Have you ever noticed that, when it comes to taking your kids out to dinner, the selections in your average place are pretty much the same: macaroni and cheese, chicken fingers, hot dog, cheese quesadilla, hamburger, pizza? Every once in a while you’ll find somewhere that has a few more “out of the box” suggestions like a chicken breast, steak, or even salmon, and on even more rare occasions you will be in a restaurant that has some real interesting kid options. Overall though kids are limited significantly when it comes to food out. The problem with that kids are learning all the time from all of the experiences that they have. When they see adults getting all excited to go out and have wonderful food and they are given a limited set of options they think, “OK. This is what eating out is. These are the foods I’m supposed to like. I will be excited for these and not other stuff.” How unfair is that? Parents struggle with enough things in their lives and now society and its low expectations of kids and their appetites is making it so parents feel the need to trick their kids into eating broccoli and sweet potatoes by hiding them in other foods. Kids are so accustomed to these ordinary foods that they will balk at something new. This will not do.
For some reason someone decided that kids are picky eaters and then, in a self-fulfilling prophecy of epic proportions, kids became picky eaters. We never gave Daughter this option. She was served whatever we were eating from the beginning of her life, as long as it was appropriate. We did not hurt her with spicy foods, we did not disrupt her stomach with foods dangerous or difficult for her to digest, but we fed her as best as we could from what we were eating for dinner and other meals. She was never kept away from foods like sweets, but she didn’t really find pleasure in them for the first several years of her life. Even now she will occasionally go for fruits and veggies over candies and baked goods because she simply enjoys them more. I remember when she was about three and her favorite thing to eat was a goat cheese and mushroom tart that we made every once in a while. She’s tried escargot, mussels, raw oysters, calamari, sausages, schnitzel, and tons of other foods from the palates of India, China, Japan, Mexico, and France, to mention a few. She has found most of these things palatable, though she won’t always go for them a second time (sorry, oysters) and some she will practically fight us for. And if you have pork belly, look out; she’ll cut you for it. The only foods she really hates are pickles (the traditional cucumber ones-she enjoys a fresh veggie pickle), olives of all kinds, and fast food hamburgers, which is a blessing. Her favorite foods are blue cheese, calamari, pineapple, blueberries, and, yes, macaroni and cheese and candy.
We were out to dinner not too long ago and we ordered an appetizer of calamari. Our server brought side plates for Husband and me and asked if we wanted to have Daughter’s food brought out earlier. We told her no, we would all eat together, and asked for a plate for Daughter to enjoy the calamari, too. We were greeted with an odd look and a laugh. There was a whole, “She’s not going to eat that” face, which was proven to be wrong when Daughter ate the lion’s share of the appetizer. Our server asked, “How do you get her to eat that stuff?” Our answer was simple: “We let her.”
Instead of making things be a chore, instead of forcing an issue, we just allow certain things. We have very few demands that we make around food, the only rule being you should at least try it once, and then you should try it a few more times on other occasions just to be sure. The same thing goes for letting kids make choices about themselves. So many of us think we have to regulate every minute of the day for our children. What happens as a result of this is that when our kids have options and are away from us, they just don’t know what to do. Often this means that they take advantage of a situation and make mistakes. If we allow them the opportunities to make their own decisions when younger we are giving them the gift of learning how to make decisions when the stakes are low. If I learn at age 8 that I will get very sick and feel awful and have a sugar rush and then a crash later and probably say stupid things when I eat too much of my Easter candy all at once, then I will have a sense of how dumb it would be to get drunk and drive when I’m in college. If I forget my homework, I will lose recess. My mom will not bail me out of that even though she loves me. It was my responsibility. If I miss a deadline and don’t complete a project for my boss even though I knew it was time sensitive, I could lose my job. I’m aware that this will happen because my mom allowed me to make mistakes as a kid. When we allow children to make mistakes they learn one huge thing: actions come with consequences.
My thinking here is that we just do not give kids enough credit. We over simplify their lives to be easy and have fewer decisions to make when making decisions and finding out what works for them and what they like is so important. Of course we need to help them understand the dangers of the world, but we also need them to know that it has infinite joys. We need to let them waste a day doing absolutely nothing every once in a while, even if there are rooms to clean and homework to complete. Kids should know the immediate joy of eating all that Easter candy and the regret that comes later. They should go too fast on a scooter and, yes, maybe even fall down. Give them credit to start figuring out what’s smart and what isn’t. Allow them the opportunity to mess up, especially when they’re young, so that when the consequences are big and scary and sometimes life changing, they have the experience to know what is good and what isn’t. I’m proud that Daughter doesn’t usually order from the kid’s menu, but I’m also proud that she always looks to see her options.