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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Dinner Together Building Healthy Families One Meal at a Time.

Food Politics Marion Nestle's intelligent take on the politics of food and nutrition.

Fooducate Like Having a Dietician on Speed dial.

Hoboken Family Alliance A terrific resource for people living in the great city of Hoboken, NJ.

The Lunch Tray Everything you need to know about improving school lunches.

Parent Hacks Forehead-Smackingly Smart Tips

Raise Healthy Eaters One of the best blogs (other than my own) for learning to raise healthy eaters.

Real Mom Nutrition Tales from the Trenches. Advice for the Real World. From a mom-nutritionist who knows!

Stay and Play The best indoor playspace on the East Coast. Oh yeah, and it happens to be owned by my brother.

weelicious Great Recipes for Kids 

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Tuesday
Sep252012

When Parents "Pack": Eating Out Without a Major Meltdown

Ever have someone you've invited over for dinner bring a separate meal for their children?

Or better yet, ever have guests ask to borrow your stove so they can whip up something special for their kids? 

We've all be in the place where we think, "My child won't eat that."  Come to think of it, we've all be in that place where we think, "I won't eat that!"

Believe me, I understand the rationale for always being ready with your own rations.

It's better to be safe than sorry.  And, when used as an occasional strategy to get through a strange situation—kept in your bag and used only as a backup (what if turns out your kids like chicken tandoori?)—it's not a bad thing.  But "packing" on a regular basis teaches kids the wrong lessons.  

Bringing your own MREs (Meals, Ready to Eat) undermines your objectives and makes the problems of parenting a picky eater worse.

"Packing" on a regular basis:

  1. Deprives children of the opportunity to sit, ponder, consider and (perhaps even) consume something new.
  2. Reinforces your children's delusion that they should be able to eat their favorite foods every time they eat. 
  3. Doesn't prepare your children for the real world.

Parents who "pack" probably think they'll never have a peaceful moment; that made-to-order macaroni and cheese is all that stands between them and mayhem.

And really, when you think about it that way, bringing a meal for your kids doesn't seem like a big deal. Everyone deserves a quiet dinner out.  (And no one wants to parent a picky eater in public.)

On the other hand, there are other, better, ways to feed the family and to avoid a scene. Trust me, you don't need to pull up to your host's house carting a cooler full of consumables.  Just change your goals.

Shift your goals from getting your kids fed (peacefully) to teaching them how to handle food-related social situations.

The pickier your kids are the more they need to learn this. (Even if they're 2.)

Lessons kids need to learn:

1) Different moms, different restaurants, different countries (you do want to travel some day, don't you?) sometimes cook different food.

2) There are ways to cope when confronted with foreign foods.  (Never mind that the foreign food we're talking about here is probably something as simple as grilled chicken. Your kids still gotta learn.) 

Talk with your children about what food will probably be on the menu. 

Then, brainstorm things your children can do to get through the situation, without starving, sulking or stomping. I suggest you consider the following:

  • Let your kids eat before going out, and then maybe again, after you get home.
  • Find something (anything) palatable on the menu being served.
  • Taste unfamiliar foods with NO PRESSURE or EXPECTATION to eat them.
  • Always be polite. 

When you think about it, aren't these the techniques you use when you go out? You can teach them to your kids, too.

Most kids don't spontaneously start eating differently

They need practice and opportunity.  Read Let Your Kids Sit With Their Own Struggles.

And most kids don't automatically know how to be polite when confronted with an eating disaster.

They need practice and opportunity for this too.

~Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.~

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Reader Comments (10)

I do pack extra food when we go out, partially to help my 2 1/2 year old deal with the delay until the food comes, and partially to deal with the typically abysmal offerings on the children's menu. What I bring, though, is a couple servings of fruit and veg. A container of peas and some sliced strawberries can go a long way to make sure that she's getting something in her tummy while we're waiting, and make up for the fact that the only "vegetable" on a lot of children's menus is french fries.

September 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJoanna W

Thank you for this. Years ago, we had a family gathering at our house where we were serving grilled hamburgers and chicken breasts with an array of sides. My husband was pulled aside by several adult family members who demanded that he go to the grocery store to buy hot dogs "because the children will want them." We were told that his family members didn't think they'd NEED to pack because we should have been thoughtful enough to make something we knew the children would eat. Hamburgers!!! Hamburgers and chicken were too gourmet!!!
We vowed then and there to never be the "packing" parents. Now that our kids are 6 and 3, I see it all over the place. We even know one family with a child who will ONLY eat microwave macaroni and cheese, and for 6 years, they've brought it everywhere they go. At every birthday party or child-centered event, they're searching for a kitchen to heat up the mac. "Our doctor says not to worry about it, because lots of kids are selective!" is their mantra. I want to have coffee with their pediatrician sometime and ask whether he/she is getting the full story...and if so, what in the world are they doing dispensing advice like that???

September 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBri

I know a family who brings their child goldfish crackers to eat instead of eating the meal that is served. This same family also let their child eat a half a bottle of ketchup for dinner at my daughter's birthday party because she didn't want a hamburger, a hot dog or the fruits and veggies we had out.

September 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterC.J

What do you think of parents who pack a "healthy" meal for their kids? When we have a barbecue, one family brings a tupperware of quinoa, kale salad, beets, yada yada, and lay out the spread for their kids, rather than eat the burgers or whatever that we provide. I don't think this is teaching very good manners, but I have to acknowledge they eat much healthier than we do, so maybe she's on to something.

September 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterIlima

@ Joanna
I do the same thing with fruit to "fill the gap" between ordering and food coming out (although "busy bags" are great for filling that gap too - pinterest them if you aren't familiar with them). Also, I try not to order food off the kids menu, but rather getting him a side plate and serving him from what Dad & I order. He often won't eat much of the kids menu food anyway, so I figure why waste the money? If he's not going to eat, he may as well "not eat" something new & exciting, rather than "not eating" crappy kids meals!!

@ Bri
When I was a college freshman, there was a guy in my dorm who would ONLY eat sausages and chips (fries). He would literally throw up if he was forced to eat anything else, so our dorm kitchen had to make sure there were sausages and chips available every night (I think his parents might have paid extra so that they catered for him). He was known throughout the entire university as "sausages & chips boy".
I think the kid you know should start getting used to being called "mac n cheese boy"!!

@Ilima
Yeah, that is pretty rude and seems like a "ooh, look how wonderful my children are because they eat all these healthy foods and turn up their noses at your burgers" kind of thing. I'd be curious to see how their kids eat when not around their parents? Or in college, when they're well-removed from parental influence and in situations with lots of junk food, and no real-life experience on how to handle it?

@everyone
Wow, I must be hormonal - I've been pretty judgy today, sorry!

September 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterVestifarian

I have reformed my packing habits - but I still pack a small container of dry cereal and a water bottle.

This is a big change for us, I used to be the cheese stick and juice box toting momma. Nothing wrong with those foods - but they are too much like treats for me to offer when there is a rumbly tummy.

What I haven't done well... is teaching good manners around undesired foods. it was not a huge issue until recently. My little one has started making a huge drama about food on the plate and trying to insist on the removal.

Undesired behavior, for sure.. but I am struggling with how to have that conversation, and to start teaching him there will be lots of foods in your environment and you need to learn to behave when they are presented. We are looking for Tips, techniques and tricks!

What are appropriate consequences for being overly dramatic about food? Making a fuss? Whining? It has blossomed in the past month, and we are frustrated!

We are working on the one taste of every food approach you recommend... but he is getting dramatic about it. Leave the table? not leave the table? remove plate? How long is too long? How long before a backup food is acceptable?

September 27, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLinn

I want to be clear here that my intention wasn't to shame anyone who packs. Rather, I wanted to bring up the topic that one skill we need to teach kids is how to behave when faced with "unfriendly" food. So, for my money, I don't think packing is a good idea even if what you're packing is healthier than what is being served.

When we pack we reinforce their belief that they should be able to eat what they prefer at all times. And sometimes, there are more important goals than getting the feeding job done.

So, I say, feed kids before they go to an event if you're worried about them. But most importantly, talk to them about how you expect them to behave, and what they think they can do to solve a very real problem. After all, some kids will have to cope with this for their entire lives. Some picky kids grow into picky adults (who rarely pack). This is a life skill.

Linn: I don't think there are tips, tricks and techniques for this one. I think you have to have a conversation with your kids about what you think is appropriate (and then provide some leeway for exaggerations, drama, etc. Only you know what the limits are, but I would say a rule of thumb is not to be disrupting to the meal and/or offending to the chef!

As for consequences: use whatever behavioral consequences you normally use. I would say a reminder of appropriate behavior before the meal, a warning if things are getting out of hand, and then a consequence.

Good luck everyone,

Dina

September 27, 2012 | Registered CommenterDina Rose

How is feeding your child before you go out less undermining than packing food?

September 28, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJennifer Egan

Jennifer,

This is a great question. Feeding your child before you go out is less undermining than packing food in a couple of ways. First, it supports kids who are nervous or anxious that there won't be palatable food at the party in a way that is polite. Most adults don't bring their own food to someone's home, they just make do (and many cope by eating in advance). Why should we expect something different from kids? In this case, we can take care of the hunger issue at home and then also teach kids social manners.

Second, feeding kids beforehand increases the chances that the they won't have a hunger-related meltdown and increases the chances that they might be in a position to taste the food that is being presented. I know prevailing wisdom says if kids are hungry enough they'll eat, but many kids won't eat a bite if they are too anxious even if they're starving. They'll just misbehave.

I don't think we should prioritize feeding kids over the other kinds of habits/lessons kids need to learn, and I don't think it is ever too early to start teaching these life lessons. It's all part of what it means to eat right.

Would love to hear your thoughts.

Dina

September 28, 2012 | Registered CommenterDina Rose

@Ilima

Bringing food just for your children seems a bit over the top. I have friends with severe allergies that do bring their own food to social events, but they generally try to smooth things over with a few social gestures: bringing a dish to share (a dessert, a lavish fruit salad, a trendy salad), and minimize the fuss when plating the food. That way, the different food blends into the background and doesn't distract from the hosts plans.

As the blog says, this is not always about nutrition - it is about instilling a lifetime of habits? Is this the wave of the future - to "pack in" your own food when going out? Maybe it is, I am putting that question out there.. which approach is preparing our kids for a lifetime of nutritional success?

September 28, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLinn

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