I just came back from India—(The trip of a lifetime!)—and the kids there eat…Indian Food.
Imagine, nary a hot dog or chicken nugget in sight.
Actually, there were chicken nuggets in the hotels, and I'm told that imported "child-friendly" food is (unfortunately) becoming popular as a status symbol among a certain set, but still, my point is...
All over the world kids are eating ethnic food.
Stuff we think of as foreign, exotic and decidedly not “child-friendly.” Stuff we think it’s rare for kids to like. This falls into the “duh” category of social observation.
Of course, Indian kids don’t call it ethnic food. To them its just food. But if all those kids can eat Indian food why can’t ours? Or, why can’t our kids at least eat lentil soup? Spinach salad? Chicken Fricassee?
So many American kids don’t even eat a regular “American” diet. They eat a modified version that represents the worst of the worst: hot dogs, pizza, and lots and lots of pasta (mostly plain, sometimes cheesy, but never very interesting).
What's the deal?
Food preferences are culturally determined.
(Another obvious social observation that won’t win me a Sociologist of the Year award anytime soon.)
Culture influences taste preferences because eating is really a matter of math: Kids learn to like the foods they’re exposed to the most. In India, that’s Indian food. Here, well…
Just as importantly, picky eating is a problem of plenty. It’s hard not to give in to kids when you can give them what they want, when there are so many available choices.
- I’m not saying that you’re to blame if you have a picky eater; some kids come out of the womb that way. But catering to your kid's demands produces more of the problem. Read You Can't Feed Your Way Out of a Picky-Eating Problem.
- I’m also not saying that Indian parents never have a problem trying to feed a picky eater. (I have enough Indian clients here in the States to know that isn’t so.) Indian parents, though, don’t resolve their picky eater problems the same way we do because they can’t: American style “child-friendly” food isn’t everywhere and, even if it were, eating it isn’t culturally accepted.
The idea that kids need “child-friendly” foods is a marketing ploy.
Kids can, and should, eat pretty much anything adults eat, with only a few exceptions. (Read more about that here.) You only have to look around the world to see plenty of proof that kids don’t need a stack of special foods.
In India, cultural constraints determine what children can eat. Parents and their children know the limits, and as a result, kids eat within those bounds.
Here in the U.S. however, our cultural expectation is that children will eat like crap. Perhaps that is a bit of an exaggeration, but it’s certainly true that here in the U.S. we don’t expect kids to like healthy foods. No one is surprised, then, when they don’t.
What’s more, our ambivalence about feeding kids healthy foods—we know they should eat more vegetables but think it’s developmentally appropriate when they rebel—induces parents to create a malleable, penetrable, flexible, weak and wobbly eating structure.
Most parents start out strong—“Fruits and vegetables all the time”—and weaken as their kids wear them down. No one starts out intending to feed their toddler the pizza-pasta-nugget and hot dog diet. It just happens. Because it can. (You only have to check out the grocery store to see the kinds of foods marketed towards infants, and the kinds marketed towards toddlers to see what I mean.)
You don’t need to move across the world to solve a picky-eating problem. You just have to establish a foreign culture at home.
Forget about feeding the American way, and start seriously rethinking what, when and why you offer the foods that you do. Then, tinker with the structure to get it right.
- You’ll never teach your kids to eat a variety of foods by feeding them a repetitive, monotonous diet. Read Breakfast: The Most Important Meal of the Day.
- And you’ll never teach your kids to like vegetables by feeding them a diet dominated by items that bear no resemblance to vegetables (crackers, bagels, pasta, hot dogs, chocolate milk…) Read Why Toddlers Don't Eat Vegetables and Early Vegetable Variety:The French Advantage
The key to turning out kids who eat right is to be firm about the food, but flexible with how your interact with your child. For help setting up a successful feeding structure, read:
- The BIG Fix: What To Do When Feeding Strategies Fail.
- House Building 101.
- 10 Ways Improving Your Kids' Snacking Will Improve YOUR Life.
For more information about interacting with your child read:
- The Goldilocks Approach.
- Curbing Your Kid's Craving for Control.
- The Easy Way to Solve Your Toddler's Decision to Suddenly Refuse Certain Foods.
If you want your kids to eat differently you have to feed them differently.
Or hope for some kind of divine intervention! Otherwise, I'm sorry to say, you'll simply keep reinforcing the habits your kids already have.
~Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.~