There are times I wonder how the human race ever survived past toddlerhood. I don’t expect toddlers have ever been other than they are, possessing more energy than judgment, and unreasonably confident of their own opinions. The fact that we all survived it is a testament to the hardihood of the species, if not necessarily to the genius and tact of parents. Indeed, I am more and more convinced every day that a great deal of maturing occurs in spite of, rather than because of, any given parenting strategy.
Everything in the picture above should be the sort of food that a human could not be picky about. We were cleaning out leftovers and we had leftover sausage, cheese, apple, and homemade pie crust. Some weeks are like that. So Ryan diced up the apple and sausage, fried it in butter, and topped it with cheese. He also wrapped apple slices in piecrust with cheese and cinnamon and baked them.
How could anyone refuse this? And yet, E1 picked out the apple and left everything else, and E2 picked out the sausage and left everything else.
All toddlers go through a picky eating stage I suppose. I sometimes muse on the possible reasons for that. Do baby monkeys do the same thing? Did our prehistoric forebears scream and throw their mammoth burgers on the cave floor when they were two and demand pterodactyl nuggets? What evolutionary or developmental purpose could it possibly serve?
Or, here is an interesting question. Did it serve an evolutionary or developmental purpose? Given that, most likely, during the vast majority of human history much of our species simply lacked the ability to provide much of a variety in the diet, particularly in agricultural societies. Most non-hunter-gatherer societies originally started out farming one or two staple crops that rotated on a seasonal basis. The majority of the diet of all but the wealthy members of urban centers likely ate the same thing, or variations on a theme, every day for most of their lives.
Also, most likely, there was a good deal less of it, not to mention the kids probably spent the bulk of their time out doors in the weather, moving and shaking with their peers in the larger social unit. Perhaps getting toddlers to clean their plate (or wooden spoon, or banana leaf, or fingers) did not present as much of a challenge to former generations of parents. The kids were hungrier, there was not an unlimited supply of choices for them to prefer (it’s hard to demand kraft mac-&-cheese when it hasn’t been invented yet) and the threat of “Eat fast or there won’t be any left” was not idle.
Also, I think it likely that parents prior to the relative prosperity of the 20th century simply didn’t concern themselves about it too much. The kids might like what was on offer, or he might not, but they weren’t going to starve themselves. They probably had fewer scruples about kids going to bed hungry.
In fact, I wonder if the “clean your plate” mantra isn’t rather a modern phenomenon, perhaps since the depression. I can see parents in the ’40’s and ’50’s who grew up with real hunger and deprivation priding themselves on their ability to put full plates in front of their kids, and subtly or not so subtly, insisting that all food be cleaned up at every meal. I can also see the arguments of those who blame our obesity epidemic (or their own obesity) in part on having been forced to clean their plates as kids. In other words, they were trained to stop eating based on an external signal (an empty plate or table) rather than an internal one (satiety).
All of this is empty speculation, which really has nothing to do with the problem at hand, i.e. how or whether to get the girls to eat when they don’t like what’s for supper.
Now mind you, we don’t go out of our way to cook things they won’t like. In fact, most of the time we take their last known likes into consideration, since that makes mealtime simpler and more pleasant for everyone. We do, however, object to having our menu dictated by a pair of pint-sized gourmands who can’t even agree to like the same things. We also object to cooking a separate menu for each person at the table. And finally, we do insist that they eat a somewhat balanced diet.
So usually we require them to eat some part of everything at the table. We serve what we consider a reasonable amount of each item, and they have a “get down pile” and a “dessert pile.” The “get down pile” is the bare minimum amount they need to eat in order to be allowed to say all-done-prayers and go about their business. It is what experience has taught us they need to eat in order to avoid the complaint of “Hungry! Meat!” (from E2) strategically at bed time. The bedtime routine is already involved enough without complicating it unnecessarily with low blood sugar and snacks, not to mention eating right before bed is not a great habit to get into.
The dessert pile is what they have to eat if they want dessert (assuming a dessert is on offer). This is based upon the theory that if you are hungry enough to want a bowl of sherbet, then you probably have room for a few more vegetables and some meat that will stay with you longer and nourish you more. And if they decide they don’t have room for that, they are welcome to do without the dessert. No hurt feelings.
It is really hard to teach most toddlers to say no to food that they really want but it is very possible to teach them how to eat food they do not want to eat. After several years of working on it, E1 can eat anything we put in front of her with only a little complaining. In this case E2 is so much easier to teach than E1 was. She doesn’t scream at the top of her lungs, at least, and she has her older sister’s example to follow most evenings. This, alas, is the burden of being the oldest. Your parents make you do it first, and then your siblings get to learn from your mistakes, if they are of the persuasion to do so.
It may seem like a lot of hassle and unnecessary thought, but there is a profound connection between how we handle ourselves in relation to food, and the whole rest of our mental and emotional and even spiritual health. The ability to say no to more food than is good for us is of obvious importance, but the ability to eat things we don’t like, cheerfully and without letting on that we don’t like them is hugely beneficial in life. For starters, it is the best way to learn to like new things. It opens up whole worlds of “acquired tastes” that are every bit worth the acquiring. It opens doors in every human culture. I cannot even count the number of times I have built bridges with people from other cultures and earned their welcome by doing absolutely nothing more than eating the food they offered me and thanking them for it. This is a very basic, but very meaningful form of courtesy, which begins the work that all courtesy is oriented towards. It takes us out of ourselves, and teaches us that we are not the center of our own little universes, but rather welcome guests in a universe that is greater, grander and more beautiful than anything we could possibly have imagined on our own.