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June 25, 2012
We the Parents
Food Fight
by Melissa Howell

I have at least one photo of each of my children engaged in a defiant standoff with some meal I prepared of which they were completely unwilling to partake.

You can picture the image. Chances are you've witnessed the real thing. Kid on one side of the frame, dour expression on the face, which is propped up by two small hands. Meal on the other side of the frame, hopefully waiting to be consumed. It's like WWF for family mealtime - you know, the Worldwide Wrestle against Food.

In one corner, weighing 33 pounds, we have Peter the Picky Eater! And in the other corner, weighing a bunch of ounces, we have a nice piece of lasagna prepared by Mrs. I Just Want My Kid to Eat.

Have you seen this battle?

I've always marveled at children who are adventurous eaters, willing to try just about anything. Yeah, not mine. But then again, I was a fairly picky eater as a child. And they say the apple doesn't fall farů

It was painful, coming home from school in November as a child to find a deer hanging in our garage, a testament to the success of my dad's hunting expedition. My heart sank, and my stomach raged. I knew what it meant: venison all the live-long winter. There would be many hungry nights for me.

I would trudge home after school on a cold January late afternoon. It would be nearly dark, of course, because that's what happens when one lives near the Arctic Circle (or northern Minnesota, but let's not get hung up on geographic nuances). It would be freezing cold, below zero no doubt, and very likely snowing. And I would be starving.

"What's for dinner?" I would ask my mother. (As a mom myself, I can't tell you how often I get asked this very question and how it nearly drives me to the edge. But this is a column for another day.)

"Stroganoff," she might reply. Already, I was on to her.

"Beef or venison?"

"Beef," she'd say too quickly, looking away in what had to be shame.

I could smell her blatant lie. My olfactory senses were always spot on. It would be a very long mealtime for me, a veritable WWF standoff.

Now, as a mom, I know what it's like to be the food fight referee. I wouldn't say I enjoy the job, but it has become much easier in the nine years I've been fighting the good fight. Here are a few basic rules I would suggest if you want to grow some decent eaters:

1. Don't offer exceptions. What's for dinner is what's for dinner. Period. Don't offer a peanut butter sandwich if a child doesn't like the offered menu. Kids are smart; you offer an alternative, that's going to become the expected norm. And really, do you want to become a short-order cook?

2. Remember that it's OK if children don't eat three big meals a day. Our pediatrician said that if kids are getting two good meals a day with sufficient nutrition, that's fine. Just make sure those two meals contain some nutritional sure bets. And then take a few chances with the other meal. This rule, by and large, applies to younger children; as they grow, the need for increasing calories often drives them to ditch some of their previous food hang ups. I know, because my once-picky, constantly growing 9-year-old is often too hungry these days to make a fuss about what I'm serving. And in the process, I think he's picked up some new favorites that used to be on his bad list.

3. Consistently offer a variety of foods, even if a child has a history of not liking certain dishes. It has taken years - years, I say! - for some of my children to learn to like some foods. But sticking with it really does pay off. My kiddos now embrace so many different meals that once were the recipient of the stare down. Be patient. And keep at it.

4. Don't worry about children becoming members of the Clean Plate Club every day. The key is to try a variety of healthful and balanced foods, not eat voluminous amounts. A friend once shared with me her smart rule: child's age in years = number of required bites. Solid gold.

5. Keep snacking to a minimum. Snack time doesn't need to be a mini meal of pre-packed provisions. Such items as cheese, nuts, fruits and popcorn can be low-cost snack standouts that provide good nutrition and nicely bridge the mealtime gap. I made homemade granola bars the other day - thanks again, Pinterest - with just a few ingredients that were healthy and easy and low-cost, and the children declared them better than the ones from the box. And I didn't even pay them to say it.

I have fought the food fight, and my kids are significantly better eaters today than just a handful of years ago. Good thing, because I hate wrestling. That, and venison.

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