose it over something preferable – something like sushi, steak or even mac ‘n cheese – but when I serve up meatloaf, a spicy chili or a new dish that doesn’t quite make it, cottage cheese is her “go-to” meal.

I learned a long time ago that giving my daughter the option of eating cottage cheese whenever she didn’t want my dinner enabled me to cook whatever I desired.  And that opened up the culinary world to my husband and me – and, as it turned out, to my daughter as well.

Cottage cheese is our backup.  And, sometimes, having a backup is all you need to turn a tense meal around.

Kids have all sorts of reasons to decline your meal: they don’t like it, they don’t feel like eating it today, they’re cruising for some control.  Having a backup eliminates the sting of your kids’ snubs. 

Having a backup means you don’t have to beg, bribe or cajole your kids into eating, you don’t have to cook an alternate meal (or multiple alternates if you have a couple of kids) and you don’t have to worry about starvation.  You can simply say, “There’s always cottage cheese.”

A backup gives your children the safety net they need.

The backup gives your kids control over what they eat because they know exactly what the options are: they eat either the meal you’ve prepared or the backup.

The backup gives your children the freedom to try new foods because they know there’s always an out: the backup.

The backup eliminates the power play.

Your children don’t have to like cottage cheese.

Don’t panic if your kids don't like cottage cheese. There are lots of other foods you can use as a backup: tofu, hummus, plain yogurt, beans (or anything else out of a can that can be consumed without cooking).

Whatever backup food you choose, make sure it meets the following criteria:

1) The backup must always be the same food item. Pick ONE food and only ONE food to use as a backup.  It will undermine your efforts if your give your children choices for the backup of if the backup changes from time to time.

2) The backup must always be available. Use a food that isn’t highly perishable and which you usually stock. Cottage cheese works because it comes in small snack sizes that stay fresh for weeks at a time.

3) The backup must be nutritious.  That way you won’t worry when your children choose it.

4) The backup must be a NO COOK item.  The point is to make your life easier, not harder.

5) The backup must NOT be a preferred food.  Don’t choose cereal, sandwiches, flavored yogurt, or anything else your children would rather eat. You don’t want to give them an incentive to choose the backup. Instead, select something your kids like, not LOVE, and which they find kind of boring.

The backup works by changing the dynamic at the dinner table.  When you set the overarching parameters, and your children make the choices, you alter your interactions so there's no more fighting about food. And your kids end up eating more of what you serve.  Now that's a habit to cultivate!

~ Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits. ~

 

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  • Response
    I'm jinxing this, but here goes: We've enjoyed whine-free meals with our 5-year-old for a couple months now. And he's eating a more varied diet than ever. It's been nothing short of a miracle, so I'll share the secret: We told him he could have plain cottage cheese if he didn't ...

Reader Comments (28)

I so needed this. My youngest frequently decides she doesn't like dinner. Sometimes I take the hard line but most of the time I'm soft about it and it's such a drag deciding what to get her on top of already having pulled the dinner together.

November 22, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterCindy

OMG, this really spoke to me. Now I just need to figure out what that back up food is. I will try out cottage cheese first!

December 14, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterRookieMom Whitney

Let me know what back up you choose because readers are always asking which foods work. It would be great to have more examples.

Good luck.

Dina

December 14, 2009 | Registered CommenterDina Rose

I love the idea! I desperately need to find a back up food to offer my son, however he does not like dairyl products, with the exception of milk! he wont eat any type of cheese or yogurt. He likes so much canned beans that I'm afraid it doesnt work! he will always prefer beans. He loves cereal and PB&J sandwiches too! What else can I try???

February 9, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterNikoMom

Dear NikoMom,

Examine the foods your son does like and pick one near the bottom of the barrel -- it's acceptable to him, but not preferred. For that reason, I agree with you that you shouldn't go with beans as your backup.

You could use milk, if your son isn't one of those kids who will choose milk over anything else. You could also go with something like tofu.

If your son likes but doesn't love fruit you could always go with that. Choose something like apple because it keeps for a long time or canned fruit (you never want to be out of the backup). Carrots or other hardy vegetables also work... that's assuming your son will eat these foods.

I hope one of these ideas works for you.

Let me know how it goes.

Dina

February 9, 2010 | Registered CommenterDina Rose

Thanks so much Dina for your response! An apple is a great idea! he will eat it but he wont be thrilled, so I'm going to try it! Thanks so much for your ideas! I will post later to let you know how it goes! thanks!

February 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterNikoMom

NikoMom,

I can't wait to hear how the backup apple works for you.

Dina

February 11, 2010 | Registered CommenterDina Rose

Would instant oatmeal make a good backup? What do I do if she refuses the backup and then she's hungry a few hours later (like before bed?)

April 6, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMegan

Megan,

I don't generally recommend using any kind of cereal as a backup because most kids prefer it over what's being served for the meal. If you use a preferred food you are actually creating an incentive for your kid not to eat dinner. However, if your daughter likes, but doesn't love, oatmeal it would be a suitable option -- as long as you use the PLAIN, not sweetened in-any-way-kind.

If your daughter doesn't choose the meal or the backup - and you know she likes the backup - then she is either not hungry (examine her snacking) or she is in a control struggle. Being slightly hungry is actually a valuable lesson for kids to learn, but if the FIRST time it happens you are concerned, give her a glass of milk before bed. You MUST point out to her, however, that it was her choice not to eat that led to her being hungry. If the pattern continues, then you have a real control struggle and the only thing that will solve it is to be firm about your daughter's options: dinner or the backup.

Good luck,

Dina

April 7, 2010 | Registered CommenterDina Rose

Thanks Dina! I'm so glad I found your site. Meal time so often stresses me out, I'm excited to try your techniques.

April 7, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMegan

We used to have a back up of almonds, but she was always choosing them. My daughter (age 5) doesn't eat much protien, so I am concerned with giving her an apple (which would be a good one, a sometimes food). Any other suggestions?

August 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJeanette

Jeanette,

I would try items such as canned beans (which make great finger foods), tofu, or plain yogurt. Almonds are too much like a snack, and eating a lot of them packs in the calories -- not a good habit to establish. Fruit is OK but it's hard to keep the same fruit on hand (and switching up the fruit defeats the purpose by making the backup interesting). You need to find something your daughter likes but doesn't love. Hummus and carrots?

Good luck,

Dina

August 24, 2010 | Registered CommenterDina Rose

Thanks for the advice. I think I may stick with the apple. Even tonight she only ate half a small apple instead of spaghetti. She would rather not eat what she doesn't like and then wake up hungry in the middle of the night. I don't feed her in the middle of the night. Just disturbed sleep for us. She wouldn't touch beans, tofu, soy beans, or hummus. She will eat a baby carrot, but it takes her about 5 min to chew up and swallow one baby carrot. I guess she will grow into wanting to eat.

August 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJeanette

Jeanette,

Have you thought about having a swallowing evaluation done to make sure your daughter has no physical impediments to eating?

If you want to talk about how to expand the range of foods your daughter will eat, let me know. It's too much to discuss in this format, but on the phone we could really get into it.

Good luck,

Dina

August 25, 2010 | Registered CommenterDina Rose

Hi Dina: I hadn't seen this post before now but I really love it. Despite our best efforts, we could use a little more consistency like this in our house. My pickiest eater doesn't like most chicken or beef dishes so if he skips the main course he usually has a hard-boiled egg or a ham sandwich or a hot dog. He doesn't LOVE hard-boiled eggs, but he'll eat them (just the whites). So this is a good reminder for me that I should be more consistent about keeping them on hand and making this the go-to back-up food.
Thanks for all of your insights!
Jeanne (The Jolly Tomato)

January 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJeanne @JollyTomato

Jeanne,

I like the idea of eggs and am going to add that to the list when people ask for suggestions. Thanks!

I worry that it's hard to keep hard boiled eggs in the house and at the ready, so let me know how it goes.

Thanks for the kind words about the post.

Dina

January 12, 2011 | Registered CommenterDina Rose

My son has become the pickiest eater and meal times are a struggle. He loves dairy and fruit, so I'm reluctant to make cottage cheese or apples his backup. Vegetables and meat are always a tough sell. I might be able to offer him carrots as an alternative. Any other ideas?

January 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKMM

KMM,

You should read House Building 101 and start consciously rotating the foods your son already eats. It's an effective technique that sets a good foundation for new food acceptance. Offering your son a backup might also work, but if he's really picky it might just reinforce the pickiness. If you do try it, your instinct to stay away from dairy is right. How about chickpeas? Your son doesn't have to already be eating the backup food. You can introduce it as part of the deal: "Any time you don't want what I've prepared you can have chickpeas! Want to taste them?"

Good luck.

Dina

January 27, 2011 | Registered CommenterDina Rose

I'm reading this article for the 2nd time now to refresh me on the finer points. My son is about to turn 2 and we've used plain yogurt for the times he doesn't want to eat supper. But he always wants something to dip into it, like bread. And before we offer it to him he says "all done" and wants out of his high chair. then just before bed he wants to eat so we give him a snack while he watches tv.

do you think we need to let him sit at the table and not in his highchair? should we avoid letting him eat in front of the tv?

thanks!

January 27, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAllison

Allison,

I don't think it matters right now whether he sits in his highchair or at the table. Some eating in front of the TV is also fine. My concern is about the pre-bed snack. There's nothing wrong with that either, but it might be preventing your son from eating well at dinner, especially if the snack is a preferred food. If you want to use a backup you have to make the choice clear at the beginning of the meal. Otherwise, you're not putting the backup into the meal structure, and you're son won't be able to count on it being available.

Hope this makes sense. If not, let me know.

Good luck,

Dina

January 30, 2012 | Registered CommenterDina Rose

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